Heavy Melodies: The Quiet Existence of Herman Bang

Born in Asserballe on the Danish island of Als on 20thApril 1857, Herman Bang came from a family with a long history of eccentricity, tales of which his paternal grandfather delighted in telling him. After graduating from the Sorø Academy, a boarding school that had once been a monastery and dated back to the twelfth century, in 1879, Bang made his literary début with the collection of essays, Realism and Realists. The volume’s positive reception saw its author drawn towards the Modern Breakthrough, a Scandinavian movement founded by the critic Georg Brandes in 1870, to promote naturalism – a theory influenced by Darwin and espousing the notion that environment and social situations had the most profound influence of all upon human behaviour. Therefore, even the most disturbing aspects of human existence were to be embraced.

Bang’s first collection of short stories, Heavy Melodies was published in 1880, followed by his first novel, Generations Without Hope. The book told the tale of William Hawk, the last surviving male descendent of an aristocratic family who becomes embroiled in a torrid love affair with the much older Countess Hatzfeldt. Generations of Hope was banned after its romantic descriptions resulted in it being classified as pornographic by an outraged Danish press. In July 1881, Bang was tried for obscenity and faced a hefty fine or fourteen days imprisonment; he chose the former.

Nevertheless, the scandal propelled him into the public eye and he moved to Copenhagen. Living in the Danish capital, he produced works such as At Home and Out (1881), Phaedra: Fragments Of a Life History (1883) and Eccentric Short Stories (1885). From 1885 to 1886, he lived in Prague, Vienna and Berlin with the German actor Max Eisfeld, who was also his lover, and wrote the novel Quiet Existences. Separating from Eisfeld, Bang returned to Denmark, where he penned several poems about their relationship, including Night and New Year, and completed the novels Stucco in 1887, Tina in 1889 and Two Tragedies in 1891. Continue reading

For The Friendless: Reverend Thomas Jackson And The Whitechapel Mission

In the East End of London, the Whitechapel Mission tirelessly provides the invaluable service that has been its purpose since its earliest incarnation as the Working Lads’ Institute and Home. With the aim of offering shelter, food and rehabilitation to young men who often had few options but petty crime, the Institute gave them an opportunity to prove themselves to be diligent and constructive members of society by encouraging them to aid the city’s most unfortunate dwellers. As a reward for their service, they would leave with glowing references and the full endorsement of the Institute.

The Working Lads’ Institute and Home was founded by the merchant and philanthropist, Henry Hill, in 1876, with the original premises at The Mount, Whitechapel Road. In 1885, the Institute was moved to a new building with an address at 285 Whitechapel Road, which even had a library, swimming baths and a gymnasium. Lads were also allowed to put on musical shows and plays, to which members of the public were invited to attend.

Several years later, the Institute would become associated with Jack the Ripper case when the inquests for the murders, of Polly Nichols and Annie Chapman were held there. Following the inquest into the murder of Frances Coles (not thought to be a Ripper victim) was conducted there in 1891, it was reported that the governor of the Institute was so annoyed by the large and noisy crowds who turned up to hear the gruesome details, that he ordered the coroner, Wynne Baxter, to find an alternative site. Continue reading

Dernière Chanson: Harry Fragson Et La Belle Époque

The toast of Edwardian London and Paris, as 1913 drew to a close, Harry Fragson looked forward to his continuing reign as the leading man of European music hall, his thrilling stage performances, wax cylinder song recordings and even a starring role in the 1912 film, Entente Cordiale having won him a legion of admirers on both sides of the Channel, including King Edward VII. But like the peace Europe had enjoyed for nearly half a century, Fragson’s life was foreshadowed by impending catastrophe.

Léon Philippe Pott was born in Soho, London, on 2nd July 1869, to a Belgian yeast merchant, Victor Pott, and his French wife, Leontine. Dashing his father’s hopes that he would follow him into the yeast business, from an early age Léon displayed an extraordinary ability for writing and performing songs, learning to play the piano in London before studying music in Antwerp. Coupled with brilliant comic timing and, as one friend described, ‘a mobile face’ and ‘a spiritual eye,’ the era’s immensely popular music halls beckoned as the most obvious outlet for Léon’s outstanding talent.

Yet Léon struggled to find fame and consequently changed his name to the more English sounding, Harry ‘Fragson,’ a play on the words ‘frog’s son,’ and a humorous nod to his continental roots. After performing at Le Chat Noir in Paris, Fragson’s career gained the boost it deserved after he met the revered café chantant entertainer, Paulus, who took the aspiring star under his wing. Discovering a particular gift for mimicry, Fragson learnt to imitate Paulus and other respected chanteurs, which brought him to the attention of French audiences. Adapting his act accordingly, whilst in England, Fragson  portrayed himself as the archetypal music hall comedian and became associated with pantomime, through his appearances in a 1905 performance of Cinderella in Drury Lane, Sinbad the following year, and Babes in the Wood in 1907. In France, however, he was known as a singer of sophisticated and romantic songs, with titles such as Amours Fragiles, Tendresses d’ Amant and Dernière Chanson. Written by Fragson in 1911, the Spanish artist, Pablo Picasso was so captivated by Dernière Chanson’s refrain, the he called one of his own works, Ma Jolie, in homage to it.

Above: A recording of Harry Fragson singing Dernière Chanson (1911)

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A Splendour Of Miscellaneous Spirits: Bloomsbury And Venice

From Shakespeare to Byron and Henry James, Venice has long been a muse for writers and artists alike. By the early twentieth century, Venice had become a highly popular tourist destination, and, as Evangeline Holland has pointed out in her guide to Edwardian England, the British upper and upper-middle classes, particularly those with artistic leanings, flocked there in their droves.

Above: A silent film about Venice (1920s) 

The Bloomsbury group were far from immune to the allure of Venice and drew similarities between the watery city and Cambridge, where St. John’s had its very own Bridge of Sighs and the punts glided over the river Cam as gondolas did through the narrow canals of Venice.

Virginia Woolf was to visit Venice on three occasions. The first one was with her family in 1904, shortly after the death of her father, Sir Leslie Stephen and her move to Gordon Square in Bloomsbury with her brother Thoby and sister Vanessa. Virginia had been quite overwhelmed by Venice, initially, writing to her friend Violet Dickinson in April 1904 that, ‘There was never such an amusing and beautiful place.’ However, the city was experiencing significant overcrowding; she began to find this oppressive, and, as Jane Dunn has claimed, Virginia started to feel as if she were a caged bird by the end of their trip. Thoby Stephen, however, (who would later contract typhoid and tragically die on another family holiday to Greece in 1906) was captivated by the aesthetic charms of Venice, writing to Clive Bell (whom Vanessa would eventually marry in 1907), ‘Until a man has been there he has no more right to speak of painting than a man who has read neither Sophocles or Shakespeare to criticize literature.’

Vanessa too found Venice to be a source of great artistic inspiration for her paintings, and it was there that she first encountered the work of Tintoretto, whose work she deeply admired, and who would remain one of her favourite painters. Indeed, it is not hard to see why the Bloomsbury artists, including Roger Fry and Duncan Grant, were so drawn to and frequently painted scenes of Venice, as for them, the city itself was a living and breathing work of art. The influence of Venetian culture can also be seen at Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex, where Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and David Garnett, along with Vanessa and Clive Bell’s sons, Julian and Quentin, moved to in 1916, and which remained Vanessa’s home for the rest of her life. The house’s interior is covered in artworks by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant and paintings and their rich colours reflect the murals and colourful displays found inside many traditional Venetian homes.  Continue reading