Thursday, 30 April 2015

Basil by Wilkie Collins.

Basil is my second Victorian sensational novel of the week (following the wonderful Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, published ten years later in 1862). It was written by Wilkie Collins and published in 1852 - one of his first novels, and some would argue one of the first sensational novels. 

A sensational novel is melodramatic, with hints of the Gothic and romantic tradition, and often has themes relating to crime, murder, bigamy, adultery; all perfectly horrid and exciting subjects designed to appeal to the masses, which sadly leads some parts of the literary set to dismiss them as low literature. 

Basil, however, is not low literature. It's a thrilling and an intelligent read (such combinations do exist despite what certain folk may say) about a young man, Basil. Collins, or Basil, writes,
I am the second son of an English gentleman of large fortune. Our family is, I believe, one of the most ancient in this country. On my father's side, it dates back beyond the Conquest; on my mother's, it is not so old, but the pedigree is nobler. Besides my elder brother, I have one sister, younger than myself. My mother died shortly after giving birth to her last child.  
Circumstances which will appear hereafter, have forced me to abandon my father's name. I have been obliged in honour to resign it; and in honour I abstain from mentioning it here. Accordingly, at the head of these pages, I have only placed my Christian name—not considering it of any importance to add the surname which I have assumed; and which I may, perhaps, be obliged to change for some other, at no very distant period. It will now, I hope, be understood from the outset, why I never mention my brother and sister but by their Christian names; why a blank occurs wherever my father's name should appear; why my own is kept concealed in this narrative, as it is kept concealed in the world.
Basil's misfortune is owed to falling love at first sight with Margaret Sherwin, the daughter of a linen draper (quite below his station). He sees her in a cab whilst staying in the family's London residence:
Among the workings of the hidden life within us which we may experience but cannot explain, are there any more remarkable than those mysterious moral influences constantly exercised, either for attraction or repulsion, by one human being over another? In the simplest, as in the most important affairs of life, how startling, how irresistible is their power! How often we feel and know, either pleasurably or painfully, that another is looking on us, before we have ascertained the fact with our own eyes! How often we prophesy truly to ourselves the approach of a friend or enemy, just before either have really appeared! How strangely and abruptly we become convinced, at a first introduction, that we shall secretly love this person and loathe that, before experience has guided us with a single fact in relation to their characters!
Immediately he is obsessed, seeking first discover who she is and who her family is, which he manages quite quickly, and then establishing a relationship with her. She has high dreams, higher than her station, and marrying Basil will enable her (and her father to realise them). Such is the intensity of Basil's obsession, or crush (which essentially is what it is) he forgives her anything, even dreadful portents of the unhappy life ahead (catching her in an attempt to kill her mother's cat, for example, didn't bode well!). But he persists, and without his father and beloved sister's knowledge he marries Margaret, though they live apart hoping to somehow ease Basil's father into the situation gently whilst guaranteeing that they will never be parted.

But, Margaret is foul. He soon finds out she is sleeping with a Mr. Mannion. Basil confronts him, they get into a fight, and here the action really starts, but I won't spoil the end!

Basil is a cautionary tale, albeit an exaggerated one. This is what comes, one thinks after reading it, of marrying someone one hardly knows, which was rather prevalent in the Victorian era. There is also a sense of the 'lower classes' wreaking havoc in the aristocracy (should the two worlds collide). There is a sharp contrast between Basil's idealised sister Clara (the "angel of the house") and the repulsive, immoral, and almost demonic Margaret. And, like all good sensational novels there are thunderstorms (as with Lady Audley), madness (Lady Audley again), violent crime (Lady Audley once more), and, while we're drawing comparisons with Lady Audley, canaries. But the latter detail may be a coincidence! It is a great book, and I dare say an excellent example of its genre.

On a final note: as this novel is partly set in Cornwall (south east of England) and I'm unable to find any illustrations from Basil, here's a painting by Thomas Moran - Sunset Near Land's End (1909).

Further Reading

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio: Day Six.

The Triumph of Death by Buonamico Buffalmacco (1338-39). Possibly the inspiration for the setting of The Decameron.

On Day Six of Boccaccio's The Decameron (one hundred stories told by seven women and three men over ten days whilst they escape the Black Death in Florence) the subject of "those who, on being provoked by some verbal pleasantry, have returned like for like, or who, by a prompt retort or shrewd manoeuvre, have avoided danger, discomfiture or ridicule"and Elissa is queen. It is the shortest part of the book and it's tricky to write about because much of it is based upon a one-liner. Furthermore, humour is somewhat of an issue in this, but I'll write more at the end. So, rather than attempt to fully summarise each tale I'll simply give a brief outline of characters and circumstances.

