The Dream Weavers: Tales of Fantasy by the Pre-Raphaelites by John Howard Weeks
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Confession: I never did finish this book when it was assigned reading for my senior seminar on Victorian Arts and Culture. I read enough, at that time, to complete the assigned critique of one story that we enjoyed. Thankfully, this came four stories into the anthology, freeing up study time for other projects in a very busy semester.
To say that Victorian art and literature has had an influence on my own fiction is a gross understatement. I've been accused of, and guilty of, the same flamboyant prose that was popular a couple of centuries ago. I've worked hard lately to be free of those tentacles, or at least to have them resting a little more loosely over my throat.
But a series of nostalgic hankerings has been pulling at me lately, and I thought "it's about time I finish that book". After all, the Pre-Raphaelite artists are not only the subject of one of my novels, they produced some of my favorite visual art of all time.
Unfortunately, what pleases the eye visually does not necessarily make for good prose. Oftentimes, the artists-cum-writers are too free in adding embellishments to their words that ought to have been reserved only for their paintings. Some of them were decent poets, but stretching a poem out into a long narrative, rather than watering the words down, as one would expect, only allows more room for treacle to be poured into the ensuing gaps. Many of the stories in this volume are practically drowning in treacle and baroque language, which makes for a sickly-sweet jolt that should be enjoyed only in small servings.
That's not to say that every story is a failure. Far from it. I found aspects of several of these stories rather refreshing and intriguing.
For example, Algernon Charles Swinburne's "Dead Love," in which the Lady Yolande de Craon falls in love with and, through that love, subsequently revives the body of the knight Jacques d'Aspremont (who had previously killed her husband in battle), shows an interesting ambiguity between what is good and what is evil, what is romantic and what is perverse. This is a much more nuanced take on morality than I would have expected from a story of its age.
In Swinburne's "The Portrait," the painter, Peter, after hatching a plot with a wicked woman (you will find this trope throughout) to kill her husband by means of a painting that would kill a man should he look upon it, is described as "a man that rejoiced in all manner of shameful dealing, and was also unclean of his life, as is the fashion of men that paint and men that make songs and verses; for this Peter also made many amorous poems, and played upon stringed instruments marvellously [sic] well. And the lives of such men as are painters, or such as are poets, are most often evil and foolish; therefore it may be well conceived of this Peter that he was a very lewd man."
I'm not sure if this is an attempt by Swinburne at self-effacing humor or if it was meant as a kind of marketing ploy for the shock value of its self-admitted wickedness. One wonders if he and his contemporaries, Huysmans and Verlaine were not all customers of the same marketing agency.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti's "The Orchard Pit" was the story that, as an undergraduate, I chose to examine in detail. I won't bore you with the amateurish rantings and ravings of a college senior who actually thought he knew what he was talking about. Suffice it to say that this remains one of my favorite stories in this volume, a hallucinogenic prose poem that beats a trance-inducing mental cadence in the reader's mind.
Sprinkled throughout these stories are what I will call "Odes to the Cult of Weakness," passages that seek to heroicize the androgynous as being simultaneously better than their peers and, yet, harboring a critical vulnerability that is, in a strange way, lauded. This is evinced in the description of Charo dell' Erma in Rossetti's story "Hand and Soul":
The extreme longing after a visible embodiment of his thoughts strengthened as his years increased, more even than his sinews or the blood of his life; until he would feel faint in sunsets and at the sight of stately persons.
Thankfully, not all of the characters in this volume are infected with that same ultra-sensitivity (it grows tedious very quickly). And, in fact, I wonder if editor John Weeks intentionally followed up Rossetti's shriveling little daisy with Edward Burne-Jones' tale "The Druid and the Maiden". This is a solid story of love, betrayal, patriotism, double crosses, and ghosts in the shadow of the Roman Empire's invasion of Brittany. It is much less florid than the stories that precede it and a welcome, prosaic relief from the extreme poetic acrobatics that permeate the collection.
Burne-Jones continues to display a spark of modernity in his tale "The Cousins". This story is downright Dickinsonian (thank you, Doris, for providing me with the right word!), yet it is punctuated, in the middle, by a long scream straight from Beckett's Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable that the narrator refers to as "a missing year".
Finally, I quite enjoyed William Falford's "A Night in a Cathedral," not because the hackneyed story about being locked away, alone, for a night in a cathedral had anything to recommend it (it didn't), but because it summoned from the dead caverns of my mind a series of images from childhood: those of Mickey Mouse and Felix the Cat being harangued by cartoon, ghosts and skeletons. I needed the laughs, if nothing else, to counter the grave seriousness with which this author, and several others in the volume, took himself.
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