Wednesday, 23 December 2015

A pre-Christmas field trip to Wightwick Manor and Gardens

In preparation for our level 5 Scholarly Research Project module on the Gothic, the Pre-Raphaelites and visual culture, a group of Humanities students travelled north to beautiful Wightwick Manor and Gardens (National Trust) near Wolverhampton, shortly before the end of term. The house wore its Christmas decorations and was enchanting.

Photo courtesy of the National Trust

The Mander family bought the old manor house in 1887 and refurbished and extended it in the 'Old English' architectural style.  The Great Parlour with its wooden minstrels gallery restored medieval domestic aesthetics, and the stained glass windows, tiled inglenook fireplaces and Jacobean-style wooden carved furnishings add rich darkness to the interiors. Yet Wightwick Manor was from the first a high-tech house, lit and heated by electricity, and with all modern comforts. The house was also 'modern' in that it drew on William Morris's Arts and Crafts notion that houses should be useful and beautiful, and is a glorious example of Morris & Co.'s design as it was meant to be used.  Morris's textiles, wallpapers and carpets, William de Morgan tiles, and Leonard Shuffrey's plasterwork, such as the friezes in the Great Parlour and the Billiard Room, combine to create what Oscar Wilde called 'the House Beautiful', a total design environment. The house is also a gallery of nineteenth-century art, with paintings and drawings by Rossetti, G.F. Watts, Elizabeth Siddal, Ford Maddox Brown and, of course Edward C. Burne-Jones, whose Love Among the Ruins hangs like an altarpiece at the end of the Parlour.

Photo: Harriet Heathman.

Wightwick is a wonderful place to visit all year round, but it's especially magical during these quiet Advent weeks. We had the place largely to ourselves and were free to wander around the house and gardens. The superb docents and volunteers know absolutely everything about the house and family history, and we learned so much. But the visit was more than just a study trip; we spent a magical day among art, remembering the pleasures of escape. The low winter sunlight added to the intense beauty of the house and gardens.

Photos: Harriet Heathman

You can see more pictures at our Flickr gallery. Thanks to Harriet Heathman for most of these fantastic photos; and thanks to all the students who came on the trip and made it the success it was.  Merry Christmas.

Photo: H Weeks

Monday, 21 December 2015

Sabrina Siu is this year's first prize winner in our English Literature Essay Competition

The English Literature Essay Competition for students of sixth-form or FE schools and colleges attracted some very strong entries. However, we decided that Ms Sabrina Siu of Headington School, Oxford, should be awarded first prize for her essay on how fiction is more 'truthful' than history. Sabrina's thoughtful and elegantly-expressed essay draws on literary texts and historical events to argue that fiction explores the interstices of history, or rather, what history leaves out. Congratulations, Sabrina! We hope that your iPad will inspire you to composition and creativity in the coming year.

Here is the complete list of winners. The winning essay follows.

'I'm not interested in things that aren't true' (Philip Larkin). Is fiction more 'truthful' than history?

Sabrina Siu
Headington School, Oxon

To those who agree with Larkin and take more of an interest in history, in things that are ‘true’, that begs the question – what makes them so? Truth, as defined by Merriam-Webster, can be either ‘the state of being the case; fact’, or ‘a judgement, proposition or idea that is true or accepted as true’. When considering historical truth and validity, the latter definition seems more appropriate. Historians compile evidence – archaeological, written, oral – to recreate the historical event as closely as possible.   However, the evidence tends to become distorted because each historian has a different interpretation of said event, and other times there are gaps in our knowledge of the event that transpired due to lack of evidence, until it gets to the point where we have to ask ourselves – is historical evidence an accurate depiction of human history? Conversely, it can be argued that fiction’s portrayal of mankind has a much larger basis in truth than, indeed, the evidence collated by historians ever could. To demonstrate this, I will explore the fusion of fiction and history in Homer’s Iliad, the societal truths reflected in An Inspector Calls and Pride and Prejudice, and finally, the allegories in Harry Potter pertaining to humanity’s mistakes during the 20th century.

