I’ve been having a mini-meltdown recently, as a rather on-off thing with my house sale takes place, with possible exchange and completion some time during the week beginning Monday 16th February… or possibly not, as all the negotiations and paperwork are still ongoing.
I have disappeared into a world of music and writing, which thankfully takes me away from everything, and also reminding myself to “just breathe!” Which is why I’ve been quiet recently.
It wasn’t therefore great timing for one of my friends to mention that she’d curated an exhibition at the Royal Academy, and it was closing next weekend. But I couldn’t not go (how often do people get to curate exhibitions at the RA??), and when Amanda said she’d be there this weekend, I thought what a great thing it would be to get my very own personal tour :-) considering I didn’t know anything about Charles Stewart.
Charles Stewart (1915-2001) was a graphic artist who became obsessed with the gothic Victorian novel Uncle Silas, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. The novel has been the basis for several film and TV adaptations, and follows the adventures of innocent heiress Maud Ruthyn. Stewart ploughed his energies into extensive research on the settings and costumes, and into numerous sketches, finally producing dozens of incredibly detailed illustrations for the book in 1948. Despite the illustrations being well received by the publisher, the amount of detail meant that it would have been ultimately too costly to include in the sale copies using the technology of the time, so it wasn’t until the eighties that an edition that included the illustrations could be made up.
I think the Victorian Gothic is very interesting, and channels a lot of sexuality and emotion in an acceptable way, which the Victorians wouldn’t otherwise have been able to express in public. Amanda said that Charles Stewart had a terribly lonely and unhappy childhood, and was never accepted or supported emotionally by his family (although they managed to pay for an expensive school). She said it was very sad that it seemed Charles Stewart never found happiness with a partner.
I said I thought it was a problem of a certain kind of upbringing – if as a child you are taught to repress everything emotional, it’s very difficult subsequently to work out how to cope with healthy adult relationships. What you tend to do is hide the problems and deny them, and channel the things you really want into obsessions. I feel really lucky that I’ve realised now in my mid-thirties that there is another, warmer way to live life than what I knew until that point, but every so often, I still feel enormous grief for all the friendships I was never able to build, at school, at University, during early motherhood. I’ve been trying to deal with the feelings of loss by writing about how people cope when they’re not shown warmth early on in their lives, and how people come to realise it and change their lives, and what happens when people don’t realise it, and don’t change.
Amanda and I talked about the difficulties acknowledging these problems the older you get, and the more of your life you have to admit that you’ve lost if you do admit where you really are, which ties in with my current interest in the phenomenon of what I call “completeness”: in fiction, there’s a need to provide for the reader an emotionally satisfying closure. Whereas in real life, quite often things are messy and don’t turn out as they “should”. I’m interested in bringing “messy endings,” a bit like Charles Stewart’s lack of a happy ending, to what I write, and working out how to make something emotionally satisfying out of them.
If you are near the Royal Academy before next Sunday, the exhibition is only £3 and well worth a look. One of the most stunning parts is life size blow up of one of the small pictures – the original is so detailed that it reproduces as if it could have been that size originally! Make sure to get a free show guide – they’d all gone by the time I got there, which meant that before Amanda arrived and got some out of the store room, the exhibition made no sense to me at all!