BBC’s “Upstart Crow” and Why Shakespeare Makes the Perfect Sitcom Star

As the world still celebrates William Shakespeare’s birth and death day each year, the playwright’s immortal relevance is clear. Among countless reinterpretations of Shakespeare’s life and work, BBC’s sitcom Upstart Crow is a surprisingly fitting way to reinvent Shakespearean comedy.

By Serena Ypelaar

Another year, another Shakespeare day. Having just passed the Bard’s joint birthday and death day (April 23) again, it’s become a tradition here at The Mindful Rambler to feature an interpretation of William Shakespeare’s life and career. 

This year, I’ve been watching BBC’s Upstart Crow during lockdown. The Shakespeare-themed sitcom was created and written by Ben Elton, of Blackadder fame. I watched the historical comedy show Blackadder growing up and I’ve been meaning to write about it for ages … I’ll get there eventually. In the meantime, let’s talk about Upstart Crow and why Shakespeare is an ideal (albeit unlikely) sitcom star.

It’s true – Shakespeare’s continued relevance and success make his life and works the perfect topic for a sitcom. His comedies and their signature plot devices lend themselves well to the modern-day sitcom genre.

David Mitchell as William Shakespeare in Upstart Crow. Photo: BBC / Colin Hutton

Upstart Crow takes place alternately between London and Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s hometown. In the late 16th century and a more or less middle-aged Shakespeare (played by David Mitchell) is an established playwright, travelling back and forth between his Stratford homestead and his lodgings in London – where, of course, all the best playhouses are at the time. The biographical details of the show are hazy, a reminder that Upstart Crow is ahistorical in its approach – it plays with Shakespeare’s life.

For instance, although the real Shakespeare’s relationship with his wife Anne Hathaway is still debated (Did they love each other? Was he snubbing her in his will, or honouring her?), Upstart Crow treats us to a warm and fuzzy family dynamic with plenty of banter between Shakespeare and his wife, children, and parents. The show’s style unites Shakespeare’s well-known stories with modern-day comedy conventions, veiling current pop culture references behind Elizabethan social mores. In a way, the sitcom is both a product of Shakespeare’s time and ours – as a genre, it’s strangely fitting for the playwright’s quirky style. 

The 16th century and 21st century collide as Shakespeare (David Mitchell), Kate (Gemma Whelan), and Bottom (Rob Rouse) discuss poetry.

The series boasts an abundance of Shakespeare references for fans of the Bard, while delivering a well-written sitcom in its own right. In many ways, we can actually read Shakespeare’s comedy plays as precursors to the sitcom as we know it today. Many of Shakespeare’s comedic plotlines have the makings of a situational comedy, whether it’s misunderstandings, disguises, marriage proposals both failed and successful… you get the picture. Elton takes advantage of Shakespeare’s hilarious gags to create premises for Upstart Crow episodes.

Not only that, but the show also subverts Shakespeare’s tragedies, making them into ridiculous scenarios to round out the series with works from across Shakespeare’s bibliography. Even the sonnets are touched upon, regarding the Earl of Southampton, who has long been rumoured to have been Shakespeare’s man-crush (crush? who knows). The popular theory of Christopher Marlowe having written Shakespeare’s plays is delightfully turned on its head, with Shakespeare producing work for an indolent yet charming Kit (who was actually a successful playwright before Shakespeare, despite their being born in the same year). 

Christopher Marlowe (Tim Downie) and William Shakespeare (David Mitchell). Photo: BBC

The show’s subversions bring Shakespeare into a liminal place, an alternate universe of sorts. Upstart Crow doesn’t pursue accuracy, which isn’t technically necessary for good storytelling anyway. The show’s cheeky tone and good pacing make for sound storytelling. There are running jokes about Shakespeare stealing other people’s ideas, and rants about Elizabethan-era transport – anyone who’s taken the tube (the London Underground) or any public transit can relate. Upstart Crow is littered with similar tongue-in-cheek references to present-day pop culture amid the Elizabethan wisecracks. There was even a plague-themed lockdown Christmas special last year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, featuring a fifteenth wave of quarantine (God forbid!). 

It’s fascinating to see elements of our society given the Shakespearean treatment. However, Upstart Crow is at times too on-the-nose about social issues such as sexism and racism. I think viewers are meant to understand those gaffes as evidence of the “backwardness” of the time; however, the fact that a lot of those jokes go uncontested make them a bit gratuitous. It’s fairly obvious that the tone is satirical, but at times some of the characters’ overreliance on reductive humour is jarring for a witty and upbeat comedy.

Anne (Liza Tarbuck) giving Shakespeare (David Mitchell) another brilliant idea. Photo: BBC

Nevertheless, that’s not to say that Upstart Crow lacks female characters with agency. Kate (Gemma Whelan), the daughter of Shakespeare’s landlady, is always on the scene to point out regressive themes and problematic elements of Shakespeare’s drafts, her strong moral compass no doubt mirroring the views of many of us who watch. Kate is an excellent bridge from the modern viewer to Elizabethan times, and she often grounds the episodes in a present-day context. Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna is also outspoken, and her bold, sometimes rough manner undercuts the confining idealization of women’s innocence in Elizabethan times.

Finally, Shakespeare’s wife Anne (Liza Tarbuck) is credited with many of the brilliant plot ideas in Shakespeare’s plays: each episode ends with Shakespeare and Anne smoking by the fire in their Stratford home, reflecting on recent events. Anne tosses out insightful suggestions every time; from our knowledge of his plays it’s implied that Shakespeare goes on to use her ideas, riffing on the concept of a woman’s ingenuity being repackaged and sold by a man (often to his benefit) in a patriarchal society. Upstart Crow therefore asserts that Anne is responsible for most of her husband’s iconic storylines and titles. The show doesn’t often slow down long enough to ruminate on the social tensions I’ve illustrated here, as the action trots along at a sprightly pace – but hints of contemporary awareness are definitely present, however they come across.

Kate (Gemma Whelan) raises concerns about Shakespeare’s in-progress works while Bottom (Rob Rouse) and Marlowe (Tim Downie) look on. Photo: BBC

To really achieve a lively Shakespeare adaptation, one must include copious Shakespearean insults, something Upstart Crow excels at. In fact, the show itself is named after an insult from a real-life rival poet, Robert Greene, who published a pamphlet in 1592 deriding Shakespeare as “an upstart crow” – referring to his middle-class birth. Greene (Mark Heap) appears as the show’s snobbish villain, devising dastardly schemes to humiliate Shakespeare – many of which come straight from the Shakespeare canon. For instance, Greene convinces Shakespeare to wear yellow stockings to a high-profile London ball, à la Malvolio in Twelfth Night.