Madonna Oretta.
First Story: Told by Filomena (1.3, 2.9, 3.3, 4.5, 5.8). She tells of Madonna Oretta who meets a knight one day in the countryside.
"Madonna Oretta [says the knight], if you like I shall take you riding along a goodly stretch of our journey by telling you one of the finest tales in the world".
"Sir," replied the lady, "I beseech you most earnestly to do so, and I shall look upon it as a great favour."
The tale, however, is not so fine...

Second Story: Told by Pampinea (1.10, 2.3, 3.2, 4.2, 5.6), it's about Cisti the Baker who, owing to his talents as a baker, has made a lot of money. One day a nobleman, Messer Geri Spina, happens to taste some of Cisti's wine. It is so good that when he is entertaining, he sends his servant for some more. The servant, wanting some for himself, takes a large container but Cisti keeps refusing to fill it, knowing that the servant intends on taking some for himself. Eventually Messer Geri Spina realises what is happening and sends the servant with a small container, which Cisti fills. The two become good friends.

Third Story: This is narrated by Lauretta (1.8, 2.4, 3.8, 4.3, 5.7) and is about Monna Nonna de' Pulci and the Bishop of Florence. Monna Nonna, having heard of a previous indiscretion committed by the Bishop puts him firmly in his place when he insults her virtue.

Fourth Story: Narrated by Neifile (1.2, 2.1, 3.9, 4.8, 5.5); she tells of Currado Gianfigliazzi and his cook Chichibio. Donna Brunetta, "the apple of Chichibo's eye" comes into the kitchen one day and Chichibo says she can have anything she wants. She decides she wants a crane's leg and says if she doesn't get it she won't have anything to do with Chichibo any more. He gives it to her, and naturally Currado notices one of his cranes has only one leg. Fortunately, a quick answer turns Currado's anger into mirth.

Fifth Story: Told by Panfilo (1.1, 2.7, 3.4, 4.6, 5.1); it's about Messer Forse da Rabatta (a jurist) and Master Giotto (a painter), of whom Panfillo observes, "Nature has frequently planted astonishing genius in men of monstrously ugly appearance". When they are caught in a rainstorm Forse insults Giotto's appearance, and Giotto is quick to remind him of his own.

Sixth Story: Told by Fiammetta (1.5, 2.5, 3.6, 4.1, 5.9) about Michele Scalza and his friends who argue about who the oldest and most noble family is in Florence. Michele argues that it is the Baronci, and his friends bet him his supper that he is wrong. With a witty argument (and I'm afraid I do use the word "witty" very loosely) and he wins the bet.

Seventh Story: By Filostrato (1.7, 2.2, 3.1, 4.9, 5.4), it is about Madonna Filippa who is caught having an affair by her husband Rinaldo at a time when adultery was punished by being burnt at the stake. Filippa confesses to the judge rather than attempting to lie, and with a quick and funny comment she not only escapes being burned alive but also inspires a change to the law.

Eighth Story: Told by Emilia (1.6, 2.6, 3.7, 4.7, 5.2), she tells of Fresco and his niece Cesca. She makes various unpleasant remarks about people's appearances Cesca, fed up with her, makes one of his own to her. But she does not understand the joke and, "she remained as witless as before, and she is still the same to this day".

Ninth Story: Narrated by Elissa, the queen of the day (1.9, 2.8, 3.5, 4.4, 5.3). It's about Messer Betto Brunelleschi and the poet Guido Cavalcanti. Betto wishes that Guido will join his circle of friends, but Guido refuses, so Betto and his friends torment him. One day they find him in a graveyard and mock him, to which he replies, "Gentleman, in your own house you may say whatever you like to me". Initially confused Betto summarises,
"You're the ones who are out of your mind, if you can't see what he meant. In a few words he has neatly paid us the most back-handed compliment I ever heard, because when consider it, these tombs are the houses of the dead, this being the place where the dead are laid to rest and where they take up their abode. By describing it as our house, he wanted to show us that, by comparison with himself and other men of learning, all men who are as uncouth and unlettered as ourselves are worse off than all the dead. So that, being in a graveyard, we are in our own house."
From then, they never taunted Guido again.

Tenth Story: Narrated by Dioneo (1.4, 2.10, 3.10, 4.10, 5.10). In this, Friar Cipolla claims he has a feather from Angel Gabriel. Giovanni and Biagio wish to expose him as a fraud so they take the feather that Cipolla was going to claim belonged to the Angel Gabriel and replace it with coal, but Cipolla manages to save himself by claiming it is coal used to burn Saint Lawrence (a martyr who was killed in 258 A.D.).

And there ends the sixth day. It is by far my least favourite of the Decameron days: I don't think its humour has survived at all. I did hope for some comedy when I began, but from the very first story I was met with at best vaguely sharp remarks and retorts. But I don't hold it against Boccaccio!

Next, obviously, is the seventh day. Dioneo will be king and the theme is "the tricks which, either in the cause of love or for motives of self-preservation, women have played upon their husbands, irrespective of whether or not they were found out".

