Monday, 30 November 2015

The Doctor's Wife by Mary Elizabeth Braddon.

The Doctor's Wife is one of Mary Elizabeth Braddon's earlier novels published in 1864, two years after Lady Audley's Secret. I loved Lady Audley's Secret, but it did take a few chapters to get into it. So, when I struggled with The Doctor's Wife I stayed hopeful. But, tried though I did, I could not get into it. It was all rather disappointing - I really thought I'd love it. 

The Doctor's Wife is a re-telling of Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1857). Isabel Gilbert is our Emma Bovary, her husband George Gilbert our Charles Bovary. The premise is much the same - Isabel is a dreamer and a book lover, and she wants her life to be like the books she loves so much. Her marriage is disappointing; like Emma, she married only to relieve her boredom temporarily, she finds her husband tedious, and her eye is caught by the rich and handsome Roland Landsdell, a perfect hero for her ideal life. 

The book is full, full! of literary references. Isabel has Florence Dombey of Dombey and Son (Charles Dickens, 1848) through much of the novel, as well as Byron of course, Tennyson, Scott, Sterne, Thackeray, Shakespeare, Longfellow, King Arthur... It was, I think, rather overdone and for the bored reader it became more of a game to pick them out.

But sadly even that couldn't keep me engaged, and because I did such a bad job of reading it I'll demure from attempting to write about the subtleties in it. All is not lost, however - there was one element that I did find fascinating and that is the book's concern with the impact of reading on one's outlook. Isabel, like Emma, wanted an 'ideal', and that ideal was constructed out of Romantic narratives. Her 'failure' to achieve made her depressed, anxious, and generally discontent with her lot. As I was reading this novel I couldn't help but think of a studies published this year suggesting that Facebook and other forms of social media could lead to depression. The Huffington Post published an article quoting one of the study's co-authors:
"We found that if Facebook users experience envy of the activities and lifestyles of their friends on Facebook, they are much more likely to report feelings of depression... Facebook can be a very positive resource for many people, but if it is used as a way to size up one’s own accomplishments against others, it can have a negative effect."
The Daily Mail also covered this study and others, writing,
The Facebook test group said what riled them most were happy holiday snaps of 'Facebook friends' followed by gushing prose of fabulous lives, great jobs and cracking social diaries.
Facebook is not art (though it is not necessarily reality either!), but as reading may be a source of entertainment, so too is social media, and the universal concern is the effect of these forms of entertainment on the psyche. Some of us feel sad, sometimes even depressed because we're not 'measuring up'. In the 21st Century our measure is those we follow, in the 19th Century it could have been the books we read. Samuel Johnson wrote in 1750 that novels ought to depict morally good characters, and even earlier 335 B.C. Aristotle wrote "characters should be good"; both shared concerns that 'bad' characters were a bad influence, and good characters were a good influence. Either way, reading has an effect on the reader. If Emma Bovary and Isabel Gilbert were depressed at their lack of the passion, romance and grandeur they had read about, it's a good bet they'd be depressed on their daily checks of Facebook or Instagram. A superficial point, I know, but the concerns raised in A Doctor's Wife and Madame Bovary are similar, but the 'devil' today is another form of media. 

Back to the matter in hand, though - though at times irritating and dull, I do still think The Doctor's Wife is a worthwhile read, but I feel that perhaps those who have read Madame Bovary would get more out of it. It lacked subtlety and I suppose it goes without saying I found Flaubert's effort a great deal more admirable, but nonetheless the issues raised are very provoking.

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Further Reading

Friday, 27 November 2015

Britannicus by Jean Racine.

Britannicus is a tragedy by Jean Racine, first performed in 1669. It's also the last Racine I have on my Classics Club list; the other two plays I read appeared later, Phèdre in 1677, and Athaliah in 1691.

The play is set during 1st Century Rome when Nero was emperor; he who was remembered as a tyrant, and was thought to have started the Great Fire of Rome in 64 A.D. ("Nero fiddled while Rome burned"). But this is set before all of this: in this we see his mother Agrippina (the Younger), who is the widow of the Emperor Claudius, and his half-brother Britannicus, the son of Claudius and Valeria Messalina (Nero was adopted by Claudius, his father by birth was Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus). The rightful heir was Britannicus, however Agrippa's scheming meant that Nero succeeded Claudius.