Mark Heap as Shakespeare’s snobbish rival poet Robert Greene in Upstart Crow. Photo: BBC / Colin Hutton

Greene’s antagonism aside, the real payoff of the show is seeing Shakespeare blast other characters with streams of clever insults, slightly modernized but no less verbose. In creating his own inventive barbs, Ben Elton twists the Bard’s talents of language to great comic effect. One such example, so you can get a taste for it: “Spurious unearned social status will polish even the most stinksome turdlingtons – by which, of course, I mean you, Dad.” Or, in Robert Greene’s supercilious words: “Your family be turnip-chewing country bumshankles without influence or connexion.” These linguistic treats are a major asset to the show, making the sitcom-Shakespeare a memorable character.

In bringing together these trademark elements of Shakespeare’s style – complete with witticisms and asides that break the fourth wall – Upstart Crow plays with Shakespeare’s biography to offer a fun and irreverent look at the life of England’s most famous playwright. Celebrations of Shakespeare’s profound effect on the English language are offset by a humorous dressing-down of the Bard in every episode, making the show’s approach truly unique. It’s worth a watch if you enjoy both Shakespeare and sitcoms and want to see how the two spectacularly collide.

After all, even serious heavyweights of literature shouldn’t be taken too seriously. 

I’m Not Like Them, But I Can Pretend

Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain died 27 years ago, aged 27. Between his rock star persona and gentle offstage aura, it’s hard to reconcile Cobain’s humanity with his legend status. But in 1993, Canadian journalist Erica Ehm did just that, in a now-famous interview for MuchMusic.

By Serena Ypelaar

Warning: this article mentions drug use and suicide, and may be disturbing for some readers.

Kurt Cobain – lead singer and guitarist of the wildly famous grunge rock band Nirvana – died by suicide on April 5, 1994, at the age of 27. This year marks the 27th anniversary of his passing, which means he’s now been dead as long as he was alive. 

Why commemorate an artist’s death? Perhaps because their exit from the world is so heavily marked by their artistic contributions. There’s a legacy left behind in those moments – the person is grieved by family, friends, and people who never knew them personally but appreciate their art, their work, or their public persona. 

Kurt Cobain’s legend status has been upheld by admirers for almost 30 years. Photo: Jeff Kravitz / FilmMagic

Being part of the “27 Club” means being enshrined in myth forever: Cobain’s legendary status is unarguable. Nirvana has sold 75 million records worldwide. Nirvana T-shirts are still worn by fans (and non-fans) daily. And just last year, Cobain’s 1959 Martin D-18E acoustic guitar (used at the band’s famous 1993 MTV Unplugged session just five months before his death) became the highest-selling guitar in history, fetching $6 million USD at auction.

Nirvana’s fame wasn’t easy for Cobain, however. The three-piece band, whose final lineup comprised Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic, and drummer Dave Grohl (now Foo Fighters frontman), became superstars almost overnight. Their career yielded just three studio albums: Bleach (1989), Nevermind (1991), and In Utero (1993). Growing commercial pressures after Nevermind‘s success contributed to Cobain’s fear of “selling out”. His depression, coupled with an addiction to heroin, would lead to his premature death. A few overdoses, an intervention from family and friends, and an aborted rehab stay ended in tragedy with Cobain’s suicide – he shot himself in his Seattle home less than a year after Nirvana’s third album was released. 

I first picked up Nirvana as an angsty teen (I mean, is there any better time for it?) starting university. The band’s legacy was already written, and I was just jumping in. Yet the music still resonated, 20 years after Nirvana’s unplanned dissolution. Their lyrics, often scathing critiques of society, still apply today.

Nirvana in 1993 (from left): Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, Dave Grohl. Photo: Anton Corbijn

Although he’s venerated as a progressive punk rock icon, feminist, and empath, Kurt Cobain wasn’t known for his effusiveness. He was sensitive and self-critical; bandmates and friends commented that he was always overthinking, and it bothered him to hear about sexism, homophobia, racism, rape, and other injustices. In interview footage, he often appears spaced-out, moody, and taciturn. 

Many musicians dislike interviews, which is understandable given their rigorous schedules. Between songwriting, rehearsals, recording, and touring, journalists don’t get many chances to speak to band members outside rare periods of downtime. Add the fact that musicians are often asked the same questions repeatedly, and it’s no wonder we sometimes see gruffness, apathy, or all-out exhaustion during interviews. Once a musician or artist dies, these interviews become like gold – valuable snippets into their creative processes, insights, opinions, and personalities. 

As a historian and lover of old stuff, I often find myself getting into media after its creator has died. I read and watch interviews to better understand the artist behind the work. I want to get closer to their personality, to recognize them as a human being. It’s the best way to spot mannerisms and offstage persona, which can often be very different from the impression given while performing. After they’re gone, the life of a musician often achieves a mythical existence. The person can no longer contribute to the narrative; they can’t speak for themselves. They’re defined by their overall legacy. That’s why existing interviews become such treasured glimpses into their essence as a person, especially when recorded on video.

And if the interviewer manages against all odds to get something special, it becomes iconic.

Kurt Cobain speaking to Erica Ehm on a balcony in Seattle. Photo: YouTube / MuchMusic

This is where Erica Ehm comes in. A Canadian journalist and longtime VJ at MuchMusic, Ehm interviewed numerous musicians during her time at the television station (1985-1994). Her 1993 conversation with Kurt Cobain is one of her most famous interviews, if not the most famous. It was late summer in Seattle, Washington. Ehm had been sent out to interview Cobain for the release of In Utero

Each of us [journalists] was asked to set up our cameras in a nondescript hotel room, and assigned a short window of time with each band member. As soon as one interview would wrap, they’d be escorted to the next. It’s an impersonal grind. For alt rockers like Nirvana, it must have been a mind-numbing process. 

I knew I’d have to stand out to get a decent interview with Kurt. My hope was to make him see me as more than another faceless media type.

Erica Ehm in 2019

The extended cut of the now-famous MuchMusic interview has over 10 million views on YouTube, and is well-regarded among Nirvana fans and music journalists. Fans often remark on how genuine Cobain seems in this interview – charming but pensive, and most importantly, relaxed. It’s hard to tap into the authenticity of a person in just a few minutes’ conversation, but Ehm does this well by balancing music-related questions with more personal ones. It’s a candid talk by the water, with low-key (if sometimes erratic) camera work. Cobain seems comfortable and Ehm is professional yet casual.

Erica Ehm with Paul Langlois and Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip. Photo: Erica Ehm / MuchMusic

For my interview with Kurt, I came prepared to talk about his album, touring and other standard questioning the record company expected. However, it was the quirkier ones like “What are you reading?” or “Why would you bring a baby [into] a world that you hate?” that allowed him to reveal a bit of himself to us. 

Erica Ehm

It’s a point of pride that it was a Canadian who captured such a meaningful interview. Ehm treated Cobain like a person rather than a commodity (even though he’d begun to feel like the latter over the last few months of his life, as the pressures of fame mounted and his depression and addiction worsened). He was already becoming a symbol, yet Ehm’s approach transcended that: she asked about Kurt the human being, not Kurt the performer. To me, watching this as a music enthusiast, Ehm’s thoughtfulness felt far away from the usual intensity of the music industry. It’s hard to believe that this interview took place on a day crammed full of press for Cobain – it feels like a one-off conversation on an average day.