← Pʀᴇᴠɪᴏᴜsʟʏ: Day V
Nᴇxᴛ: Day VII

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life by Elizabeth Gaskell.

Do they want to know why? Then let them read Mary Barton. Do they want to know why poor men, kind and sympathising as women to each other, learn to hate law and order, Queen, Lords and Commons, country-party, and corn-law-leaguer, all alike—to hate the rich, in short? Then let them read Mary Barton. Do they want to get a detailed insight into the whole “science of starving,”—”clemming,” as the poor Manchester men call it? Why people”clem,” … what people look like while they are “clemming” to death … and who looks after them, and who—oh, shame unspeakable!—do not look after them while they are “clemming,” and what they feel like when they see their wives and their little ones “clemming” to death round them; and what they feel, and must feel, unless they are more or less than men, after all are “clemmed” and gone, and buried safe out of sight, never to hunger, and wail, and pine, and pray for death any more for ever? Let them read Mary Barton. Lastly, if they want to know why men learn to hate the Church and the Gospel, why they turn sceptics, Atheists, blasphemers, and cry out in the blackness of despair and doubt, “Let us curse God and die,” let them read Mary Barton
- Charles Kingsley for Fraser’s Magazine (Vol. 39, April 1849).  
Mary Barton is Elizabeth Gaskell's first novel, published in 1848 (preceding Cranford, 1851-53). It's one of the great English social novels of the 1830s, 40s and 50s - novels that seek to address the social problems or "the condition of England question" that explored and condemned the class wars that left workers impoverished. Other examples of social (sometimes known as 'social protest' novels) include Sybil by Benjamin Disraeli (1845), North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (1854-55), Shirley by Charlotte Brontë (1849), and Hard Times by Charles Dickens (1854), as well as other Dickens novels. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo (1862) and L'Assommoir by Émile Zola are European examples. In Mary Barton, as with all of these novels, class conflict and the resulting suffering is a key theme. In the words of John Barton, Mary's father:
The rich know nothing of the trials of the poor; I say, if they don't know, they ought to know. We're their slaves as long as we can work; we pile up their fortunes with the sweat of our brows, and yet we are to live as separate as if we were in two worlds; ay as Dives and Lazarus.
In the novel Gaskell tells the story of Mary Barton, a young woman who was born and lives in Manchester (Lancashire). Her father is a widower who has of late involved himself with the Chartists, a working class political movement which began in the early part of Queen Victoria's reign and campaigned for, among other things, the right for all men to vote and other rights for working men. Not wishing his daughter work in a factory or in service, he encourages Mary to work as a dressmaker. She has two suitors: Jem Wilson and Harry Carson; Jem is a foreman in a forge, hard working and honest, whilst Henry is the son of the owner of the local mill. He is handsome, but arrogant and conceited, and the interests of the workers of the mill are unimportant. He is a capitalist, representative of the bourgeoisie if you will, and Jem is the working man or proletariat. When Harry is shot and Jem is accused of murdering him, Mary realises it is he she loves and must protect and defend him whilst at the same time not implicating those dear to her in the murder.

It is both a social novel and, in a way, a coming of age or bildungsroman. Mary Barton is not a bad girl, but she has been in her younger days superficial and a dreamer, yet Mary has been without the guiding hand of her mother. And of course it is natural to wish to escape the hardness and cruelty of poverty; she is not at all an unpleasant character. In this sense, it represents another conflict and contrast, one between Mary's desires and her situation. The storyline is strong, so it is far more engaging than, for example, Disraeli's Sybil, which though a good novel was rather unbelievable; it felt more of a series of lecturers disguised as a novel. That said, I don't think Mary Barton is a favourite of mine, though I did admire it. North and South, I feel, was far stronger and reading Mary Barton made me want to revisit that.

But, as ever, I'm glad I finally got around to reading this: it was a very interesting interpretation of the "hungry forties". It has inspired me to read more of Elizabeth Gaskell - I do want to re-read North and South soon and read Wives and Daughters, one of my final titles on the Penguin English Library list. And, as social novels interest me very much, I think it may be time to revisit Charles Dickens, probably starting with Oliver Twist, though I do have Bleak House on my mind...

Further Reading

Monday, 27 April 2015

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

1878 edition of The Scarlet Letter.
The Scarlet Letter was written by Nathaniel Hawthorne and published in 1850. It's one of those books that always seems to feature somewhere on the 'top 100 best books' and I have read it before many years ago, but I decided to revisit it with, I hope, a slightly maturer mind. 

