Posts Tagged ‘Victorian’

So-so Steampunk

A Conspiracy of Alchemists by Liesel Schwarz; page count 338

This is the first steampunk novel I’ve read. I read some short stories and seen a few movies, but this is my first actual novel. Admittedly, I am not entirely sure if a steampunk work fits within the scope of our usual historical fiction blog here. I take the chance because surely there will be some overlap of readers, and it is a new book released this March.

Schwarz ConspiracyThis is the first in a series, Chronicles of Light and Shadow, with two more guaranteed to follow and talks of more to come. The book follows the plight of dirigible pilot Eleanor “Elle” Chance. Chance is asked to hold and ship a box from Paris back to London. However, shortly after taking the box she is beset and dangerous, world-changing events are set in motion. Almost immediately we meet a fairy (whose narration is jarringly in first person unlike the rest of the book) and the love interest, handsome and mysterious Mr. Marsh.

The story moved at a good clip, and there was enough intrigue to keep me reading. However, I’m fairly certain this will be my only foray into the series. I found Eleanor Chance to be lacking as a heroine. She seems contrived. There are too many inconsistencies in her character that could have been easily hammered out. For example, she wears jodhpurs and flies to Paris by herself, but blushes at the slightest look from Marsh and was only brought to flying by a man, despite being surrounded by machines and brought up by her father. *SPOILER ALERT* I also am not fond of how Schwarz handles Chance’s powers. Surely, even an untrained oracle should have some premonitions or gut feelings that are accurate. *SPOILER OVER* Honestly, a couple of tweaks by a slightly better writer could have solved most of my issues with her character and the book in general

Even though Schwarz has not converted me to one of her followers, she did succeed in making me more curious about other steampunk writing. I generally like the steam aesthetic anyway, and now I may pick up another steampunk novel if I happen across one.

If you are a devoted steampunker (I’m sure there’s a word for that I am not aware of) then you should probably give this book a try. It’s certainly being pushed by the publisher, and may go a long way to convince The Man that steampunk is worth the investment. Otherwise, I’d be fairly hesitant to recommend this title.

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I recently finished Susan Vreeland’s Clara and Mr. Tiffany. A turn of the century account of Tiffany’s premier designer, Clara Driscoll, it is a story of passion, intensity, and yearning for validation.

Clara and Mr. Tiffany, Susan Vreeland
First, at the risk of judging a book by its cover, I have to say how much I love this one. I know the art department of the publisher probably had more to do with it than the author, but whoever designed it really hit the nail on the head. The silhouetted figure of a woman in front of the Magnolias and Irises leaded glass window (which can be seen in full at the Met) is evocative of the anonymity of the woman’s department at Tiffany’s and of both Clara’s struggle for recognition and her immersion in her work, to the point of it bleeding into her non-professional life.

Now to the book itself. In a few words, Clara and Mr. Tiffany is the story of Clara Driscoll, the manager of the woman’s department at Tiffany Studios (colored glass windows and lamps, not jewelry), taking the reader both through her life after being widowed and returning to work and showing her relationship with Louis Comfort Tiffany through her prolific career in the decorative arts at the turn of the 19th century.

The story is well researched and lush with detail. Vreeland is able to immerse the reader in a time when women were only beginning to take their place as equals in the workplace. Conflicts of the period are alluded to and in some cases take a central role in the plot; labor unions, strikes, social reform, immigration, and gender discrimination are all pivotal parts of Clara’s life and affect characters’ decisions throughout the book.

Yet, my favorite part of Vreeland’s writing and the heart of the book are not historical details but, rather, her descriptions of the lamps, windows, and objects d’art designed and produced by the woman’s department at Tiffany Studios and her use of Clara’s artist’s eye to examine and understand the world around her. Details of the effusion of light through glass shards, of the beauty of a finished chapel leaded glass window, or even the simplicity of nature’s creations in gardens around New York City are all accomplished with the attention of an artist. As someone deeply moved and interested in art (Yes, I am finally using that bachelors in Art History for something!) this is what I like best about Clara and Mr. Tiffany. I am fascinated by Clara’s perception of whimsy in a dragonfly and symmetry in a cobweb. Furthermore, I am captivated by the minutiae of glassmaking and leaded glass windows and lampshades. From a literary standpoint, I think this is where Vreeland excels, putting readers into Clara’s almost obsessive mindset. By letting the reader see Clara’s point of view, the radiance of colored glass, and the labor intensive process of leaded glass making, one can understand her devotion to the craft, the energy that the women in Clara’s department give of themselves, and can fully appreciate what Clara’s career means to her. While I think this style of writing was perfectly suited to the story, I can see why, because of this method of writing, some other readers I’ve talked to thought the book was slow-moving. In order to appreciate the book, I think you have to have an appreciation for art and craftsmanship, or else the lengthy descriptions of window panels, color selection, and glassblowing might leave you cold.