Extended cut of Canadian journalist Erica Ehm’s 1993 MuchMusic interview with Kurt Cobain.

Not much about Cobain’s life at that point was very “average”. He’d become a rock star in next to no time, and was dealing with copyright infringement and sensationalist press pieces, being interviewed by dozens of journalists. Yet the thing that brought him the most joy – and Ehm seemed to intuit this – was talking about his wife, Courtney Love, and their baby daughter, Frances Bean. These personal insights grant us a glimpse into the life of someone whose fame was so huge that a respite into the everyday was more than welcome. 

It’s hard to say what would’ve happened with Cobain and Nirvana had he not died in early 1994, only a few months after this interview. But one thing is certain: his death cemented his status as an icon and an inspiration to many. As per the Neil Young lyrics quoted in Cobain’s suicide letter, he did indeed “burn out” rather than “fade away”. He never had to slip slowly into obscurity or irrelevance, because he died at the height of his and Nirvana’s acclaim.

Nirvana’s discography. Photo: Diffuser

Ehm’s interview is a big part of the Nirvana “canon” for those learning about Cobain for the first time, a piece of remembrance for those already familiar. Her work in bringing out his personality for us to see and appreciate – which shows us his uniqueness as a person – helps ensure Cobain is still loved and celebrated even 27 years after his death. He preached empathy, acceptance, love for others and self-love, making people love him not just as a musician, but as a human being. In this case the artist is very much intertwined with the art, and the band’s sincerity has immortalized them in the hearts of rock fans worldwide. 

Nirvana continues to resonate, and in the words of Dave Grohl, Kurt Cobain “has become something more than a human being to others.” But apart from his talent, it’s his humanity that people latched onto in the first place – and skilled interviewers like Ehm helped preserve it for the ages. 

A Thing of Beauty is a Joy For Ever: Keats 200

At the bicentenary of his death, John Keats remains an iconic figure in the literary world. Keats died believing himself a failure, but his work is more admired than he ever knew – and in the midst of a global pandemic, his life story is especially poignant.

By Serena Ypelaar

23rd of February, 1821 – Rome. The English poet John Keats dies, aged just 25 and convinced he had never amounted to anything.

Today, 200 years later, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

While he went largely unrecognized during his lifetime, Keats’ posthumous rise to distinction and his perception as a tragic hero have enshrined him in literary history, never to be removed. This week, the #Keats200 campaign commemorates the bicentenary of the famed Romantic poet’s death.

Portrait of John Keats (detail) c. 1822 by painter William Hilton, who had been acquainted with the poet. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Clever, sensitive, thoughtful, eloquent – these words are often used to describe Keats, yet during his own time he was relatively unappreciated but for the loyalty of his friends and family. His talent has since immortalized him within the English literary canon as a key figure of the second generation of Romantic poets. Keats’ 1819 Odes, as well as “Bright Star”, “To Autumn”, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”, “Lamia”, and “Endymion” are among the most studied and admired poems today. His personal letters have been lauded as literary gems in themselves, bringing us closer to Keats the man – and to that morbidly compelling picture of untimely suffering – to which Keats’ current renown is something of an antidote.

The Keats Foundation, Keats House (which I wrote about in 2018), and the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association are leading the worldwide event which culminates today, on the 200th anniversary itself. To fully appreciate Keats’ journey from relative unknown to legendary poet, it’s best if we wind the clock back two centuries: back to 1818.

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
       Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on …

John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819), lines 11-12
Copy of Keats’ life mask at Keats House; one of many made for Keats’ friends to remember him by. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

Believe it or not, Keats trained as a surgeon in London before quitting his studies to focus on his writing. In June of 1818 he and his close friend Charles Armitage Brown went on a tour of Scotland, Ireland, and the Lake District – and Keats returned with a bad cold. Nursing his younger brother Tom, who had consumption (now known as tuberculosis), Keats was thus exposed to infection.

Although Tom died that December, the following year (1819) was the most fruitful for Keats’ work. His most famous poems were written during that time, but their merits went mostly unrecognized – Keats was still in debt and unable to marry his sweetheart Fanny Brawne as a result.

One day, in early 1820, he coughed up blood.

He realized immediately that he must have consumption. After struggling with mounting symptoms over the following months, Keats agreed to relocate to Rome in the hope that its warmer climate would improve his condition. His friends paid for his passage, with painter Joseph Severn accompanying him. He would never return to England.

I know the colour of that blood! It is arterial blood. I cannot be deceived in that colour. That drop of blood is my death warrant.

Keats to his friend Charles Brown, upon coughing up blood in early 1820

Keats was fairly well-connected, having met and formed friendships with Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, William Wordsworth (my thoughts on him here), Leigh Hunt, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and others. Despite the pedigree of many of his peers, however, it was difficult for Keats to establish footholds beyond his circle – he was middle-class, a would-be surgeon without noble birth. His background was fodder for snobbish critics such as Blackwood’s Magazine, who wrote that he was not well-educated enough to be a proper poet or write about classical subject matter. These reviews vexed Keats, putting a pressure on his work (alongside the need to earn a living) that aristocratic poets simply didn’t face.

By the time Keats arrived in Rome in November 1820, it may have been too late. In his final days before succumbing to his illness the following February, he requested that his tombstone bear the following inscription in place of his name: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” Keats thought he’d made no mark on the world. He didn’t know his poems would be considered among the best in the English language. He died at the same age as I am now – it’s humbling to think of all he accomplished in his short life.

Keats’ gravestone in the Cimitero Acattolico di Roma (the Protestant cemetery). Photo: Giovanni Dall’orto

And now we’re commemorating the bicentenary of his death. Not just a century later – two centuries later. I’ve always felt it’s important to mark these anniversaries. It makes us reflect on the lives of those before us. And this really is the perfect time to understand Keats’ circumstances. He contracted a widespread disease which ended his life far too soon, robbing him of the opportunity to write more, to enjoy critical acclaim, and to find happiness.

His tragedy resonates during our current pandemic. Lives are being lost in a similar fashion. Keats’ ship was even quarantined before he could disembark in Italy – his letters to Charles Brown during quarantine describe a restlessness that is all too relatable today.

I cannot answer anything in your letter, which followed me from Naples to Rome, because I am afraid to look it over again. I am so weak (in mind) that I cannot bear the sight of any handwriting of a friend I love so much as I do you. Yet I ride the little horse, and at my worst even in quarantine, summoned up more puns, in a sort of desperation, in one week than in any year of my life.

Excerpt from Keats’ final letter to Charles Brown (30th November 1820), in which he describes his restlessness in quarantine

We don’t necessarily need to relate to Keats to empathize with his hardships. But it certainly helps.