It's set in 17th Century Boston and tells the story of Hester Prynne, a woman found guilty of adultery and condemned, having been released from prison, to wear embroidered on her chest the scarlet letter A. Hawthorne writes of Hester,
The young woman was tall, with a figure of perfect elegance on a large scale. She had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam; and a face which, besides being beautiful from regularity of feature and richness of complexion, had the impressiveness belonging to a marked brow and deep black eyes. She was ladylike, too, after the manner of the feminine gentility of those days; characterised by a certain state and dignity, rather than by the delicate, evanescent, and indescribable grace which is now recognised as its indication. And never had Hester Prynne appeared more ladylike, in the antique interpretation of the term, than as she issued from the prison. Those who had before known her, and had expected to behold her dimmed and obscured by a disastrous cloud, were astonished, and even startled, to perceive how her beauty shone out, and made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped. It may be true that, to a sensitive observer, there was some thing exquisitely painful in it. Her attire, which indeed, she had wrought for the occasion in prison, and had modelled much after her own fancy, seemed to express the attitude of her spirit, the desperate recklessness of her mood, by its wild and picturesque peculiarity. But the point which drew all eyes, and, as it were, transfigured the wearer—so that both men and women who had been familiarly acquainted with Hester Prynne were now impressed as if they beheld her for the first time—was that Sᴄᴀʀʟᴇᴛ Lᴇᴛᴛᴇʀ, so fantastically embroidered and illuminated upon her bosom. It had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and enclosing her in a sphere by herself.
Scene from 'The Scarlet Letter' by T.H. Matteson. (1860).
Hester was married, however it would appear her husband was lost at sea, and since then Hester had a child, Pearl, whose father is unknown to the people of Boston, and Hester refuses to reveal his identity. She is forever tormented by the people and punished for her sin, and the scarlet letter "A" becomes a part of her identity, yet its meaning shifts as time progresses. She shows dignity and courage when all about her there is fear and anger at what she has done. Hawthorne refers to the "dismal severity of the Puritanic code of law" in Boston at the time, and this is a key part of understanding The Scarlet Letter. Not only do we see Hester as apart from her social group, but we also can read Hester as a manifestation of sin or even a fall from grace, and thus see how the social group - the Puritans - react to it. It is not simply an individual who has sinned within a community, but an actual mark against that community itself. It is dangerous and even shameful, and the Puritans seek to distance themselves from her and from the corruption of the order that she represents. Hence I mentioned both fear and anger. A whole community, in their eyes, is in danger of being tarnished. The scarlet letter is the taboo.

Yet Hester reclaims the "A" on her chest and so comes to change its meaning. By refusing to wear it or showing shame and degradation that she may feel, she is accepting its power within the society that condemned her to wear it and pushed her outside. She shows moral courage and integrity, which stands out even more in her group, and this is contrasted with specific individuals - Roger Chillingworth and Arthur Dimmesdale, whose importance is revealed later in the novel.

It is an outstanding novel, which I didn't appreciate with my first read, and the more I think about it the more I realise just how brilliant and clever it is. In telling the story of Hester Prynne Hawthorne explores a variety of concepts that are very tricky, yet easy to grasp in this novel. It's essentially, I suppose, about conflict within a social order, about religion and key religious concepts such as sin and atonement, and about an alienated individual. It is staggering, actually, just how good this novel is! I'm glad I've revisited it and come to appreciate it. It is short - my edition has 225 pages, but whilst there is much packed in it is so ably handled it is not a difficult read (as such).

To finish, some illustrations. These are a selection by Hugh Thomson from the 1920 edition of The Scarlet Letter.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon.

1880s edition of Lady Audley's Secret.
This is the book I've been putting off for quite a while - it's on my Penguin English Library Challenge which I started just over two years ago (7th April '13), and it was one of the last ones left to read (now have only four left!). I never felt drawn to it, and when I did try to read it in December I didn't get past the second chapter. So I've been dreading it all year, in short, and I decided to read it for the readathon to get it out the way. Imagine my joy when I found, after the first few chapters, I loved it! 

There's really not a great deal to say in this post - it's all very simple. It was published in 1862 and was one of Mary Elizabeth Braddon's first novels, in which she tells the tale of Lady Audley, née Lucy Graham. Lucy was a governess and not much else is known about her past, but her beauty seduces Sir Michael Audley and they marry. The novel begins after their marriage when Robert Audley, Sir Michael's nephew, welcomes home is old friend George Tallboys. 

