© Jordan B. Nielsen, 2012

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Splendors and Glooms

By Laura Amy Schlitz

Reviewed by Jordan B. Nielsen

Recommended for: Ages 10 to 12 for explicit violence against children, overt suggestion of adult sexuality and alcoholism, and overall macabre tone. The third person narrative is split between two female characters and one male character, but though the male character is sufficiently boyish, the preciousness of the Victorian Gothic genre is likely better suited to girls. 

One Word Summary: Dreary.

As an exercise in genre replication, Splendors and Glooms is a terrific success. Laura Amy Schlitz had created the Victorian Gothic pastiche from an assemblage of parts collected from the pantheon of 1800s English literature and reconstructed them with a precision worthy of Madame Tussauds Wax Museum. What this joyless, melodramatic headscratcher of a children’s book has to offer its young audience, aside from a healthy dose of gratitude to be born in the new millennium, is beyond this reader. 

Splendors and Glooms presents an inexplicable weaving of adult and child characters, two orphans, a witch, a puppet master and an aristocratic young girl, and entangles them around a plot to destroy a stone

possessed of dark magic, sort of like what would happen if The Lord of the Rings met Oliver Twist in a shoe factory run by Stromboli.

The stage opens on Cassandra, an aged witch at the end of her life and powers, writhing in her castle as the magically endowed Phoenix Stone which has given her terrible abilities is now wreaking havoc on her body. She is loath to rid herself of her source of power, but as the phantom flames lick ever closer to her flesh, Cassandra knows she has but one option: she must summon her sworn enemy, former lover, and one time magical co-conspirator, Gaspare Grisini.

To the south, in sooty industrial London, twelve-year-old Clara is also awaiting the arrival of Grisini. It’s Clara’s birthday, and her one wish was that the renowned puppeteer and his fantoccini might come and entertain at her party. Her doctor father and hollow shell of a mother were initially reluctant to allow this puppet master, an Italian foreigner, into their home, as he and his assistants might track in the types of

germs that killed their four elder children in a cholera epidemic. Their house has become a mausoleum to the dead, with pictures of the children laying in their coffins on every wall, and their plaster death masks adorning the piano forte. Life has turned to parentally enforced grief for Clara, and with this birthday wish, she hopes to let a little light in between the mourning shrouds.

Traveling with the cartoonish Grisini are his orphaned assistants and wards, Parsefall and Lizzie Rose. Lizzie Rose is fourteen, the daughter of well respected actors, and doggedly attached to good manners in spite of her now impoverished condition. Parsefall, scrappy, malnourished and single minded can’t remember how old he is (he lived in a work house until the day that Grisini appeared and selected him to be his apprentice) nor can he remember why he is missing his pinky finger on his left hand.

Of course Grisini, a roiling cauldron of malice and theatrical charisma in the mustache-twirling ilk of Snidely Whiplash, has more in mind than performing the simple puppet show. After the party, Clara goes missing, and some weeks later Lizzie Rose and Paresfall happen across a beautiful new puppet in Grisini’s collection with the fair skin, brown curly hair and perfect white party gown of that same sad little rich girl who vanished shortly after they performed for her.  Just as things start heating up, Grisini too disappears, and the children unearth a letter from Casandra to their vile caretaker, asking him to bring his wards north so that she might shower them with riches in a last act of atonement before she dies. Knowing full well that this is clearly a trap and that the woman must have ulterior motives, the children decide to just go for it anyway and hitch a train to Scotland with little puppet Clara in tow.

It would be very easy to hide behind the genre as a shield from criticism. Do these stock characters feel overly one-dimensional, the unflappably virtuous Lizzie Rose, the Cockney pick-pocket scallywag Parsefall, Grisini, the monstrous evil embodiment? Absolutely, but of course so did all the characters in Victorian literature. Is the tone relentlessly dreary and morbid? Yes, but same. Are there wild, plot serving leaps in the characters’ reasoning? Is the ending a little too easy? Indeed, and ditto. Yes all of these faulty elements that might be perceived as the writer’s weakness exactly mimic the trappings of the very genre which she is succeeding at duplicating here, but what then is the point or this exercise? For a modern writer to emulate and repackage an existing genre so accurately that she even mimics its failings? Perhaps then my greatest criticism of Splendor and Glooms is that it adheres a little too closely to form in all of those respects, but as Schlitz has the benefit of being an evolved and decorated (Newbery Medal winning, in fact) writer, might she not have hand selected the best elements from Victorian Lit while using her skills to improve upon the worst? Yes, she might have, but the decision was made, and as such I am unwilling to grade on a genre-aware curve.

Viewing this work simply as it is, without two semesters of college level Victorian Lit under my belt, as will be the case for the children who read this book, Splendors and Glooms suffers terribly at the hands of its main characters. There is little to like in either Parsefall, a shade of The Artful Dodger with twice the self-interest and half the humor, or Lizzie Rose, a tediously weepy, moralizing drip. Through Parsefall’s flatness you at least know who he is, however selfish and grotesque, but Lizzie Rose’s manners and ladylike etiquette are a constant performance, and as a result I felt held at a distance from the truth of her. On selecting a bauble from the witch Cassandra: “Lizzie Rose had made up her mind to behave like the youngest daughter in the fairy tales she loved. The youngest daughter always preferred the humblest gift: a rose instead of a diamond, a blessing instead of a fortune.” If Lizzie Rose “made up her mind” to behave that way, then presumably it’s a pose, and disingenuous to her true feelings. At one point Grisini refers to her as “a deceitful little puss, in spite of her pious airs”, and though we are meant to jeer at this as character assassination, I think he had it right, and I wish we could have seen a little more of the inner deviousness that had led him to say that, and less of her forced virtue. What did Lizzie Rose actually want as opposed to what she decided to choose?

Clara showed a glimmer of a rebellious streak, but the plot literally immobilizes her and as a result she remains passive until the final moments when she bursts out of her prison in a grand act of bravery that feels unearned. Cassandra the dying witch held the most interest for me, but due to the state of her health she too was largely passive, confined to her sick bed, coming in and out of lucidity. We hear a little about her life as a child, a chubby outcast, abandoned by her parents, but I would have loved to see Cassandra at the height of her beauty and power, when she and Grisini were partners in crime, two ruthless hedonists with magical abilities. How did they use their powers when they were in full? What happened to turn these two so viciously against one another? How does Cassandra still hold her sway over him? Knowing the answer to these questions might have added some emotion to their present state, bodies broken, power all but gone, love turned sour. Alas, we were not treated to such, and these two are left to play their “bad guy” parts. 

Unfortunately there is nowhere else to look for betterment. The characters’ actions and motivations are poorly explained and often downright inexplicable (In the height of their eventual victory, the heroic Clara slaps Parsefall across the face for merely elucidating that Lizzie Rose is not his sister by blood. My mouth fell open.) the plot is full of holes (The children deduce that Clara has been turned into a puppet and then do absolutely nothing to try to turn her back into a human. Not even a brainstorming session. Some friends.) and the bow on the ending is so neatly tied it defies reason (Really, Parsefall gets a new wealthy family but they’re not going to make him go to school because he’s just not the type?). 

I would love to meet the ten year old who could read this book from start to finish. Though I can appreciate the notion of presenting different adult genres to a younger audience (and it can be done well, see This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein) it’s hopelessly naïve to believe a spoonful of sugar isn’t necessary to help the medicine go down, and in the world of Splendor and Glooms where the promise of magic is only used to harm children, where is the sweetener? A stifling read, desperate for a breath of fresh air that never comes.