Portrait of Keats in Hampstead c. 1821-1823. Painted from memory by Joseph Severn, who was with him at his death in Rome. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A prolific Romantic poet, Keats captures the timelessness of nature, emotion, and beauty. His abstract explorations and emphasis on sensory stimulation transcend any one time or place. From exaltation to lamentation, Keats felt deeply. Those who knew him remarked on his distinctive intensity; and the sensitive among us can take solace in his musings. His writing exemplifies the great care and consideration with which he engaged with his surroundings, documenting his understanding of the world; validating the complexity of our own emotions.

Keats’ works were published and circulated during his lifetime, but he received as many negative reviews as he did positive ones, if not more. It was only posthumously, during the 19th century that his works gradually became more well-known and highly venerated by Victorians (Tennyson chief among them). Today, people love Keats’ poems – and they’re attracted to the story of the emotional young poet whose tragic end came too soon. It goes to show how we can form strong personal attachments to an artist – a collective appreciation that continues to grow over two centuries.

Keats may have thought his name was writ in water – easily washed away and forgotten – but the joy he brings, the sense of feeling he encapsulates in his works – outlive any concept of self-perceived failure. Loved in life by his friends and family, in death Keats has achieved mythical status. I wish I knew how Keats would feel if he learned how successful his work is now, but one thing is for sure – some things will always move us.

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

John Keats, “Endymion” (1818), lines 1-5
You can read more about Keats and the significance of his life and death masks here.

The Secret Life of Vivian Maier

Vivian Maier’s photography was discovered after her death, raising questions about who the elusive artist was and what drove her work. Yet continued interest in her work and private life raise further questions about artistry and privacy.

By Adriana Wiszniewska

Who is Vivian Maier? That’s one of the main questions posed by the documentary Finding Vivian Maier. These days, Vivian Maier is recognized as one of the great American street photographers of the twentieth century. But prior to her death in 2009, she was completely unknown to the world at large and her life remains something of a mystery.

Self-portrait of Vivian Maier. Photo: Maloof Collection.

After discovering a cache of photo negatives at an auction in Chicago in 2007, amateur historian and collector John Maloof realized he had unwittingly purchased the unpublished work of a brilliant street photographer, with thousands of beautiful photos taken in the streets of Chicago and New York in the ’50s and ’60s. Maloof eventually published the negatives he’d acquired to Flickr and through the power of the Internet, Maier’s work went viral. It’s now shown in art galleries worldwide.

New York, NY. Photo: Maloof Collection.

Maier took over 150,000 photos in her lifetime but spent the majority of her life—about forty years, to be exact—working as a nanny in the Chicago area, her talent and artistry hidden away along with boxes and boxes of unprinted negatives.

The story of a nanny who secretly took thousands of breathtaking photos was so compelling that it drove Maloof to obsession in trying to pin down the woman behind the camera, which he documents in his film. What emerges through interviews with the now-grown children Maier once nannied is a portrait of an artist who was strange, elusive, cruel, secretive, difficult, cold, radical, caring, brilliant. In short, complicated. Like all human beings are.   

1959, Grenoble, France. Photo: Maloof Collection.

What also emerges are enduring questions about the nature of art and artistry, of discovery and privacy and consent. Maloof, of course, has profited greatly from his discovery and subsequent exhibition of Maier’s photographs—something Maier herself, who was practically destitute before her death, could obviously have benefitted from. But, as people who knew her are quick to point out, she was intensely private and likely would have hated the attention that comes with fame and recognition.

Then again, she’s no longer around to have a say in the matter, so is there really any harm in making her work and her life known?

The work is one thing. It’s as brilliant as everyone says. Maier was prolific and genuinely talented. A true artist with a keen eye, who was never without her camera and who had a knack for capturing humanity in all its beauty, absurdity, warmth, and ugliness.

September 1953. New York, NY. Photo: Maloof Collection.

Her life, and the speculation about it, is another. What right have we to know the ins and outs of this very private person’s life? It has little bearing on the mark of her work. Maloof wants to get to the bottom of the mystery of Vivian Maier. Why did she take so many photographs? Why did she never publish them? Why did she hoard newspapers and take particular interest in grisly stories of murder and depravity? Why did she remain “just” a nanny throughout her life? These are questions that can never be fully answered. And probably they shouldn’t be. A lot of them make assumptions about who and what a woman, and a woman artist in particular, should be.

The question that persists, which Maloof asks again and again in the film, is: why didn’t Maier put her work out there? It’s a good question, one that begs to be answered. Why wouldn’t an artist want the fame and fortune that we tend to think all artists are entitled to?

The answer is, we’ll never know. What Maier wanted and intended to do with her own art is something no one can answer. Why she chose to hoard her countless rolls of film will remain a mystery. But that’s as it should be. We’re not supposed to have all the answers.

April 7, 1960. Florida. Photo: Maloof Collection.

Diane Arbus once said that “a photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.” And the more we learn about Vivian Maier, the less we seem to know about her. But she was a person, not an object to be unraveled, poked and prodded, sensationalized.

While I’m grateful that Maier’s work was made public, because I wouldn’t have been exposed to her stunning photography otherwise, I also believe that art doesn’t have to be commercialized or publicized in order to be great art.

Think of all the kitchen sink poets and hobbyist painters and bedroom guitar heroes and secret photographers out there, quietly making art for themselves. Art isn’t a rarefied domain, closed off to those who can’t afford to make it—or at least, it shouldn’t be. Art is how we make sense of our own experience and the world around us. It’s for everyone and it’s being made by everyone, each in their own way, as we speak. Art is not a privilege. It’s a human necessity.

It’s a good thing that Vivian Maier is finally getting the recognition she rightly deserves, even in death. God knows strange, difficult women rarely get the same appreciation afforded to their male counterparts. Still, people will always love to speculate about the private lives of public figures. But ultimately it’s the work that matters most. Regardless of who she was and what she did, Vivian Maier’s photos will continue to speak for themselves.

January, 1953. New York, NY. Photo: Maloof Collection.

 

Black Lives Matter in the Arts and Humanities too.

The Mindful Rambler blog shares BIPOC-focused arts content and commits to more inclusive discussions regarding the arts and humanities.

2020 continues to demonstrate that it’s a time of great change. Over the past weeks, we’ve witnessed and taken part in the Black Lives Matter movement as it’s unfolded – and we’ve been listening, learning, and reflecting with specific regard to our work as a blog that highlights history, literature, art, and biography.

The truth is, the majority of storytellers and creatives celebrated in the mainstream media are white. We must do more to include diverse perspectives in literature and art beyond just the western canon and “mainstream” history, and talk more about issues in society today – because the humanities don’t exist in a vacuum. Our studies are influenced by the world around us, including the world’s inequalities. In our previous blog posts, we’ve analyzed culture and race – albeit mainly focusing on Indigenous cultural heritage in Canada. We’ve also run posts featuring prominent LGBTQ2S+ individuals, and will continue to do so. However, we haven’t really touched upon anti-Blackness that is present across the disciplines we discuss. It is 2020 and yet the experiences of racialized communities continue to be dismissed and disregarded; queer identities continue to be questioned and invalidated. We cannot overlook the imbalances of power which allow racism, homophobia, sexism, and discrimination to thrive.

