Clare's Café highlights w/c 21 May
A divorce case is no longer shocking but there was a time when it wasn't just unusual - it was downright illegal (in England till the mid 1800s). In the summer of 1858, a court case came along that was so explosive that even Darwin and the Queen were drawn to comment on the brouhaha . On Monday's Book Café author Kate Summerscale gave us the details of this scandalous affair - MRS ROBINSON'S DISGRACE is a gripping read.
At its heart, a Madame Bovary type of character called Isabella Robinson. Her innermost feelings and lusts were revealed to the court, and by extension, wider society via five years worth of diary entries. They were discovered by her husband, Henry Robinson, who used them as evidence of adultery in court. The alleged lover was a dashing young homeopath Edward Lane. The two had met in Edinburgh's elegant New Town and had much in common - they discussed politics, the arts, social affairs, things that Isabella could never talk over with her taciturn and difficult spouse. But the big question at the heart of the book and the court case remains: did Isabella only fantasise about her relationship with Lane? We know she harboured literary ambitions so were the diary entries fact or fiction? Lane's career was on the line over the truth of the matter but more was at stake for Isabella who risked losing her reputation in a society riddled with double standards. Summerscale is known for her forensic pursuit of facts - she tirelessly seeks out original source material and maps it out clearly for her readers (previous book THE SUSPICIONS OF MR WHICHER a case in point!). Imagine her "punch the air" moment when she came across a cache of letters written by the three people involved in this very public divorce case - Isabella, Edward and Henry, written to a mutual friend, Edinburgh lawyer and phrenologist, George Combe . To see the protagonists write about their feelings in their own hand, and reveal their innermost concerns, must have felt like winning the pools. How often do writers stumble on this kind of material? The letters were found in the National Library in Edinburgh (yes, our capital plays quite a role in this story). Kate Summerscale's provided a fascinating snapshot of a bygone era in her morality tale.
Isabella Robinson most likely sought comfort in literature at her bleakest moments but lots of us do. What are the therapeutic benefits of reading a book- and by book, I don't mean a self-help manual? How can FICTION ease the pain of grief, failed love affairs, missed opportunities etc? Ella Berthoud told us.. she's a bibliotherapist - someone who prescribes a spoonful of novels to her patients. She talks to them about their state of mind and then recommends reading material that seems likely to give them solace. Sitting in on that discussion in Glasgow was writer Laura Marney - she's the queen of the wry title, i.e. Nobody Loves A Ginger Baby/ No Wonder I Take A Drink and Only Strange People Go To Church Nowadays. Laura works with groups while Ella prefers to concentrate one on one. They are both on to something. Of course, you can use a book for sheer escapism but you can also empathise with characters in a novel and understand the human condition better by following a story and being sucked in to the drama. Personally, my grumpy read tends to be something by Carl Hiaasen, if it's escapism, any Hilary Mantel or Michel Faber. And I've just finished John Irving's latest book In One Person. What a funny, heartbreaking piece of work that is. (BTW, I'm meeting him soon to record a special 121 to be aired soon!) If you're down in the dumps, can't afford the time or money for therapy, pick up a book.
Tuesday's Culture Café brought me face to face with an artist and his muse. (It's a first for me anyway!) Scottish artist Gerard M Burns cuts a dashing figure in his bandana but the woman he brought along for the interview outshone him (soz Gerard!) Vassilissa Levtonova is a Russian ballet dancer and as such, an elongated and elegant figure. She's got porcelain skin and flowing copper coloured hair. I think I've established her physical credentials haven't it? But what exactly, asides from looking gorgeous, does a muse do? Gerard said it could be hard work.. and you had to get the right person so it wasn't all down to looks. In fact he'd had his reservations about Vassilissa when he first saw her. His sister spotted this beautiful dancer and thought she would be perfect for Gerard's new paintings but when he saw this young woman, he wasn't convinced. Only when she began to move did he realise he'd struck gold. Vass can strike a pose, but more than that - she adopts a persona, inhabits the character that the artist wants to represent. As a dancer she has an additional skill - she can move her body flexibly and with great expression. They've been working together for three years now and seem to be very much in tune. Vassilissa loves being part of the creative process and is willing to put up with hours and hours of Gerard snapping photos of her and talking her through what he wants to get out of the precious time they spend together. For many, the artist's muse is seen as more than a model.. perhaps a lover (think of Rossetti's Lizzie Siddal/ Picasso's Dora Maar?) but these two are strictly professional. Gerard has painted his muse and her dancer boyfriend, Eric together - check out his images on line if you get the chance. For Vassilissa being a muse adds another string to her creative bow - she's a busy professional dancer but what a thrill to know that your beauty has been preserved on canvas for future generations to marvel over - the ultimate never-ending career.