Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Halloween Grotesquerie at Balmoral

From The Times, 4 November 1869:

"Halloween at Balmoral Castle. – This time-honoured festival was duly celebrated at Balmoral Castle on Saturday evening in a manner not soon to be forgotten by those who took part in its enjoyments.

"As the shades of evening were closing in upon the Strath, numbers of torch-lights were observed approaching the Castle, both from the cottages on the eastern portion of the estate and also those on the west. The torches from the western side were probably the more numerous, and as the different groups gathered together the effect was very fine. Both parties met in front of the Castle, the torch-bearers numbering nearly 100.

"Along with those bearing the torches were a great many people belonging to the neighbourhood. Dancing was commenced by the torch-bearers dancing a “Hulachau” in fine style to the lilting strains of Mr. Ross, the Queen’s Piper. The effect was greatly heightened by the display of bright lights of various colours from the top of the staircase of the tower. After dancing for some time the torch-bearers proceeded round the Castle in martial order, and as they were proceeding down the granite staircase at the north-west corner of the Castle the procession presented a singularly beautiful and romantic appearance.

"Having made the circuit of the Castle, the remainder of the torches were thrown in a pile at the south-west corner, thus forming a large bonfire, which was speedily augmented with other combustibles until it formed a burning mass of huge proportions, round which dancing was spiritedly carried on. The scene at this juncture was one to be long remembered by those who witnessed it. The flames of the bonfire shot up to an immense height, illuminating the Castle wall with a ruddy glare, while the figures of the dancers in their agile and grotesque movements were shown to great advantage.

"Her Majesty witnessed the proceedings with apparent interest for some time, and the company enjoyed themselves none the less heartily on that account."

Shown here: Balmoral Castle, Deeside, Scotland

Friday, October 17, 2008

Delicious Autumn

"Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns." -- George Eliot

OK, OK, I hear you. A few Peeper readers have written to point out the similarities between Cardinal John Henry Newman (see post below) and the Crypt Keeper from the old HBO series Tales From the Crypt, and to beg me to replace that image in their minds with something, er, prettier.

So, as an antidote, here's one of my favorite paintings, the beautiful and serene Chill October, painted by John Everett Millais in Scotland around 1870. It's currently part of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's spectacular and priceless collection of Victorian art.

Millais attached the following note to the back of the painting:

"Chill October was painted from a backwater of the Tay just below Kinfauns, near Perth. The scene, simple as it is, had impressed me years before I painted it. The traveller between Perth and Dundee passes the spot where I stood. Danger on either side -- the tide which once carried away my platform and the trains which threatened to blow my work into the river. I chose the subject for the sentiment it always conveyed to my mind, and I am happy to think that the transcript touched the public in a like manner, although many of my friends at the time were at a loss to understand what I saw to paint in such a scene. I made no sketch for it, but painted every touch from nature, on the canvas itself, under irritating trials of wind and rain."

Another Millais work, Autumn Leaves (at left) seems perfect for this Friday, surrounded as I am (in Michigan) by crisp air and flaming autumn trees. Millais wanted this painting to inspire "the deepest religious reflection" in its viewers. Today, it's putting me in mind of caramel apples and candy corn. Sorry, Sir John.


"Poetic Encounters: Kathleen Jamie on Millais's Chill October" (Tate Britain)

"Sir John Everett Millais's Landscapes -- The Pursuit of Truth and Beauty in Nature" (The Victorian Web)

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Case of the Missing Cardinal

Some red tassels from his galero are apparently all that remain of Cardinal John Henry Newman's remains.

Newman (1801-1890; DNB entry here; Wiki entry here; shown at right one year before he died) was a leading cleric in the Church of England until 1845, when he converted to Roman Catholicism. His grave in a cemetery in Rednal was opened last week at the request of the Vatican, which wanted his body transferred to the Oratory in Birmingham as part of a plan to beatify Newman next year.

Newman had been buried--at his express wish--alongside his close friend, companion, and fellow convert, Father Ambrose St John, with whom he had shared a house. The two men have a joint memorial stone that is inscribed with words chosen by Newman: "Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem" ("Out of shadows and phantasms into the truth").

Gay rights activists, including Peter Tatchell, have called the exhumation an "act of religious desecration." Says Tatchell: "Newman repeatedly made it clear that he wanted to be buried next to his lifelong partner, Ambrose St John. No one gave the Pope permission to defy Newman's wishes. The re-burial has only one aim in mind: to cover up Newman's homosexuality and to disavow his love for another man." The Vatican, naturally, dismisses such claims; in August, the UK government gave permission for the exhumation to proceed.

However, when the cleric's grave was opened last week, it was found that his body had decayed completely.

From The Times, 4 October 08:

"The bones of the Victorian cardinal who is in line to become Britain’s first saint for almost 40 years have disintegrated, hampering plans to turn his final resting place into a centre of Christian pilgrimage.

"Church officials exhuming the body of Cardinal John Henry Newman were surprised to discover that his grave was almost empty when it was opened on Thursday. All that remained were a brass plate and handles from Newman’s coffin, along with a few red tassels from his cardinal’s hat.

"The discovery will not affect Newman’s case for sainthood. But officials have had to abandon plans to transfer his bones from a rural cemetery in Rednal, Worcestershire, to a marble sarcophagus at Birmingham Oratory, which Newman founded after converting to Catholicism from the Church of England.