Mickalene Thomas, “Portrait of Mnonja” (2010) at the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture (Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery). Photo: Adam Fagen

Together as a team, we’ve assembled some articles and social media amplifying the voices and stories of BIPOC creatives, sharing content which discusses race through the contemporary lens of today’s vantage point, as well as content reviewing historical sensibilities and their implications. This article is not intended as a one-time contribution to the ongoing discussion, but rather as a commitment to more inclusive storytelling on this blog moving forward – laying the groundwork of what we’re learning from this movement and applying it. We’d love to hear from you if you know of any resources we could add to this list – the learning process continues every day.

Some content about BIPOC cultural heritage & creative industries

Forgotten Black British Histories | “There is an oversimplification of Black British history”
Akinola Davies

Why I made the series “Black to Life” | “This is British history and not just Black British history”
Akinola Davies

12 Black Scholars on the Black Lives Matter Movement and Canada | “Black scholars in Canada have engaged with public audiences to help contextualize how racism is very much a Canadian problem”
Active History

British Rapper Dave performing “Black” at the BRIT Awards 2020 | “The least racist is still racist”
Dave

A guide to supporting Black trans artists in Philly and beyond | “Black Trans Lives Matter, too, and it’s important that we elevate and listen to those voices”
Kyle V. Hiller

Open Letter to Hollywood from WGAW Committee of Black Writers | “Black writers have been critically underrepresented … at the expense of consistently authentic and diverse storytelling”
Michelle Amor, Hilliard Guess, Bianca Sams, Writers’ Guild of America West

The Skin I’m In | “I’ve been interrogated by police more than 50 times—all because I’m black”
Desmond Cole

Watch Documentary: The Skin We’re In | “Do Black lives matter here [in Canada]?”
Desmond Cole

Why I Teach About Race and Ethnicity in the Classical World | “People are more comfortable with antiquity being racist (and sexist and classist) than they are with it being diverse”
Rebecca Futo Kennedy, Eidolon

Hell is for White People | “A painting from 1515 turns a mirror on its viewers
Alexander Nagel, Cabinet Magazine

Money Talks: About Racism in Canada | “These faces found in our wallets … had a direct hand in harming Canadian citizens who did not fit their ideal image”
Ryan Pilling

Powerful Photos of Black Women in White European Nobility Gowns | Interview
Fabiola Jean-Louis, interviewed by Jessica Stewart

Why It’s So Important that Juneteenth Become a National Holiday | “A national Juneteenth observance can affirm that Black Lives Matter”
Usher

Black authors are on all the bestseller lists right now. But publishing doesn’t pay them enough.
Constance Grady

Kehinde Wiley’s Trickster | Vivid portraits of artists – in pictures
Kehinde Wiley, featured by Guardian staff

Kendrick Sampson, Tessa Thompson and Over 300 Black Artists & Execs Call for Hollywood to Divest From Police | “Hollywood encourages the epidemic of police violence and culture of anti-Blackness”
Kendrick Sampson

Some BIPOC creatives to check out on Instagram

This list is by no means exhaustive, but here are a few BIPOC creatives whose accounts we follow. Please let us know in the comments about more creatives whose accounts we should follow!

reenactorsofcolor | “Acknowledging & celebrating people of color who participate in living history & their historical inspiration.”

dandywellington | “Bandleader #DandyWellingtonBand, producer, style activist. #VintageStyleNOTVintageValues

notyourmommashistory | “Public Historian, Performance Artist, Historical Interpreter, Activist and Abolitionist”

vintageblackcanada | “A Multidisciplinary Creative Initiative Documenting the Transnational Modern History of the African Diaspora in Canada. © Curator @mraaronfrancis

georgian_diaspora | Museum of historic images of multi-ethnic peoples. #history #arthistory #diaspora #fashionhistory #curator

youngsewphisticate | “Seamstress, Weaver & Living Historian”

fabiolajeanlouis | “Haitian Born | New York based | Photographer | Paper Artist | Designer | Interdisciplinary Maker”

jeremydutcher | Musician

blairimani | “Black & bisexual & Muslim. Cohost of @AmericaDidWhat w/ @katerobards | Historian & Author of #MakingourWayHome & @modernherstory. She/Her.”

time.travel.is.possible | “Living History Interpreter | Sharing my love and passion for living history one post at a time”

wearefempire | “Championing female CEOs of minority ethnicities. Helping #DIYentrepreneurs & creatives to scale | Workshops, PanelTalks & The Fempire Sisterhood.”

wu_tsang | Artist

magthehistorian | “Public Historian, Historical Interpreter, Activist, World traveler (He, Him, His) #worldtraveler #livinghistorian #blackhistorian”

shoesfirstthencorset | Glynnis

chippewar | “Jay Soule aka CHIPPEWAR
Chippewas Of The Thames First Nation | Art, Apparel, Indigenize

tiger.lilys.threads | Entrepreneur

mickalenethomas | Artist | Photographer | Filmmaker | Curator | Co-Founder @deuxfemmesnoires

kehindewiley | Artist

scificheergirl | “Hobby costumer, wife, and mom with a dancey-dance problem | Costume Prodigy | Orko #motu2020crew”

labelladonnahistory | “Sociologist. Biologist. Traveler. Thinker. Dreamer. SCA Laurel. #Rievocazione Storica (14th / 15th C living history of Italian city-states).”

thevintageguidebook | “Ayana | Writer & vintage/historical fashion enthusiast | Midcentury & pre-WWII | sewing | books | makeup #vintagestylenotvintagevalues”

broadwayblack | “A theatre enthusiast who fosters artistic diversity & excellence for the love of Black theatre artists. Folk call me Drew Shade! #broadwayblack

museummammy | “author, art lover, and fashion person | currently learning ASL | my book “this is what i know about art” is out now & my book “black futures” is out soon”

blkemilydickinson | “Cree Myles | She/her | I read and start shit”

tawnychatmon | “Photography based artist. Please see links in my profile to stay involved”

“How Soft This Prison Is”: Reading Emily Dickinson in Quarantine

As we spend our days in isolation and uncertainty, we thought it fitting to revisit the poems of Emily Dickinson, who led a singular and solitary life, reminding us of the importance of maintaining a rich inner world.

By Adriana Wiszniewska

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) spent the majority of her life in and around her father’s homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she lived and died in relative seclusion. She never married, rarely travelled, and most of her interactions with people occurred through letters and other correspondence. By the final years of her life, she barely even left her bedroom.

If that sounds familiar to you, you’re not alone. Nowadays, while a pandemic sweeps the globe, most of us spend our days confined to our bedrooms or our living rooms, only interacting with those we care about from a distance. Technology helps, to be sure. But there’s no doubt that a lot of us are feeling isolated and anxious during this uncertain time. Who better to turn to for some solace than Emily Dickinson?