Our main source of information regarding the Mycenaean Period and the Trojan War comes from Homer. While it is true that certain elements in the Iliad, such as the involvement of the Olympian gods, are myth instead of reality, there is extensive archaeological evidence to support the historical accuracy of at least some things pertaining to the Mycenaean age. An example of this is the detailed description Homer gives about armour, such as in Book 9 when Achilles puts on the ‘beautiful greaves, fitted with silver anklets’ and slings the ‘sword of bronze with silver scabbard’ The excavations of Heinrich Schliemann at Troy and Mycenae in the 1870s-80s prove that these were indeed important cities during the Bronze Age, thus lending credence to the events of the Iliad. Indeed, Homer’s epic was recorded in a time when the vast majority of the population was illiterate, and histories were passed down through the generations orally, and so it comes as no surprise that the resulting product is most likely a mixture of fiction and fact, a poem meant to record Mycenaean history, but also to glorify heroes and convey Greek morals to the masses. For the historical truth of such ancient civilizations, then, fiction in the form of Homer’s Iliad is perhaps a more truthful representation of the Trojan War than what scattered evidence historians have struggled to piece together.
In fact, it is interesting to note just how much of fiction is derived from real events, and we see this reflection of truth clearly in J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls. Set in 1912, just before the outbreak of World War One, Mr. Birling scoffs at the idea of there being a war at the start of the play, stating his view that ‘The Germans don’t want war. Nobody wants war’. To the 1945 audience the play was first performed to, the words would have been incredibly ironic and brought the truth of the matter home, because by that point the world had been through two world wars and destruction on a global scale, and Mr. Birling’s ignorance would have stirred up bitterness and grief for the loved ones they had lost. Mr. Birling’s firmly capitalist views are J.B. Priestley’s criticism of the unjust social hierarchy in the society he lived in, and this is reflected in Birling saying ‘we can’t let these Bernard Shaws and H.G. Wellses do all the talking’. Shaw and Wells were both socialists, and saw the need for social change even before the outbreak of World War One. Writing in 1945, Priestley uses Birling’s words to satirize the ruling elite whose refusal to share power in part led to the Great War back in 1914, and afterwards the conservative middle-classes whose inability to govern effectively led to Adolf Hitler’s dictatorial rise to power and hence, the start of the Second World War in 1939. When considering the satiric portrayal of Birling and the historical context the play is set in, An Inspector Calls provides us with arguably much more insight into class distinctions in the 20th century than historians can.

Not all fiction, however, provides insight into historical truth, and it is easy to see why Larkin was so dismissive of anything less than concrete evidence. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is a prime example of historical negligence. Although it is set during the period of the Napoleonic Wars, the novel is surprisingly bare of any mention of the war effort, revolving instead around the social lives of middle to upper-class women in Regency England, with the militia hovering in the periphery, a barely-felt presence at such a time of conflict between the two countries. Indeed, the military officers in the novel – such as Wickham – are always seen engaging in social situations, and their primary narrative function is to be objects of desire for characters like Lydia and Kitty Bennet, without any mention as to why the regiment is stationed in Meryton for so much of the story, as such undermining the historical context of the novel. However, it would be unfair to say Pride and Prejudice doesn’t provide an accurate representation of Regency England, since Austen does convey her distaste of the class prejudice inherent in society through her satiric portrayal of the characters of Darcy, Collins, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Darcy’s pride in his aristocratic lineage, and prejudice towards the middle-classes, is made apparent in his first proposal to Elizabeth, when he lingers on the “inferiority” of her connections, and of how they are a “degradation” to him. Lady Catherine’s snobbish disdain of the lower classes is shown when she bemoans that “the shades of Pemberley” will be “polluted” if Elizabeth does end up marrying Darcy. Through her characterization of these arrogant characters, Austen satirizes the class-consciousness that permeated Regency England, thus proving how fiction reveals the truth even in a novel so lacking in historical fact.

