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Artillery Row

In the shadows of giants

Why are so many still enthralled by even the most grotesque Victoriana?

It must make for a deeply bizarre discussion about what to do for an evening out: “Darling, I thought we might go out for dinner tonight. Where do you fancy? Russell Norman’s new trattoria in Smithfield? Or Rules?”

“Actually, my dear, can we go to watch a replica of Joseph Merrick’s corpse being dissected? There’s a two-course meal included, too.”

“Will it include matching wines?”

“I knew you’d say that.”

The controversy around the “Dinner & Dissection” event seems to have taken the organisers by surprise. An outraged note on the organisers’ website states that: “Sam Piri is a highly respected outstanding teacher [and] holds a PGCE, Qualified Teacher Status awarded from Manchester University, the highest teaching qualification in the UK, is a former lecturer and lead teacher in teacher training”, to say nothing of how Piri has “over 10 years’ experience in devising and improving education in settings UK wide”. 

The implication is clear: this is a serious academic pursuit, not some piece of prurience. “We fail to see how anybody can comment on the quality or content of our live events without attending one”, the statement sniffs. 

Whatever the intentions, the premise is undeniably ghoulish

Yet whatever the intentions behind the evening, the premise is undeniably ghoulish. A series of events next year will offer dinner along with a themed dissection, revolving around some of the more grotesque and unfortunate figures of the Victorian era. Characters including Merrick, the so-called “Elephant Man”, and the surgeon Henry Gray will feature along with “the infamous Jack the Ripper” and the grave-robbers Burke and Hare.

It remains unclear precisely what will happen, but the ticket price — a not inconsiderable £92 per head — promises to include “our famous Victorian inspired two course meal” (so, gruel and tripe, then?), along with admission to the show, “all dissection equipment” and, at the end, a certificate of attendance. 

There has been outrage, of course. The actor Adam Pearson, who suffers from neurofibromatosis — as Merrick did — said, “I think if Joseph Merrick knew that this event was happening, he’d be righteously angry and completely heartbroken”, and a petition protesting at the existence of a “modern-day freak show” has attracted more than 10,000 signatures. And despite the protestations of Piri and his colleagues, it is hard to get round the idea that any evening (complete, naturally, with refreshments) of this nature seems a highly rarefied and niche form of entertainment. Personally, I’d rather spend the money on an evening in Rules or Brutto, but chacun à son gout, and bon appétit. 

We, in 2021, are still in thrall to Victoriana and all of its trappings

However, Dinner & Dissection has been taking place for seven years now, and has been selling out to appreciative audiences. This indicates that there is not only a market for this macabre munching, but also suggests that we, in 2021, are still in thrall to Victoriana and all of its trappings. The aspirational middle classes live in Victorian houses; some grand, some designed as working men’s cottages but now carefully extended to provide family accommodation. 

We travel on trains over routes that were laid in Victorian times, often over bridges and viaducts that represent triumphs of Victorian engineering, and these journeys often take us to work in Victorian buildings, complete with Victorian plumbing. On these journeys, we stare at small black screens that are nominally an extrapolation of the telephone, invented by a Victorian. We enjoy novels written in Victorian times, and the screen adaptations thereof, and we laugh at (a few) Victorian plays. 

Meanwhile the after-effects of Victorian imperialism and colonialism, and the debates thereof, have led us to the culture war discussions that occupy many of the newspapers that came to prominence, and mass circulation, in Victorian times. 

And there are less respectable legacies of the era, too. Jack the Ripper tours are a mainstay of tourist parties in East London, as credulous groups are led round the streets where Britain’s most notorious serial killer found his victims. Indeed, they are so well known as to have had an episode of Peep Show focus on Mark Corrigan’s unsuccessful attempts to become a Ripper guide himself. After his carefully researched but dry historical anecdotes about the history of East London fail to find an audience, Corrigan ultimately elicits interest with his Ripper talk, crying: “The game’s afoot! Saucy Jack is on the loose!”, as he himself pretends to be Sherlock Holmes — another Victorian figure — hot on the Ripper’s trail.

As for other activities, I have long heard rumours of a “specialised” bordello in an apparently respectable North Oxford house, which is kitted out entirely in Victorian chic, and presumably offers endless variants on le vice anglaise for its clientele. 

But our ideas of “decadence”, and naughtiness, and everything improper owe a vast amount to the fin-de-siecle period, which has been watered down and neutered from the era of Wilde, Beardsley and Swinburne into something mass-market and sanitised. I for one groan when I’m told that some new cocktail or dessert is “decadent”, and have been told off for earnestly enquiring whether it is my immortal soul or simply my waistline which is in danger as a result. 

People are appalled at treating the darker side of it as an amusing freak show

Yet what the Dinner & Dissection event has done is to show that many people are appalled at the idea of treating the darker side of Victoriana as merely an amusing freak show. Hallie Rubenhold’s much-acclaimed and award-winning biography The Five took as its starting point not the tale of the Ripper, but instead the lives of his victims. Rubenhold argued that, rather than celebrate a notorious serial killer about whom we know next to nothing, we should instead take the long overdue step of reclaiming the all but forgotten existences of those who were unlucky enough to be in his way. 

David Lynch’s poignant, sensitive film of Merrick’s life, The Elephant Man, had suggested as far back as 1980 that he was far more than simply a circus freak, to be gawped at and humiliated.

It may be that Piri’s events are handled with sensitivity and discretion, and that the spectacle of animal organs being extracted from silicone models of well-known figures has some purpose beyond mere sensation and gratification. Yet it’s hard not to feel that they only exist because of our apparently insatiable desire to be amongst all things Victorian, even down to the faux-Dickensian Christmases that we are all encouraged to enjoy every year. The fact that they never existed, except in the mind of a master storyteller, has not stopped them being a state to which we all aspire. 

This, then, is our own version of the Victorian age: an idealised, sanitised account of the time, in which the pain, misery and suffering are all magically washed away, and we are left with our very own version of Oliver!. Faced with this, and the thoroughly resistible prospect of dinner and dissection, the only thing to do is to walk away, while saying, “Please sir, I don’t want any more.”

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