Maureen N. McLane calls Dickinson “a homegrown poet of terror, abjection, and difficulty.” Dickinson often wrote about death and the nature of consciousness, the negation of self and the discomfort of being a body in the world.

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Big mood. Hailee Steinfeld as Emily Dickinson in Apple TV+’s Dickinson, which puts a modern spin on the poet’s life and work. Photo: Giphy

She was no stranger to solitude. In a letter to her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert, Dickinson wrote: “I would paint a portrait which would bring the tears, had I a canvass for it, and the scene should be—solitude, and the figures—solitude—and the lights and shades each a solitude. I could fill a chamber with landscapes so lone, men should pause and weep there; then haste grateful home, for a loved one left.”

There’s a lot of debate about why Dickinson self-isolated, whether it was by choice or whether she was forced into seclusion due to illness of some kind (mental or otherwise). But I like what poet Adrienne Rich supposes: “I have a notion that genius knows itself; that Dickinson chose her seclusion, knowing she was exceptional and knowing what she needed. It was, moreover, no hermetic retreat, but a seclusion which included a wide range of people, of reading and correspondence.”

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Portrait of Emily Dickinson. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Dickinson chose seclusion because that’s what she needed in order to write the astonishing 1,789 poems she left behind.

And what her poems reveal is a sharp-witted, fierce, intelligent woman, who reinvented poetic form and carved her own path in life to the bewilderment of those around her. In short, her poems reveal the vastness of a rich inner life, something we could all work to cultivate during this time. When your external world is limited to a small town, or as is the case for many of us now, to house and home, then our inner worlds become our most important dwelling places. Per Dickinson:

The Brain – is wider than the Sky –
For – put them side by side –
The one the other will contain
With ease – and You – beside –

(632)

The mind, to paraphrase Milton, is its own place and can contain the whole sky or sea or anything besides, including you and me and everyone we know. Its capacity for imagination and wonder and expansive thought is unfathomable. More than this, our minds give us the ability to read and think and empathize with others, allowing for the expansion of our inner world.

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul –

(1263)

Poetry is exceptional in its capacity to transport us. Through her imagination and her poetry, Dickinson could traverse any distance. By returning to her poems, and following her example—her keen observation of the beautiful details of her immediate world and her willingness to look within herself for substance and meaning—we might make the distance we all feel right now a little more bearable. After all,

Distance – is not the Realm of Fox
Nor by Relay of Bird
Abated – Distance is
Until thyself, Beloved.

(1155)

Here, Dickinson tells us that distance is not about physical space, the lengths a fox or a bird can travel. But the final line is tricky to decipher. Dickinson delights in ambiguity (“Tell all the truth but tell it slant”), taking her readers to a place where meaning loses stable footing. “Distance is / Until thyself, Beloved” could mean that distance is nothing more than the space between the speaker and their beloved. But “thyself” could also be an address to the reader or to the speaker herself, suggesting that physical distance pales in comparison to metaphysical distance, the distance that we feel within. Knowledge of self, having an inner life as sharp and imaginative as Dickinson’s, is how we really overcome distance. And we will overcome this distance.

Dickinson sums it up best in one of my favourite poems:

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“I dwell in Possibility” manuscript. Photo: Emily Dickinson Archive

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

(657)

Although we remain confined to our houses, Emily Dickinson shows us one way, at least, that we might use this time to dwell not in the physical isolation we feel, but in the inherent possibility of our own minds.

For more on how poetry can be a balm in times of solitude, check out Serena Ypelaar on Wordsworth and the transportive power of nature.

“We Cannot Speak Other Than By Our Paintings”

Vincent van Gogh is one of the most renowned painters in the world. In a stunning visual undertaking, Loving Vincent pays tribute to the artist by reinterpreting his paintings in the world’s first painted feature-length film.

By Serena Ypelaar

Moviegoers often remember visually stunning films for years to come. Beautiful cinematography, outstanding production, and vivid imagery stays with us – that much is certainly true with the biopic Loving Vincent (2017), a feature-length film about Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh.

A still of Vincent van Gogh as depicted in Loving Vincent (2017). Photo: Medium

Starring Douglas Booth, Saoirse Ronan, Chris O’Dowd, Helen McCrory, Eleanor Tomlinson, Jerome Flynn, Aidan Turner, and Robert Gulaczyk, Loving Vincent is a Polish-British co-production exploring the end of Van Gogh’s life. Though the film’s pacing is somewhat drawn-out at times and the plot is speculative, it stands out for one reason: it was entirely hand-painted in the style of Van Gogh.

Vincent van Gogh, “Wheat Fields at Auvers Under Clouded Sky” (1890). Image: Wikiart

Loving Vincent is the first feature-length painting animation film in the world. 94 of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings were reimagined for the film, along with new visuals. Dorota Kobiela, the film’s co-director alongside Hugh Welchman, launched the project after reading Van Gogh’s letters. She felt a profound desire to tell his story by capturing his art and its subject matter from a biographical perspective. Kobiela thought it was only right that the film should be painted. Despite pitching a seven-minute short film in 2008 and having been told it would be impossible to pursue a feature-length film, Kobiela started a successful crowdfunding campaign and set to work.

You may wonder how paintings can integrate seamlessly as a film. Surely they were supplemented with computer-generated imagery (CGI)? The answer is no – the actors performed their roles and CGI was only used to supplement the visuals captured on film, as well as to add the movement of the backgrounds. However, none of that footage was really used in the final cut of the film, which was entirely comprised of paintings. Every single frame was its own painting, with 12 frames per second. That’s 66,960 frames – which means just as many individual paintings were created by hand.

From left: Eleanor Tomlinson during the live-action filming phase; Van Gogh’s “Portrait of Adeline Ravoux (1890); the final keyframe for “Loving Vincent”. Photo: Loving Vincent
Vincent van Gogh, “Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin” (1888). Image: Wikiart

Production took place largely in Gdańsk, Poland, with 80 highly skilled painters recruited from worldwide to paint each frame of the film. These paintings interpret the story of Van Gogh, diverting us from details we’ll never know for sure and redirecting our attention to the essence of his visual art. The delivery of this film is what captivates us – its sense of movement brings Van Gogh’s work to life. Some of the famous paintings used in the film had to be extended or reimagined; Van Gogh used many different sizes of canvas for his works, whereas the film had to be one frame size. Producers also changed some colour palettes of well-known paintings on a seasonal basis, as Loving Vincent takes place in summer.

For the sake of authenticity, actors who closely resembled Van Gogh’s portrait sitters were cast – though their questionable accents and pronunciation slightly hamper the film’s impact. There are no French accents to be heard, though the film is set in France, and Van Gogh does not sound Dutch – the actors also anglicize the pronunciation of Van Gogh’s brother Theo’s name (which would be “Tay-OH” in Dutch). If these slight details were presented more accurately, the film could be even more absorbing; it’s definitely a tad distracting to hear the dissonant accents. Nevertheless, the true marvel lies in the visual spectacle.

