Eminently Victorian

26th July 1996 at 01:00
High Art was as much on the agenda in Victorian times as popular culture is today. And nowhere was the pursuit of it more vigorous than on the Isle of Wight.

Tennyson marched across the cliff-tops declaiming his verse while his neighbour, the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, the stink of chemicals clinging to her person, dragooned all and sundry into dramatic poses. One of her visitors was the painter G F Watts, a small, nervous chap whose dependence on others enabled him to pursue on canvas such noble abstraction as Love, Faith, Hope and Death. Real life was much more difficult, as Watts discovered when at the age of 46 he married a high-spirited 18-year-old who was fond of wearing pink tights. The marriage was quickly dissolved and the young woman, Ellen Terry, went on to become one of the leading actresses of her day.

These and other well-known characters inhabit the pages of Lynne Truss's Tennyson's Gift (Hamish Hamilton Pounds 16). The comic disparity between their actions and their ideals was first put to good use by the daughter of Mrs Cameron's niece, Virginia Woolf, in her play, Freshwater, which she wrote to entertain friends. By adding to this scenario the clever, dysfunctional Reverend Dodgson, who brings with him a strange manuscript which he wants to dedicate to Tennyson's sons, Lynne Truss enriches her tale with a Carrollian mad logic. Echoes of Alice enter various escapades and some of the dialogue.

But it is Lynne Truss' free-wheeling pace that makes Tennyson's Gift so exuberant and so funny. The book should instantly be made into a film and directed by Jonathan Miller. It catches the Poet Laureate's egotism, Mrs Cameron's pathological need to shower him with votive presents, Watts' marital difficulties and Emily Tennyson's desperate attempts to hide from her husband adverse reviews and parodies of his verse. Mixed in with all this are two American phrenologists, father and daughter, who like Watts, deal with moral virtues but link them with cranial bumps. It all folds together into a well constructed farce, buoyant, affectionate and wise.

Anita Brookner, in Altered States (Jonathan Cape Pounds 14.99) translates hopeless longing into art. We have, of course, been here before in her other novels. Not only does her narrator, Alan Sherwood, take a holiday in a discreet, dull, respectable Swiss hotel, but his obsession with Sarah Miller parallels that of George Bland for Katy in one of Brookner's earlier novels, A Private View. Like Katy, Sarah is little more than a stereotype, a temptress, all hair, thigh and scent, physically glamorous and, though her motives are unclear, morally dubious.

The vacancy created by Sarah in the book troubles the plot. Her fleeting affair with Sherwood leaves no aftertaste and therefore undermines the reader's belief in his subsequent obsession. There follows an unhappy marriage and an attempt at betrayal which fails because Sarah never turns up at the Paris Hotel where he is waiting. But even this, supposedly momentous, turning point, seems more the product of fantasy than real emotion. The reader, however, had earlier been warned by the narrator: "the only verdict on all my activities... is consistent with the remote kindliness of the slowly and inexorably descending night."

Far from operating within familiar territory, Liz Heron's characters are usually found in alien surroundings where they live as well or as badly as they can, but with a certain strangeness. Their dislocation is analogous in A Red River (Virago Pounds 6.99) with the reader's need to come to terms with distant times and places, for these subtle and richly haunting short stories make one travel far.

The author seems determined to break fictional stereotypes and expectations and to suggest at some hidden level seismic alterations in a character's state of mind. In "Alida Valli's Coat", for example, the heroine does in the end find romance but, as with the coat, chooses not to wear it.

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