Tallboys has returned from Australia having effectively deserted his wife and child in search of gold in Australia where he hoped to make his fortune and return to his wife a rich man. However, on returning, he discovers his wife Helen has died quite recently, which he reads in The Times (which was once, probably still is by some, regarded as the paper of record). He is devastated, and Robert cares for him in during this time, taking him to Audley Court, the home of Sir Michael and Lady Audley. During this time a portrait of Lady Audley is shown to George, which Braddon describes:
No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have painted, hair by hair, those feathery masses of ringlets with every glimmer of gold, and every shadow of pale brown. No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have exaggerated every attribute of that delicate face as to give a lurid lightness to the blonde complexion, and a strange, sinister light to the deep blue eyes. No one but a pre-Raphaelite could have given to that pretty pouting mouth the hard and almost wicked look it had in the portrait.
Lady Lilith by D. G. Rossetti (1866-68).
Being a fan of the pre-Raphaelites I was eager to discover which painting may have inspired Braddon, and there are a few contenders (discussed on the Pre-Raphaelite Rumminations blog and on the Wilkie Collins Society page). I liked Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Lady Lilith as a possibility, however the date is wrong - that was painted four years later, however, still, this is how I imagined Lady Audley. But I digress. On seeing the painting, George has a strong reaction, which Robert attributes to a violent storm. The next morning, George has gone. Unwilling to believe that he would leave without so much as a goodbye and disappear as he appears to have done, Robert seeks his friend and discover the reasons for his vanishing. As he does so, he discovers Lady Audley's secret.

It is, at its heart, a sensationalist novel like those of Wilkie Collins (The Woman in White, The Moonstone, and Basil to name a few examples). Lady Audley's Secret is fast-paced and gripping, highly exciting, and rather draining as a result! It's probably one of the best books I've read this year. The plot itself, as I've said, is quite simple but that doesn't deter at all from the enjoyment. No matter what one may guess, the excitement of reading it remains. What is revealed is a nightmarish world of the private, domestic sphere, where nothing is as it seems, and appearances are deceptive. It's full of madness, doubt, violence... a very intense and dramatic novel. I absolutely adored it.

It is, quite probably, at least partly inspired by a real court case of the time (which you can read about here, but it will give some of the plot away, even if you think you've already guessed what's going to happen, it will still spoil it), and Audley Court is based on Ingatestone Hall in Essex, so there are some 'real' roots in this mad little drama. It's a wonderful book, and for those who have felt they ought to read it but have been putting it off - I'd get to it straight away! It's one I'll no doubt return to again and again.

Ingatestone Hall, Essex.

Further reading

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Dewey's Readathon Master Post.

It's readathon time! I think this is my eighth, which is astonishing because my first does not seem so long ago... As usual I want to read everything but I've managed to narrow it down a little:
  • Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. I started this last night and read a little this morning and I'm really enjoying it, which I'm surprised about because when I first started reading it (possibly last December) I couldn't get into it. I'm about a third of the way through now, and this will be my first read.
  • Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell - I would like to get to this today, but I would like to get to - 
  • Basil by Wilkie Collins, which I will probably start after Lady Audley.
  • The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells. I do love a bit of H. G. Wells, so I'm hopeful I'll read this today.
  • And, if there's time - I'm about a fifth of the way through my re-read of The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot. This I would read if I finish the others.
  • Finally, not the complete works of Chaucer as pictured - I want to perhaps read A Treatise on the Astrolabe, which is one of the final Chaucers I have on my list before I start The Canterbury Tales. I'm not dead-set on reading it, though, so we'll see! I may change my mind and read the short poems, but I may not get to Chaucer at all. Part of the fun of readathons is going where the mood dictates, more times than not my plans have gone out of the window!
So, this is my master post. I'll check in every few hours and update below. For now I need to feed my hens (it's raining here and they're all miserable), make a drink (not coffee - had too much this morning already), and settle down. See you all in a few hours, and I hope everyone who is joining in has fun! :)

15:54 - Just finished Lady Audley's Secret - what a book! What a book! I'm very happy and surprised, as I said I couldn't get into it the first time around but it was absolutely gripping. Such a book! I'm looking forward to writing about this, I may even do it tomorrow!

Meanwhile, Allie of A Literary Odyssey has asked us to share "Classic Words of Wisdom". She chose David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, which is indeed full of them, but I've chosen another Dickens - Great Expectations:

I love this quote, it reminds me to find a positive from a negative (where possible, of course), and that everyone suffers their own trials. 

Next on my reading pile - Basil by Wilkie Collins.

20:58 - I'm afraid I've been waylaid! I finished Basil at about 7pm, then I needed a little break - going from Lady Audley to Basil is going from sensationalist lit to sensationalist lit, and both were a curiously draining read (though both superb!). So I decided to check on the hens and make tea, ended up watching last night's Have I Got News For You whilst eating tea, then had to put the hens to bed, and then I had to sort out my mother's failing computer. So two hours have passed and no reading! On the positive, I won a prize in hour 5 which is exciting! And it's only 9pm - I'm going to start on Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell. I'm determined not to go to sleep until I've read it (rather ambitious as I've been up since 6am!). Wish me luck, I'm flagging! And I wish I hadn't lost those two hours!

Hope everyone is still enjoying themselves!  

08:10 - As you can probably tell by the gap I fell asleep! I stayed up until about midnight reading Mary Barton, then I woke up just before 7am and finished it. A very good book, though I couldn't quite engage with it. I think it's one to ponder on before I come to any conclusions.