Chris O’Dowd as Postman Roulin in “Loving Vincent” (2017). Each frame of the film required an individual painting. Image: Loving Vincent

How might Van Gogh feel if he saw this film? Would he be flattered, touched, or feel it invasive? Some may question the artists’ approach of directly imitating Van Gogh’s style, from his signature brushstrokes to the colours that grew more vivid over his career. In fact, there is a long-standing tradition whereby painters engage in artistic “schools” of thought or technique. You may have seen portraits “in the style of” Hans Holbein the Younger, for instance, or heard of numerous students of Rembrandt van Rijn. Even today, artists often have a team of painters who do some of the work when creating large-scale paintings. With this in mind, it might therefore be an oversimplification to call Loving Vincent‘s paintings plagiarism rather than an act of reinterpretation.

Vincent van Gogh, “The Night Café” (1888). Image: Wikipedia

Whatever your opinion on a brigade of artists painting literal thousands of Van Gogh-esque paintings – whether you think they’re a form of uncanny talent, plagiarism, or a bit of both – the production team working on this biopic took the ultimate risk, both financially and creatively. Loving Vincent could have been a flop; it could have been poorly executed (some may think it is). But I feel it’s a gorgeous treat for the eyes, one that pays tribute to Vincent van Gogh the best way it knows how: by bringing his paintings to life.

As Vincent himself said in his penultimate letter to his brother Theo (which was found on Van Gogh’s body after his death): “We cannot speak other than by our paintings”. If anyone lived up to that edict, it was certainly Van Gogh. He constructed the most beautiful scenes for us, telling stories in landscapes and portraits we still love over a century later – all through his paintings.

Worthy of His Words: Wordsworth 250

It’s the 250th anniversary of Romantic poet William Wordsworth’s birth, and his love for nature continues to resonate with contemporary audiences.

By Serena Ypelaar

When I learned that April 7th was the 250th birthday of Romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850), I knew we had to tribute his legacy in some way. And what’s the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Wordsworth’s poems?

That’s right: nature.

As we isolate ourselves these days, it’s easy to feel lonely. But it seems that many of us have turned to nature as our saving grace. Nature is known to boost mental health and well-being – and now, when we’re unable to go to public places, a solo walk outdoors can do us a world of good.

William Wordsworth and his fellow Romantic poets John Keats, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and Robert Southey professed a profound regard for nature. So what better time to celebrate one of the most famous English writers of all time (and a personal favourite) than now, as we rely on nature to preserve our sanity? The timing of the #Wordsworth250 commemoration may seem unfortunate, but it’s also rather apt. Though events scheduled in the Lake District and northwestern England for the year-long celebration have been cancelled or moved online due to the COVID-19 crisis, that doesn’t mean we can’t still enjoy the works of England’s former Poet Laureate.

The Lake District, the region where Wordsworth was born and later lived. Photo: Robert J. Heath

Nature’s offerings are bountiful: fresh air, tranquil scenery, ambient sounds and smells. It’s no wonder humans worship nature, in a sense. In remembering Wordsworth, we can appreciate how eloquently he conveys his love of nature, to which I’m sure many of us can relate. The sense of connection we derive from our shared love of nature provides us with some common ground, as the human experience is an integral element of Romantic poetry.

Interestingly enough, Wordsworth wrote much of his most famous work, The Prelude (1799), during a time of intense stress and loneliness while living in Germany. It was intended as part of a larger work titled The Recluse, which was never finished. I think the theme of isolation throughout Wordsworth’s poetry holds some relevance to our current situation, a consoling thought for anyone reading poems alone in their room (ahem, me).

Wordsworth is well-known for his ability to take readers through countryside rambles, using sensory imagery and lines heaving with emotion. His descriptions are vivid but also abstract, allowing us to travel to a site ourselves. Wordsworth’s Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey (1798) does just that. Upon reading, we’re transported to the landscape above the Abbey, taking in the lush scenery and sublime beauty of nature through the experience of the speaker.

Richard Carruthers’ 1818 portrait of William Wordsworth. Collection of The Wordsworth Trust. Photo: Art UK

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world

William Wordsworth, “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” (1798), from lines 93-105

Wordsworth lets us witness the scene (and the speaker’s relationship with it) as if we were there too. How does he do this? Through senses and the imagination. Wordsworth saw imagination as a spiritual force. Famous for invoking the power of the sublime – whereby words incite thoughts and emotions beyond the ordinary – Wordsworth confronts the metaphysical, exploring concepts of time, space, knowing, and being. It can therefore reassure us to escape into nature through his words on the page. So even when we can’t walk through the countryside, we can see, smell, and hear it so convincingly as if we are there – through imagination.

William Havell’s painting “Tintern Abbey in a bend of the Wye” (1804). Wordsworth would have walked here a few years earlier when writing his 1798 poem “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey”. Photo: Wikimedia

Why do we love interacting with nature so much, anyway? Here we’re shown how rejuvenated Wordsworth’s speaker feels to be out of doors observing the ruins of Tintern Abbey:

These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din,
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration: feelings too

Wordsworth, lines 22-30

Nature awakens our senses through sights, sounds, smells, and even touch – sitting in the grass, or feeling the wind lift your hair. Wordsworth was a master at evoking these sensations in his poetry, which is why he’s lauded as one of the most iconic British poets of all time – we really do feel his experiences as if they could be our own. In the year of Wordsworth’s 250th birthday, the pull of our individual relationships with nature still holds weight with readers worldwide.

I’m an ardent fan of Romantic poetry at the best of times (if you couldn’t already tell). But despite the slant of my own opinion, if you’re feeling cooped up, I encourage you to check out Wordsworth’s poems and marvel at the splendour of nature. Perhaps his works will inspire you to take a solitary walk outdoors, or maybe you’ll go there from the comfort of your living room – but either way, you might just feel transported for a while.

After all, there’s nothing quite like a change of scenery to refresh your mind and soul. In remembering Wordsworth, we can do just that.

Thy memory be as a dwelling-place
For all sweet sounds and harmonies; oh! then,
If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief,
Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts
Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,
And these my exhortations!

Wordsworth, from lines 134-146
You can read some of Wordsworth’s poetry here, here, and here.
The Prelude (1799)
Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey (1798)
For more on isolation, poetry, and the power of the mind to take us elsewhere, check out Adriana Wiszniewska on Emily Dickinson’s solitary lifestyle and its impact on her work.

A Yorkshire Lady of Renown: Celebrating Anne Lister

Anne Lister’s lesbian relationships remained hidden for nearly 150 years after her death, but today the secrets of her life are openly embraced by contemporary audiences.

By Sadie MacDonald

We often describe certain historical figures as being “ahead of their time.” For those whose secrets survive to be acknowledged by modern scholarship, celebrating them can provide a second chance at validation and acceptance. This certainly is the case with Anne Lister.