As for the characters, I felt for Clara in her struggle to be recognized for her invention of the leaded glass lampshades that made Tiffany Studios a household name even today and her attempts to quell the resentment against and disdain for women working in a male-dominated field (let alone in the 1890’s in general when women were expected to cook and clean with a child on their hip at home). There is an aspect to the book that echoes struggles today for women to balance their careers with family, lovers, and friends. Because Tiffany forbids his female employees to marry, Clara becomes torn between her identity as an invaluable employee and artist at Tiffany Studios and her identity as a woman with love and need for acceptance in her heart. The main theme of the book was this tension between Clara’s work and her significant others. It was a time when women could not even entertain “having it all,” and Clara is truly married to her job.

The relationship between Clara and Louis Comfort Tiffany was another central entity in the book that was interesting to observe. Both figures are creative personalities who believe in beauty above all, art for art’s sake, and in limitlessness in designing their art. Clara and Tiffany play off of each other, inspiring one another in their professional relationship, but their mutual passion oftentimes blurs their artistic affection for each other into something else that I was hard-pressed to define. Whether it was a paternal approval that Clara was looking for, a lover’s admiration and attention, or a friend’s support and camaraderie, I am not sure. I think it was a little bit of each, which is what made the dynamics of their scenes together so fascinating and made me wish that there were more of those scenes. Clara and Tiffany are truly artistic lovers, and some of Clara’s need for recognition and praise manifests itself in a romantic-type desire that is born of the sentiment and ardor she imbues in her creations. At the same time, Clara is frustrated with Tiffany for refusing to single out her ingenuity and authorship that win the Studio fame and is enamored with his kindred spirit. She says:

I wanted to scream or tear something to show that I felt ripped in two. Despite the truth of our character assassination, I adored him. He and I had a bridge that no one else travelled that made us artistic lovers, passionate without a touch of the flesh. He made me thrive, and valuing that, I could do nothing that would endanger it.

Later, in a moment of yearning for recognition of her talent and labors, Clara asks:

Don’t you see my adoration for you? Don’t you recognize the longing heart within the glass I’ve touched? I ached to ask him these things, but I didn’t dare. I didn’t want him to think I wanted romance. What I wanted would have to be a finer union than any romance I’d ever known.”

Clara sees that her relationship with Tiffany is something beyond the banality of carnal pleasures, something of the psyche, something intangible and precious that enables her to interpret and refine nature in manmade glass, bringing stylized, aesthetic ideas of God’s creations into fruition.

The book straddles being about Clara’s relationship with Tiffany and his company and being about her conflict of building a life outside of her job. I think maybe here is where Vreeland may have lost a bit of her luster. She tries to portray both facets of Clara’s life, without doing full justice to either. If maybe the book were longer, containing more details of either of both of the relationships, maybe the comprehensive look at Clara’s life would have worked, but at times I think Vreeland sacrificed depth in Clara’s personal relationship for the relationship of Clara and her career.

Overall, I have to say that I enjoyed the book, although I wouldn’t read it again. Any art lover will enjoy the vivid descriptions of objects that can be seen in museums like the MFA, Boston or The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art. For people with a low tolerance for atmospheric descriptions of detail over action, this might not be the book for you.

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Bunburying. It’s Wilde.

I read The Importance of Being Earnest while in the airport yesterday, and among its many quotable quotes (see below), I came across this one: “well, in the first place girls never marry the man they flirt with” (Act I).  At first this idea seemed absurd, and perhaps it was only meant as humor, but it struck me as holding a certain amount of truth.

A friend of mine works in the public service industry, and one of his clients, a young and pretty (according to him, I’ve never met her) woman, has formed an attachment to said friend.  Although he never told me directly, I can tell that A really likes this girl, but (and this is a big but) she has a boyfriend of four years.  Now, all I know is his side of the story, but apparently, they talk in one way or another every day.  According to A it is always initiated by the client.  He said he knows nothing will ever happen, but at the same time doesn’t end the relationship.

She is clearly flirting with my friend A, but is also supposedly in a committed relationship.  Is she looking to get out of said relationship?  Or is she like the women Algy describes—looking for some excitement outside of her comfortable, probably “suitable,” partner?  Perhaps it’s the relative danger of striking up a more-than-professional-relationship with A when it is clearly against the rules that appeals to the woman.