"Thousands of worshippers were expected to descend on the Oratory from the end of this month to pay their respects to Newman and seek his intercession. Now the Oratory is left with only a few locks of his hair. Some of his remains were also to have been sent to the Vatican.

"Newman is expected to be beatified in December following claims that he was responsible for a miracle in which an American clergyman was 'cured' of a crippling spinal disorder. This would gain him the title 'Blessed,' one step short of sainthood, which will require the Vatican to verify a second miracle.

“'I have been visiting that grave since I was a very young boy,” said Peter Jennings, a spokesman for the Oratory. “I will never forget how I felt, standing there last Thursday, looking at this deep hole which had been dug out. This was the greatest churchman of the 19th century and there was nothing there, only dust.'

"There is no conspiracy theory over what has become of Newman’s remains: experts believe that damp conditions led to their complete decomposition.

"The decision to exhume Newman’s body had been fiercely resisted by gay rights campaigners because the priest had asked to be buried close to the body of Father Ambrose St John, a lifelong friend. With Newman’s grave now lying empty, the controversy is expected to fade away, sparing the Vatican any possible embarrassment over claims that the priest was a closet homosexual.

"Newman, who was born in London, was ordained in 1824 and led the Oxford Movement in the 1830s to draw Anglicans back towards their Catholic roots. He shocked Victorian society when he converted to Rome in 1845. A file on Newman’s 'cause' for sainthood was opened in 1958, but the miracle attributed to him took place only in 2001."


BBC Radio 4: "In Our Time: The Oxford Movement" (excellent; from 2006; 43 minutes)

Commonweal, 8 October 08: "The Empty Tomb: Cardinal Newman's Last Laugh?"

Monday, October 6, 2008

Dracula To Rise Again

From The Guardian (6 October 08):

"Van Helsing and his intrepid band of vampire hunters might have disposed of Bram Stoker's creation Dracula more than a century ago, but a sequel to the novel by Stoker's great grand-nephew will see them under attack from the undead once again.

"Dacre Stoker delved into his ancestor's handwritten notes on the original Dracula novel to pen his sequel, Dracula: The Un-Dead -- the original name for Dracula before an editor changed the title. The novel, out next October, draws on excised characters, existing character back-stories and plot threads that were cut from Stoker's original novel, first published 111 years ago.

"The new book is set in London in 1912, a quarter of a century after the Count apparently 'crumbled into dust.' Vampire-hunter Van Helsing's protégé Dr Seward is now a disgraced morphine addict, and Quincey, the son of Stoker's hero Jonathan, has become involved in a troubled theatre production of Dracula, directed and produced by Bram Stoker himself. The play plunges Quincey into the world of his parents' terrible secrets, but before he can confront them his father is found murdered, impaled in Piccadilly Circus.

"The original is written in classic epistolary form, alternating between different narrators; the sequel adopts a more direct storytelling route. '[This] makes it more immediately accessible to a modern thriller readership, while remaining faithful to the spirit and atmosphere of the Victorian original,' said publisher Jane Johnson of HarperCollins UK.

"The book has caused a storm in the publishing world, selling for more $1m to Dutton US, HarperCollins UK, and Penguin Canada. A film version is also in the works, with shooting expected to begin next June.

"Dacre Stoker, who formerly coached the Canadian Olympic Pentathlon team and now lives in the US, is writing the novel with Dracula historian Ian Holt, a screenwriter and member of The Transylvanian Society of Dracula. The Un-Dead is the first Dracula story to be fully authorised by the Stoker family since the 1931 film starring Bela Lugosi.

"Stoker, speaking to guardian.co.uk from a fishing trip in Tennessee, said he had initially been 'a little sceptical' about the project to resurrect Bram Stoker's original themes and characters, which was dreamed up by Holt. "Growing up, all the Stokers in my generation were pretty blasé about the fact we were related to this great horror writer. At Halloween we'd get all these comments about 'are we going to get bitten if we go round to the Stokers?'," he said, admitting that he only got around to reading his great grand-uncle's novel when he went to college. 'But Ian seemed to be the real deal.'

"Stoker and Holt say they have each written equal amounts of the novel. 'When we started I was worried because Dacre had never written a novel before, but he was great,' Holt said. 'I think I've got a little bit [of my ancestor's skills] in the bloodline,' said Stoker, who spent some time researching the London of 1912 in order to write the book. 'We really needed to do the detail the way Bram did - we owed it to him,' he said.

"'At times we felt in a weird way that Bram was there with us as a third author,' added Holt. 'We had his notes, and the stories and legends passed down through the family -- we were able to give him back his legacy -- reclaim Dracula for his roots.' Stoker agreed. 'Our intent is to give both Bram and Dracula back their dignity. Maybe even more important is to give the novel's legions of loyal fans what they have been waiting over a century for . . the return of the real Dracula."

"Stoker's original Dracula, the forefather of the wave of vampire novels currently flooding the bookshops, has never been out of print since it was published in 1897. The sequel will be competing with two other high-profile vampire novels published next year: film director Guillermo del Toro's debut The Strain, about a vampiric virus that invades New York, and Justin Cronin's The Passage, about a vampire plague spawned by medical experiments."

Shown here: Bram Stoker
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