Lister was born in 1791 to the landowning family of Shibden Hall in Halifax, England. Known as an eccentric figure during her lifetime, today Lister is called “the first modern lesbian.” Throughout her life she had relationships exclusively with women such as Mariana Lawton, Isabella Norcliffe, and Ann Walker. Lister considered herself married to Walker after they took communion together during mass.

This knowledge about Lister almost remained completely obscure.

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Portrait of Anne Lister by Joshua Horner, ca. 1830. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Throughout her adulthood, Lister kept a diary, portions of which were written in a code devised by Lister herself. Nearly sixty years after her death, her relative John Lister cracked the code with the assistance of Arthur Burrell. As Helena Whitbread writes, “What they found was, to them, so disturbing that Burrell thought they ought to burn the journals immediately.” John Lister hid the diaries behind a panel in Shibden Hall, which fell into the hands of the city of Halifax after his death in 1933. Few researchers read the journals over the next several decades, and those who did concealed what the writing revealed about Anne Lister’s sexuality. We can thank scholar Helena Whitbread for making the full extent of the diaries’ lesbian content widely known to the public in 1988.

It’s fortunate that the diaries survived. Through her journals, readers can understand Lister on a deeper level of intimacy. Lister wrote about her relationships with women such as Mariana Lawton, and described how she altered her clothes to be more masculine. Many historians hesitate to ascribe LGBTQ2S identities to historical figures. There is no such debate when it comes to Anne Lister, as her writing is explicitly clear that she had romantic, sexual relationships with women.

For example, Anne frequently writes of sharing a “kiss” with various women. She ascribes sexual meaning to this term, as she once wrote about how she had “A kiss of Tib [Isabella Norcliffe], both last night & this morning… but she cannot give me much pleasure… my heart is M––’s [Mariana Lawton] & I can only feel real pleasure with her.”

Passages such as these, which prove that Lister’s relationships with women were romantic and sexual, were written in code. Lister was aware that she was unusual for her time, and understood that aspects of herself must remain hidden.

Lister’s life certainly is not hidden now. Folk duo O’Hooley & Tidow released a song about her in 2012, and in 2019 the television series Gentleman Jack premiered on HBO. Created by Sally Wainwright and starring Suranne Jones, it focuses on Lister’s life in the 1830s and her relationship with Ann Walker. Check it out if you’re in need of a binge watch these days!

The series makes frequent use of fourth wall breaks, an unusual device to see in a period drama. Anne Lister addresses the audience directly and explains her thoughts, often quoting passages from her diary. She also glances at the audience knowingly in scenes where she is making progress in her relationship with Ann Walker. We as viewers are in on the joke, and her secrets.

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Anne knows we know what’s going on. Photo: thought-i-to-myself.tumblr.com

It’s impossible to know whether Lister would have approved of her inner life being exposed in this way. She wrote in code for a reason, and in Gentleman Jack her words are openly directed at an audience. I like to think of it as though the viewers themselves are acting as her diary. For contemporary audiences, there is no need to hide the truth of Anne Lister’s life anymore.

As Sappho, another historical lesbian, once said, “Someone will remember us I say, even in another time.” Gentleman Jack shows that Anne Lister can finally exist in a time where her true self can be embraced.

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A blue plaque with a rainbow border commemorating Anne Lister. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The Longest and Most Charming Love Letter in Literature

A love letter can be one of the most intimate ways to express love and affection to another. Thankfully for us, some of the greatest writers in English literature also wrote beautiful letters, which often take on new life after the deaths of their writers and recipients.

By Adriana Wiszniewska

In 1928, Virginia Woolf published Orlando, a novel about a poet who lives for centuries and changes from man to woman. The book was inspired by Vita Sackville-West, with whom Virginia had a decades-long romance and later friendship. Sackville-West’s son, Nigel Nicolson, famously described Orlando as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.” The book is really an ode to Vita in all her complexities and contradictions and a testament to the power of language and story to express the most complicated human experiences. Fitting, too, that Nicolson likened Orlando to a love letter, since Vita and Virginia wrote letters to one another from their first encounter in 1922 until Virginia’s death in 1941.

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Vita Sackville-West (left) and Virginia Woolf (right). Photo: Time

In the age of Internet dating, it’s easier than ever to stay connected, but convenience has in some ways come at the expense of creativity. Somewhere along the way, sliding into your crush’s DMs became the primary mode of expressing romantic interest. Love letters, by comparison, seem like a dying art form.

There’s something strangely fascinating about reading another person’s intimate letters, like peering behind a curtain you’re not supposed to. Letters, after all, are meant to be private. Yet, our inclination to uncover the private lives of public figures persists.

Writers like John Keats, Franz Kafka, Emily Dickinson, and Woolf, among many others, were all exceptional diarists and letter-writers as well as poets and novelists. It’s a curious thing to read the most intimate writings of our favourite writers—like realizing your professors are human beings who have entire lives outside of the academy. The letters of writers continue to be published posthumously not only because they make for interesting historical documents, but also because they offer insight into the remarkable and mundane inner lives of often exalted figures.

The love letter, in particular, reflects exactly what makes the medium of letters so special. Call me a hopeless romantic, but reading the most intimate expressions of love and desire between two people is kind of swoon-worthy. The power of reading these love letters comes from the medium itself, which is at once private and public, immediate and remote, intimate and mundane, fleeting and permanent.

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Vita and Virginia and dogs! Photo: Charleston

Vita and Virginia wrote letters to each other throughout the entirety of their complex and shifting relationship, and through those letters, we get a glimpse of just how much the two meant to each other, how much impact each left on the other’s life and art. Their letters to each other are a chronicle of human connection, captured across space and time.

In perhaps my favourite love letter of all time, Vita writes to Virginia:

I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia. I composed a beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night, and it has all gone: I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way. You, with all your undumb letters, would never write so elementary a phrase as that; perhaps you wouldn’t even feel it. And yet I believe you’ll be sensible of a little gap. But you’d clothe it in so exquisite a phrase that it should lose a little of its reality. Whereas with me it is quite stark: I miss you even more than I could have believed; and I was prepared to miss you a good deal. So this letter is really just a squeal of pain. It is incredible how essential to me you have become. I suppose you are accustomed to people saying these things. Damn you, spoilt creature; I shan’t make you love me any more by giving myself away like this — But oh my dear, I can’t be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that. Too truly. You have no idea how stand-offish I can be with people I don’t love. I have brought it to a fine art. But you have broken down my defenses. And I don’t really resent it.

January 1926

That’s the beauty of a letter: it’s there and then it’s gone. Here, Vita puts her feelings in the starkest of terms: simple, honest, vulnerable. But the “little gap” she talks about is present also in the form of the letter. There is always a gap in what we can know from these missives. We get only a glimpse but are unable to fully grasp all that remains unspoken and what happens between the acts. But that’s also what makes reading these letters such a unique experience: we’re only getting a part of the story. Some of it will be forever unavailable to us. And maybe that’s exactly as it should be.