I don’t know and I probably never will know, as I don’t think I’ll ever meet her, but the similarities between ideal Victorian women and today’s proper (and not-so proper) women intrigued me.

This wasn’t the only quote that applies to men and women of 2011.  I found many others and luckily for me, I read the play on my Kindle could therefore easily highlight and share them with you all.  Here’s a sampling:

Algy: “I really don’t see anything romantic in proposing.  It is very romantic to be in love.  But there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal…The very essence of romance is uncertainty*” (Act I). This pretty much sums up my attitude and is probably why I’m not good at relationships. *my emphasis.

Algy: “Once a week is quite enough to dine with one’s own relations” (Act I). I don’t think this needs explanation.  Don’t get me wrong, I love my family, but generally, holidays are enough.

Lady Bracknell: “A man should always have an occupation of some kind” (Act I). Nothing is worse than a person who doesn’t have activities or interests of his or her own.  I think it is especially bad when it’s your significant other.  Get those juices (brain, muscle… whatever) flowing!

Algy: “All women become like their mothers.  That is their tragedy.  No man does.  That’s his” (Act I). I started turning into my mother when I was 11 (love you mom, it’s not really a tragedy.  At least not for us).  It’s interesting to think about though, especially the part about men not becoming their mothers.

Cecily: “I think that whenever one has anything unpleasant to say, one should always be quite candid” (Act II). From experience, trying to sugar coat disagreeable things often leads to confusion and then even more awkwardness.  Pretend it’s a band-aid and get it over quickly!

Gwendolen: “One should always have something sensational to read on the train” (Act II). Again, speaking from experience, it is very difficult to concentrate on “literary” stuff on the train.  I need an exciting or dramatic book on the T if it has a chance at beating the cute baby or drunk rapper for my attention.

So there you have it.  And if you haven’t seen the movie, run to Blockbuster or add it to your Netflix queue immediately!

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On the fifth day of Valentines Week, my true love gave to me…


Like many other fads and traditions, the Victorians perfected the art of floral arrangement. At the hight of this morally conservative period, men and women were able to send the prefect message to a loved one through the innocuous gift of flowers. Each flower had a meaning, and ladies were schooled in the language of flowers as part of their social education. Known as floriography, symbolic meanings were attached to particular flowers based on botanical characteristics, scriptural and literary references, Greek and Roman mythology, and geographical and historical associations. Because of these many references, flowers often had multiple and changing meanings. Color and maturity of the bloom could change the meaning of the flower, presenting an downward facing bloom would reverse it’s meaning, and combinations of flowers could produce an entire conversation in a bouquet.

The sentiments behind flowers still linger over a hundred years later, but although we know that red roses symbolize love, the language of flowers has been all but lost to modern patrons of FTD and KaBloom. So, from Victorian historical sources, here is a list of a few flowers with their meanings, dating to the 1880s. Maybe this Valentine’s Day, you can use flowers to say more than just “I love you.”


Rose Acacia 
Rose Acacia: Elegance

Fleur-de-lis: I burn. Flame/fire

Peruvian Heliotrope 
Peruvian Heliotrope: Devotion, faithfulness

Holly Herb 
Holly Herb: Enchantment

Purple Lilacs 
Purple Lilac: First emotions of love

Lily of the Valley 
Lily of the Valley: Return of happiness

Syrian Mallow 
Syrian Mallow (Rose of Sharon): Consumed by love

Night-blooming Cereus 
Night-blooming Cereus: Transient beauty

Pansy: Think of me. Thoughts

Peony: Bashfulness

White Periwinkle 
White Periwinkle: Pleasant recollections

Pimpernel: Assignation

Ranunculus: You are radiant with charms.

Maiden Blush Rose 
Maiden Blush Rose: If you love me, you will discover it.

White Rose 
White Rose: I am worthy of you.

Dwarf Sunflower 
Dwarf Sunflower: Adoration

Red Tulip 
Red Tulip: Declaration of love
(Variegated Tulips: Beautiful eyes)

Venice Sumach 
Venice Sumach: Intellectual excellence, splendor

Zinnia: Thoughts of absent friends


For my sources of information see The Historical Society of Ocean Grove and The Language of Flowers. Also, for a complete period source and comprehensive index of flowers and their meaning (which I used primarily to compose the guide above), check out the digital book, The Language of Flowers by Kate Greenaway.

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