So yes, I'm up. It's a sunny but frosty morning. I've fed my hens (had to break the ice on their water bowls so I have very cold hands, and chickens come to that), I have my cup of coffee, and I'm ready to get back to it. A change from what was planned: I've decided to finish The Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen by F. W. Maitland. I'm about half way through already and I would like very much to finish it this morning - it's a rather hard-going read. After that, I'd like to return to The Mill on the Floss

Friday, 24 April 2015

The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio: Day Five.

Decamerone by Raffaello Sorbi (1876).

I'm now at the half-way point of Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron, his collection of one hundred stories told by the seven women and three men escaping the Black Death in Florence in the 1340s. Each day someone is crowned king or queen, and today Fiammetta is queen. She has chosen the theme of the day, which is "the adventures of lovers who survived calamities or misfortunes and attainted a state of happiness". 

Cymon and Iphigenia by John Everett Millais (1847–1848).
First Story: This is told by Panfillo (1.1, 2.7, 3.4, 4.6) and is about Galesus, who is nicknamed "Cymon" which means "simpleton":
... since the sum total of his tutor's persistent efforts, his father's cajolings and beatings, and all the ingenuity of various others, had failed to drum a scrap of learning or good manners into his head, on the contrary leaving him coarsely inarticulate and with the manners rather of a wild beast than a human being, he had earned himself the unflattering nickname of Cymon, which in their language has the same sort of meaning as 'simpleton' in ours.
Cymon changes his uncouth ways when he meets Iphigenia and wishes to marry her, but she is already betrothed to another man (Pasimondas). Cymon then conspires to kidnap her and flee to Crete however he is captured himself and taken before a magistrate. Meanwhile, Pasimondas' brother (Lysimachus) wishes to marry Cassandra, however the aforementioned magistrate wishes to marry Cassandra himself. So, Lysimachus and Cymon plot to kidnap Iphigenia and Cassandra and ultimately marry them.

Second Story: Told by Emilia (1.6, 2.6, 3.7, 4.7), it is about Gostanza, "the most beautiful girl... who belonged to one of the noblest families on the island [Lipari, near Sicily]" and Martuccio, a handsome craftsman. They have fallen in love but because of their difference in social ranks Gostanza is not allowed to marry Martuccio. So he leaves the island to make his fortune however instead he ends up in gaol. Gostanza learns that he has died and attempts suicide by casting herself off in a boat with no oars, however she simply drifts and is helped by an old woman. Meanwhile the King of Tunis' claim to the throne is challenged, and when Martuccio hears of it he claims he can help the king. He does so, and is greatly favoured by the King. When Gostanza and Martuccio are reunited they are able to marry. This tale is supposedly based on a real event as retold by Giovanni Villani, the author of New Chronicles (Nuova Cronica, 14th Century).

Third Story: The third story is told by Elissa (1.9, 2.8, 3.5, 4.4). She tells of Pietro Boccamazza and his love for Agnolella. When they wish to marry Agnolella's father refuses and so they elope. However they get lost and Pietro is captured and imprisoned. He escapes, however this is only one of the many calamities he suffers. Finally the couple are reunited and it's concluded by their families that if they still manage to remain together despite all these tests and complications then it is fated that they should remain together.

Fourth Story: Filostrato (1.7, 2.2, 3.1, 4.9) relates this tale about Ricciardo Manardi who falls in love with his friend Lizio's young daughter Caterina. Longing to sleep together, Caterina claims it is too hot to sleep in her bedroom so she wishes to sleep outside, and that way she can also hear the nightingale. They are discovered, but happily Lizio insists they marry. Once the parents leave they have sex yet again, "since they only passed half a dozen milestones in the course of the night, they added another two to the total before getting up"! There is a suggestion that this may be vaguely inspired by Laüstic by Marie de France (12th Century).

Fifth Story: Told by Neifile (1.2, 2.1, 3.9, 4.8). She tells of a young girl, Agnesa, who is cared for by Giacomino de Pavia after the death of Guidotto da Cremona. Two men, Giannole and Minghino, fall in love with her and plot to kidnap her. They end up fighting. Ultimately, seeking to win her, they write to Giacomino. He then asks Giannole how he came to love Agnesa and he relates a story during which Bernabuccio, who is also listening to the story, realises that Agnesa is his daughter and Giannole is his son. As the two are therefore siblings it is arranged that Agnesa will marry Minghino.

Frederick III.
Sixth Story: This is told by Pampinea (1.10, 2.3, 3.2, 4.2) and it's about Gianni and Restituta. They are in love, however one day Restituta is kidnapped by pirates and given to King Frederick of Sicily (referring to Frederick III of Sicily). Gianni finds her and they sleep together, but when the king discovers them he orders them to be burned at the stake. They are saved by a visiting Admiral (Ruggieri de Loria) who tells the king both Gianni and Restituta belong to families of the kings biggest supporters, so they are freed and married.