The same can be said for contemporary literature, most notably, in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Voldemort is the power-hungry dictator who will stop at nothing in his pursuit of power and ruthless purging of Muggleborns from the wizarding world, and through his character, Rowling allegorizes Adolf Hitler’s reign of terror in Nazi Germany during the 1930s-40s. Much like Voldemort, Hitler sought racial purification, and to accomplish this he spearheaded the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Germany by blaming their defeat in the Great War on the Jews. The Death Eaters who help Voldemort capture and torture Muggles, then, are allegories to the Nazi Party’s Gestapo, or secret police. Both groups assist their respective autocrats in what they see as the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the state, indoctrinating the public and instilling in them, as Arthur Weasley puts it, “everyone’s worse fear … the very worst”. Similarly, the Second Wizarding War of 1995-98 offers a parallel to the Second World War, which occurred as a result of Hitler’s relentless persecution of the Jews, and other countries’ concern over Hitler’s indiscriminate conquering of territories such as Czechoslovakia. In the final three novels of the series, Rowling uses the purebloods’ discrimination of Muggleborns, and the deaths of beloved characters, to draw attention to the injustice and futility of both Hitler’s anti-Semitic movement and the Second World War, proving once again how historical truth is revealed through fiction.

To conclude, fiction reveals more of the truth than history ever could, because the unreliability of historical evidence after accounting for bias, and the fact that history was not properly documented for the first few millennia of human civilisation, deeply undermine the utility of historical fact in providing a truthful narrative of mankind’s history. Furthermore, the discrepancy between two sources pertaining to the same event often leaves modern contemporaries at a loss as to which version better depicts the truth. In this sense, therefore, it is only logical for us to turn to fiction to pick out the truth of our history, a truth which Homer, Priestley, Austen and Rowling have so beautifully woven into the fabric of their works.

The Iliad – Homer (Robert Fitzgerald translation, Oxford University Press 1998)
An Inspector Calls – J.B. Priestley (Heinemann Plays, Pearson United 1993)
Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen (Penguin Classics 2003)
The Harry Potter series – J.K. Rowling (Bloomsbury 1997)

Copyright Sabrina Siu 2015

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Join our field trip to beautiful Wightwick Manor and Gardens this Friday 11 December

We still have some spaces left on the coach to the beautiful Wightwick Manor and Gardens on Friday 11 December. Wightwick (National Trust) is a late-Victorian fantasy house full of pre-Raphaelite paintings and William Morris furnishings and textiles. The house will be decorated for Christmas (the minstrels' gallery decked with holly and mistletoe...) and it will look magical. This trip is a must for students working on nineteenth-century art, literature, history and culture; and for anyone interested in Pre-Raphaelite arts, William Morris's work, Arts and Crafts design, domestic architecture, English garden design, and neo-medievalism. Everyone is welcome. Start the Christmas season by treating yourself to a day away from Cheltenham. At £5, it’s a steal. Please book your place now through the Online Store:

Illustration: Edward Burne-Jones, Love Among the Ruins (1890s), Wightwick Manor; 'Bird' textile, Wm Morris, in the Great Parlour at Wightwick Manor.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Announcing the winners of the English Literature Essay Competition

We are proud to announce the winners of the English Literature Essay Competition for A level, AS level and Sixth-form students:

First Prize (an iPad):

Ms Sabrina Siu (Headington School)

Four runners up (a £20 Book Token):

Mr Matthew King (St Olaves Grammar School)
Ms Kimberly Kong (St Olaves Grammar School)
Ms Shakira Morar (Headington School)
Ms Megan Waites (Bourne Grammar School)

Congratulations to all our winners! And special thanks to everyone who composed and submitted an essay for the competition. We had some strong entries this year, and it was difficult to make the final decisions.

The winners will be notified by email, and the winning essay will be published here shortly.