Blakespotting: A Daughter of Albion and the Limehouse Golem

With the release of The Limehouse Golem on Netflix, I’ve had a chance to catch up on the 2016 film directed by Juan Carlos Medina which I missed on its first release. This is by no means a review – I recommend Christopher Pittard’s excellent piece “Sex, secrets and murder most foul” at The Conversation – and also my discussion of Blakean connections involves giving away the ending, so stop reading now if you wish to watch it without my huge spoiler in place.

The film (which came out at the same time as the opera, Elizabeth Cree, which I haven’t seen), is entertaining enough, and certainly much better than the terrible 2001 movie adaptation of Alan Moore’s From Hell, another Jack-the-Ripper inspired tale that has a direct influence on The Limehouse Golem. There are some decent if not spectacular performances by Bill Nighy (inspector John Kildare), Douglas Booth (Dan Leno) and Olivia Cooke (Lizzie Cree), but at times the melodrama on screen made me snigger (or was that just the preposterous beard and accent of Henry Goodman as Karl Marx). In truth, I found the original novel by Peter Ackroyd, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (published in 1994) a little preposterous, dealing with a series of murders from the early 1880s, less so for the actual plot and some truly wonderful details about the criminal underbelly of music hall (which was greatly sanitised going forward into the twentieth century) than Ackroyd’s preponderance for shoehorning everything he knows into somewhat turgid passages of prose. The following, where George Gissing compares William Blake to Charles Babbage is a case in point:

“It is a very ingenious contrivance.” Gissing hardly understood what he was being told but it already seemed to him, as to his contemporaries, some eccentric monstrosity; he had just been reading Swinburne’s study of William Blake for an article he had proposed to the Westminster Review, and the parallel that occurred to him was with Blake’s Prophetic Books. These works – the Analytical Engine and Blake’s mad verses – seemed equally the work of curious and obsessive men who laboured in the production of designs which only they themselves could fully comprehend. (Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1998, p.118)

Ackroyd’s point is clever here, and I think there is some genuine insight into the comparison between Charles Babbage and Blake, but in this instance the author is trying a little too hard to demonstrate his cleverness: I write about Swinburne as an academic happily dealing with texts one or two centuries old (or older as required), but Gissing as a Grub Street hack would have been unlikely to get much mileage from a book that was already twelve years out of date (Swinburne’s William Blake, a Critical Essay, having been published in 1868). I am being pedantic, I know, but I sometimes felt when reading his novel that had Ackroyd tried to be just a little less showy with his knowledge, I’d have enjoyed the truly wonderful details of music hall life much more.

The more important point here, however, is that Blake has a role to play in Ackroyd’s novel. It is a very minor one, but actually in an earlier discussion of Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, notorious as the poisoner who was suspected of multiple murders and was transported for fraud and who was friends with Blake at one point, entirely appropriate. The Limehouse Golem strips out such minute particulars but replaces them with an innovation that cannot be ignored: the eponymous Limehouse Golem is no figment of Jewish folklore, but actually William Blake’s Ghost of a Flea.

Before discussing this connection to Blake, I must first note that it commits an atrocity on Ackroyd’s fiction which, although I enjoyed, is completely preposterous. One of the important aspects of Limehouse was its cosmopolitan nature as part of the Jewish East End. This is by no means thoroughly erased in the film – there is one very funny scene in which Lizzie unwittingly insults a Jewish audience – but the legend of the automaton Golem makes no sense if its model is instead the truly horrific, awe-inspiring vision of Blake.

That observation aside, I must admit my thrill when the image of Blake’s painting appeared in the first few minutes of the movie, dominating the backdrop of the stage for a performance telling the fate of Lizzie Cree. Blake’s painting, The Ghost of a Flea, painted in tempera and gold on mahogany in 1819-20 and now on show in Tate Britain, is the kind of spectacular depiction of evil that, once seen, can not be forgotten. Its origins lie in a series of so-called “visionary heads” that Blake drew in the notebooks of fellow artist, John Varley, from 1818 onwards, and according to Blake, “fleas were inhabited by the souls of such men as were by nature blood thirsty to excess.” When I first wrote about the painting, I remarked that it appeared a diabolical self-portrait, as though of Blake’s druidic spectre, a projection of his own sins as Satan was the projection of Milton’s. Elsewhere, I’ve discussed it in relation to Alan Moore’s From Hell, where the scenario with Varley is transformed into a commentary on Matthew Gull, who Moore portrays as Jack the Ripper.

It is this connection that Medina draws upon for The Limehouse Golem, and it’s not a surprising one – although to me it remains false for a number of reasons, most notably that while the Ghost of a Flea has frequently been used to symbolise serial killers, for me this ignores Blake’s satirical and political point, that the most bloodthirsty souls of any age have always been the kings, popes and ministers who have waged war for their own depraved ends. This aside, my reading may be (in my opinion) more true to Blake but it remains much less effective in the popular imagination which is happier to consider the more self-evident evils of serial killers. Thus the depiction of the Flea serves as an immediate visual metaphor for the Limehouse murderer, a point reinforced by the killer’s written confession in a copy of Thomas de Quincey’s “On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts” that includes a hand drawn rendition of the Ghost.

The film skips a little over “Lambeth Marsh Lizzie” Cree’s ascent from poverty in the homelands of Blake (due more to the demands of compressing the narrative into its running time than any overt act of violence on the part of the director and screenwriter), but in concluding with her as the figure behind the Golem it does make the Blakean connection more poignant even if, as I suspect, it is unintentional. It is Lizzie who is the Ghost of a Flea, carrying her bowl of blood through Limehouse and as such – and here I am certain it is my reading as an imposition on the text rather than something intended by the film’s makers – she becomes emblematic as a Daughter of Albion. By this, I do not mean that she is one of the weeping figures who surrounds Oothoon in Visions of the Daughters of Albion, rather she is one of the bloodthirsty goddesses of Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion, invocations of which haunt Moore’s From Hell and the early, psychogeographic poetry of Iain Sinclair.

The film’s strength (as indeed the novel’s) is to build up a considerable degree of sympathy for Lizzie. Born into grinding poverty and raped as a child by a dockworker – for which she is punished with hot iron by her mother while her attacker walks away – the later re-enactment of that primal rape by her husband (whose charade as a knight in white armour has always been that – a charade) leads her into a solipsistic and miserable world of internal anguish. Christopher Pittard observes that the movie draws (anachronistically) on W.T. Stead’s investigative reporting into child prostitution in London in 1885, and this abominable situation is the ultimate driver for the murders which pulsate through the film. As Blake wrote in “London” a century before, it is the “youthful Harlots curse” that “Blasts with tears the Marriage Hearse”. I do draw back a little from too overt a feminist reading of The Limehouse Golem, however: Lizzie suffers atrocities, and yet her response is to cause other prostitutes – other women – to suffer more. Lizzie is both daughter of Albion and Spectre, divided as Los’s Spectre is in Jerusalem.

His Spectre divides & Los in fury compells it to divide:
To labour in the fire, in the water, in the earth, in the air,
To follow the Daughters of Albion as the hound follows the scent
Of the wild inhabitant of the forest, to drive them from his own  (Jerusalem, 17.1-4)

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