Seventh Story: Lauretta (1.8, 2.4, 3.8, 4.3) narrates this story about the young lovers Teodoro and Violante. It's a complex tale: Teodoro is sold as a child and is bought by Amerigo who brings Teodoro up as his own. Teodoro falls in love with Amerigo's daughter Violante, she gets pregnant, and when Amerigo finds out he swears to kill them - Teodoro by hanging, and Violante by suicide (she must stab or poison herself). Happily some Armenian ambassadors are passing and recognise Teodoro as the son of one of them. He is saved, and soon so too is Violante.

Eighth story: Told by Filomena (1.3, 2.9, 3.3, 4.5), she tells of Nastagio degli Onesti who is in love with the daughter of Paolo Traversari however she does not love him in return; on the contrary, she's rather unpleasant. One day Nastagio goes walking and he witnesses a knight brutally attack a woman. He challenges the knight and to his amazement the knight replies,
'I was a fellow-citizen of yours, Nastagio, my name was Guido degli Anastagi and you were a little child when I fell in love with this woman. I loved her far more deeply than you love that Traversari girl of yours, but her pride and cruelty led me to such a pass that, one day, I killed myself in sheer despair with this rapier that you see in my hand, and thus I am condemned to eternal punishment. My death pleased her beyond measure, but shortly thereafter she also died, and because she had sinned by her cruelty and by gloating over my sufferings and was quite unrepentant, being convinced that she was more of a saint than a sinner, she too was condemned to the pains of Hell. No sooner was she cast into Hell than we were both given a special punishment, which consisted in her case of fleeing before me and in my own case of pursuing her as though she were my mortal enemy rather than the woman with whom I was once so deeply in love. Every time I catch up with her, I kill her with this same rapier by which I took my own life....
Nastagio decides to use this in his favour. He arranges a banquet in order that Traversari's daughter will see this hell played out in front of her. She is terrified, and accepts Nastagio as her husband.

And this very strange tale inspired Botticelli's 1483 series of paintings Nastagio degli Onesti:

Ninth Story: Told by Fiammetta (1.5, 2.5, 3.6, 4.1). It's a grim tale, which she immediately says originates in a story by Coppo di Borghese Domenichi (Boccaccio's characters do not usually relay the source). It's about Federigo Alberighi who is in love with Monna Giovanna, and he spends all of his money trying to unsuccessfully woo her. Having failed he moves away but by chance she comes across him whilst staying near where he lives (she has recently been widowed). Eager to provide food when she comes to visit he kills his only falcon. She, once learning what he has done, is overcome by his generosity. When her son, the heir of the estate dies, he leaves her all his money. After a period of mourning she marries Federigo. They live happily and his wealth is restored.

Tenth Story: This final story of the day is again told by Dioneo (1.4, 2.10, 3.10, 4.10). It's about Pietro di Vinciolo, and it's suggested he is gay:
... perhaps to pull the wool over the eyes of his fellow-citizens or to improve the low opinion they had of him, rather than any real wish to marry, [he] took to himself a wife. But the unfortunate part about it, considering his own proclivities, was that he chose to marry a buxom young woman with red hair and a passionate nature, who would cheerfully have taken on a pair of husbands, let alone one, and now found herself wedded to a man whose heart was anywhere but in the right place.
Unsatisfied, Pietro's wife seeks fulfilment elsewhere, and one night whilst with a lover Pietro returns home early. He tells her of how his friend Ercolano discovered his wife cheating, and of course Pietro's wife renounces the woman. However as she does so a donkey steps on the hand of her lover and he shouts in pain. Pietro's wife is discovered. But Pietro is not truly angry, and the three end up spending the night together.
How exactly Pietro arranged matters, after supper, to the mutal satisfaction of all three parties I no longer remember. But I do know that the young man was found next morning wandering about the piazza, not exactly certain with which of the pair he had spent the greater part of the night, the wife or the husband.
And there, after a short discussion, ends the fifth day. They decide that on the sixth day Elissa will be queen and the theme will be "those who, on being provoked by some verbal pleasantry, have returned like for like, or who, by a prompt retort or shrewd manoeuvre, have avoided danger, discomfiture or ridicule".

← Pʀᴇᴠɪᴏᴜsʟʏ: Day IV
Nᴇxᴛ: Day VI

Thursday, 23 April 2015

A Child's History of England by Charles Dickens.

A Child's History of England is a history book by Charles Dickens which was published in both book and serial form (within Household Words) between 1851 - 1853. In book form there were three volumes:

  • Volume I - England from the Ancient Times, to the Death of King John 
  • Volume II - England from the Reign of Henry the Third, to the Reign of Richard the Third 
  • Volume III - England from the Reign of Henry the Seventh to the Revolution of 1688 
This book (which was written after David Copperfield, 1850), it is suggested, may have been written for his son Charles Dickens Jr. (Charles Culliford Boz Dickens) who would have just turned fourteen when the first part appeared in Household Words). Dickens was no great historian; this work owed a debt to History of England by Thomas Keightley (1837-39) and History of Great Britain by David Hume (1754-61). Nevertheless he presents a fascinating (if inaccurate at times) history of England from 50 B.C. to 1837 (though the events from James II to Victoria are radically condensed into a small chapter). And I thought a history of England written by one of England's greatest authors might be a good way to celebrate St. George's Day!

