On a warm Sunday in June, a walk in Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens kindles Jenkins infatuation with Barbara Goring. “That was the last day for many months that I woke up in the morning without immediately thinking of her[BM 22/18].” By chance, he met her and Eleanor Walpole-Wilson near the Achilles statue, an 18 foot tall bronze that rises another 18 feet on a plinth of Dartmoor granite. It was designed by Sir Richard Westmacott and sculpted in 1822, when Victoria was three years old. It honors the Duke of Wellington; the bronze for the statue was from cannons that the Duke captured in battle.
They walked through Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, a little over a mile to the Albert Memorial, completed in 1876, designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott. The monument, rising about five times higher than the top of Achilles’ head, is a compendium of Victorian sculpture. The Queen approved the artists and their designs. The walkers inspected the figures of Arts and Sciences, 169 of whom circle the memorial in the Frieze of Parnassus. Eleanor says something about the muscular bearded manufacturer, causing Barbara to break into laughter. As they come down the steps near the group symbolizing Asia, Barbara stumbles and briefly supports herself on Jenkins’ arm, giving him a delayed emotional frisson.
Are these massive monuments mentioned just to orient us geographically? Both the Manufactures and Asia are on the southeast corner of the monument, so it is natural that the walkers should see these together.
Powell rarely misses an opportunity to let a work of art–– actual, fictional, or a composite of the two––enrich our understanding of his characters and their milieu. Here, is he guiding us to nineteenth century associations, thoughts of Victoria and her Empire? Should we remember that the Achilles statue caused a stir as the first nude statue in London (see the cartoon from 1822 of Wilberforce using his hat to make up for a fig leaf that some thought too small.)? Should we ponder why Powell mentions the Manufacturers, rather than Commerce, Agriculture, or Engineering? Why attend to the Asian Bedouin’s “hopeless contemplation of Kensington Gardens…” while ignoring Africa, America, and Europe, even though Africa was Powell’s personal favorite (SPA….. 244)? For now we will enjoy the tale of young love and let others decide whether to try to read this more closely.