Friday, April 12, 2013

The Luminist by David Rocklin: A Review:



Photography comprises the bright, tensile thread in the sweep of The Luminist, drawing tight a narrative that shifts between the prejudices and passions of Victorian England and those of colonial Ceylon. It binds the destinies of Catherine Colebrook, the proper wife of a fading diplomat, who rebels against every convention to chase the romance of science through her lens, and Eligius, an Indian teenager thrust into servitude after his father is killed demanding native rights.


The Luminist is a weave of legend and history, science and art, politics and domesticity that are symphonic themes in the main title, the story of an enduring and forbidden friendship. Catherine and Eligius must each struggle with internal forces that inspire them and societal pressures that command them. Rocklin’s is a bold landscape, against which an intimate drama is poignantly played out. Just in this way, our minds recall in every detail the photo snapped at the moment of pain, while all the lovely scenes seem to run together.

"The thing I do, she thought. May it tie a bit of light to we who come into the world already on the path to departing it. Just a bit of light so we can be seen a little while after we're gone. 

"Now," she said.

They coated the glass with sodium hyposulfite, then bathed it. She felt the burning sink through her skin, running into her blood like groundwater. 

Positioning the plate inside the warren, she lit more candles and  put a mirror next to the light, intensifying it. Julia's image came in a thin cumulus. Haze from the smoking candles came with her, wrapping her glassed face in a gray fog. Her eyes glistened with silver and steel.  Her image did not leave." (page 222)

My Thoughts
The Colebrook Family consists of wife, Catherine who is married to her husband Charles, their daughter Julia and twin sons. Within this subtext alone lies two parallel problems; the marriage of Charles and Catherine Colebrook is a tempestuous one mainly down to Catherine insisting upon choosing her own life path even though her husband is against it and cannot handle it. They are feeling the economic constraints of nineteenth century living. Catherine takes her twin boys, still quite young, one during infancy and one a toddler, and travels alone with them to meet her husband who is living with their teenage daughter, Julia. This is how we meet Catherine, who is not written to gain our sympathy, sometimes, most times, unlikeable, choosing her ‘obsession’ with this new medium called ‘photography’ and putting her own selfish needs first. Somehow, due to David Rocklin’s sublime writing style the reader does not give up on Catherine. We follow her throughout her life beginning in 1836 Ceylon and coming full circle in a house called ‘Dimbola’ on the Isle of Wight in 1902.

Yes, there are many clever and obvious parallels with the life of pioneer photographer Julia Margaret Cameron including place names as locations and even chapter titles i.e. ‘For Life, Dimbola, Pillars of Smoke, Canvases, Mother and Child’, should be familiar as photograph titles of Cameron’s own works. 

The Colebrooks have a second problem, their fifteen year old servant, Eligius harbors a secret crush on their daughter Julia which becomes escalated as rage when Julia is courted by an arrogant English artist. Everything changes and the plot deepens taking the reader to such heights you barely know who to trust, who is telling the truth, whose secret is more dangerous and perilous and what in heavens name is going to happen next! 

I especially loved and appreciated and hoped for an appearance by one of Julia Margaret Cameron’s (and Catherine’s) most notable and favorite friends, and my love, Lord Tennyson, Poet Laureate. 

"REALLY, CATHERINE, IT'S ENOUGH THAT I'M MADE TO sit stock still for these interminable hours, robed like a dirty monk. Must I stare at that photograph, of all the images I might behold? It's not appropriate and should be put away, out of proper sight."

Catherine smiled at the familiar lament. Lord Tennyson was far from the first to complain at the discomfort caused by the photograph  hanging on the cottage wall. Sin made permanent, he'd dubbed it upon seeing it for the first time, bringing his considerable poetic gifts to bear.

Lord Tennyson was one such patron. A great man, among London's eminent. Yet he was no different in his sensibility regarding the photograph on the wall, and deserved no different response from that which she always gave. 

Touching the image of Eligius and Julia, she said, "this moment shall never be made a secret." 
'Very well. But must I sit much longer?"
"Not long."  (pages 319/20)

Since the cover of The Luminist depicts one of Julia Margaret Cameron's most memorable photographs and a woman who is much loved within Victorian circles...HERE IS MY HISTORICAL SIDE NOTE...
Julia Jackson photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron(British, 1815-1879) in 1867. Albumen print from glass negative. 

"This ethereal image is of an almost bodiless entity, as we might imagine a portrait of the soul or of a psychic state laid bare. The subject is Cameron's namesake and niece, Julia Jackson, at the age of twenty-one and shortly before her marriage to Herbert Duckworth. The more than twenty portraits of Julia are exceptional in the artist's oeuvre, for they do not portray her as a muse, sybil, or saint, but rather as generalized embodiments of unspecified ideals of purity, beauty, and grace.

Three years later, she was a widow and the mother of three children. Her second marriage, in 1878, to the great Victorian intellectual Sir Leslie Stephen, produced the painter Vanessa Bell and the writer Virginia Woolf. In her novel To the Lighthouse (1927), Woolf portrayed her mother as the searching, sensitive Mrs. Ramsay, ever suspended in thought. She "bore about with her, she could not help knowing it, the torch of her beauty; she carried it erect into any room that she entered." Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, archived not on display

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