I'll start with a list: these are the Kings and Queens (and indeed Oliver Cromwell) of England from Alfred the Great to James II in the order and with the dates that Dickens states:

Alfred the Great
871 - 901.
Edward the Elder
901 - 925
925 - 941
'Six Boy Kings'
941 - 1016
Canute (Cnut)
1016 - 1035
Harold Harefoot
1035 - 1040
1040 - 1042
Edward the Confessor
1042 - 1066
Harold II
William I (the Conqueror)
1066 - 1087
William II (Rufus)
1087 - 1100
Henry I
1100 - 1135
King Stephen
1135 - 1154
Henry II
1154 - 1189
Richard I (the Lionheart)
1189 - 1199
King John
1199 - 1216
Henry III
1216 - 1272
Edward I
1272 - 1307
Edward II
1307 - 1327
Edward III
1327 - 1377
Richard II
1377 - 1399
Henry IV
1399 - 1413
Henry V
1413 - 1422
Henry VI
1422 - 1461
Edward IV
1461 - 1483
Edward V
Richard III
1483 - 1485
Henry VII
1485 - 1509
Henry VIII
1509 - 1547
Edward VI
1547 - 1553
1553 - 1558
Elizabeth I
1558 - 1603
James I
1603 - 1625
Charles I
1625 - 1649
Oliver Cromwell
1649 - 1660
Charles II
1660 - 1685
James II
1685 - 1688

1830 Pigot Pocket Map of England and Wales.
Dickens begins,
If you look at a Map of the World, you will see, in the left-hand upper corner of the Eastern Hemisphere, two Islands lying in the sea. They are England and Scotland, and Ireland. England and Scotland form the greater part of these Islands. Ireland is the next in size. The little neighbouring islands, which are so small upon the Map as to be mere dots, are chiefly little bits of Scotland,—broken off, I dare say, in the course of a great length of time, by the power of the restless water.
Its tone throughout is gentle and there is the definite sense of an adult talking to a small child. And Dickens is not afraid to make judgements, providing guidance and a certain kind of humour. On Henry VIII for example, he writes,
We now come to King Henry the Eighth, whom it has been too much the fashion to call ‘Bluff King Hal,’ and ‘Burly King Harry,’ and other fine names; but whom I shall take the liberty to call, plainly, one of the most detestable villains that ever drew breath. You will be able to judge, long before we come to the end of his life, whether he deserves the character. 
He was just eighteen years of age when he came to the throne. People said he was handsome then; but I don’t believe it. He was a big, burly, noisy, small-eyed, large-faced, double-chinned, swinish-looking fellow in later life (as we know from the likenesses of him, painted by the famous Hans Holbein), and it is not easy to believe that so bad a character can ever have been veiled under a prepossessing appearance.
The accuracy of Dickens' book is dubious. He writes of Richard III the "usurper and murderer" which now is doubtful, but of course Dickens was presenting an "accepted" history, as I said he was not a historian. He tones things down to make suitable the rather unsavoury events in  English history for a child, writing that Henry VIII accused Anne Boleyn "of dreadful crimes which she had never committed, and implicating in them her own brother and certain gentlemen in her service". Also, referring I believe to the Menai massacre (the Roman slaughter of the Druids of Anglesey), he simply wrote,
Above all, it was in the Roman time, and by means of Roman ships, that the Christian Religion was first brought into Britain, and its people first taught the great lesson that, to be good in the sight of God, they must love their neighbours as themselves, and do unto others as they would be done by. The Druids declared that it was very wicked to believe in any such thing, and cursed all the people who did believe it, very heartily.
Yet, despite this lack of objectivity (which now in a way is one of its strengths) it remains an excellent read if we remember that this is A Victorian Child's History of England. It's a guide to English history, and not a definitive one, but I think it provides a good base on which to build. It has the wit and characterisation I associate with Dickens - sharp and keen, and I think writing it provided him with his own base to create some memorable characters out of historical persons, making them come alive not only for children but adults. There is too a sense of his pride in England.

He concludes with a word on Queen Victoria,
She is very good, and much beloved. So I end, like the crier, with
Gᴏᴅ sᴀᴠᴇ ᴛʜᴇ Qᴜᴇᴇɴ!
It is, in a word, charming; a most charming book, sometimes inaccurate, often judgemental, and occasionally a touch hazy, but useful nonetheless and greatly entertaining.

Queen Victoria by Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1842).

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