In Racine's play we see Nero's true nature in anticipation of what is to come. Britannicus is in love with Junia, who reciprocates, but Nero wants Junia for himself, partly because of his competitiveness, and partly because her high status may lead Britannicus to become a threat to him. So he tells Junia he will kill Britannicus if Junia does not reject him, and for the sake of his life she complies. As this unfolds, Nero is at the same time rejecting his mother's dominance over him.

Britannicus is so called because the plot centres around him, however the focus is on the effect of his presence, his existence on Nero and Agrippina. This is a very complex play and I admire it deeply, but I think I would benefit from a second read! Time is against me this week however, but I do hope to re-read it at some point if not before the year is out then next year. It was difficult for me because of the unfamiliarity of the subject matter, but I don't think Racine's audience would have had that problem. For that reason, this would have been a fascinating glimpse into the early years of Nero's reign, and Racine audience would have been well aware of Nero's reputation and later deeds. As my own knowledge is somewhat tenuous (to put it mildly!) it was a tricky one. Nevertheless it was worth it, and however difficult I've found Racine's plays I have enjoyed them.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Gitanjali by Rabindranath Tagore.

Gitanjali (গীতাঞ্জলি) is a collection of poems by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore (রবীন্দ্রনাথ ঠাকুর) and it was first published on the 14th August 1910 - this Bengali edition contained 157 poems; the English edition (1912), translated by Tagore himself in prose, contains 103. 

Rabindranath Tagore.
The title, Gitanjali, literally means 'song offerings' ('Gita' meaning 'song' and 'anjali' meaning 'offerings'), and these short poems are offerings to God on the subjects of nature and humanity; for this he was awarded the Nobel prize for Literature in 1913 (the first non-European to do so) and he was knighted in 1915 (he renounced this in 1919 however in response to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in which British Indian Army shot at those taking part in the Baisakhi celebrations. The British government stated 379 had been killed, the  Indian National Congress suggest it was 1,000).

Here's the 1ˢᵗ poem or song (translated in prose, as I say):
Thou hast made me endless, such is thy pleasure. 
This frail vessel thou emptiest again and again, and fillest it ever with fresh life. 
This little flute of a reed thou hast carried over hills and dales, and hast breathed through it melodies eternally new. 
At the immortal touch of thy hands my little heart loses its limits in joy and gives birth to utterance ineffable. 
Thy infinite gifts come to me only on these very small hands of mine. Ages pass, and still thou pourest, and still there is room to fill.
One of my favourites is the 19ᵗʰ -
If thou speakest not I will fill my heart with thy silence and endure it. I will keep still and wait like the night with starry vigil and its head bent low with patience. 
The morning will surely come, the darkness will vanish, and thy voice pour down in golden streams breaking through the sky. 
Then thy words will take wing in songs from every one of my birds' nests, and thy melodies will break forth in flowers in all my forest groves.
Another favourite - the 24ᵗʰ-
If the day is done, if birds sing no more, if the wind has flagged tired, then draw the veil of darkness thick upon me, even as thou hast wrapt the earth with the coverlet of sleep and tenderly closed the petals of the drooping lotus at dusk. 
From the traveller, whose sack of provisions is empty before the voyage is ended, whose garment is torn and dustladen, whose strength is exhausted, remove shame and poverty, and renew his life like a flower under the cover of thy kindly night. 
I also loved the 35ᵗʰ -
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; 
Where knowledge is free; 
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls; 
Where words come out from the depth of truth; 
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection; 
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit; 
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action— 
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
Finally, one more - the 81ˢᵗ -
On many an idle day have I grieved over lost time. But it is never lost, my lord. Thou hast taken every moment of my life in thine own hands. 
Hidden in the heart of things thou art nourishing seeds into sprouts, buds into blossoms, and ripening flowers into fruitfulness. 
I was tired and sleeping on my idle bed and imagined all work had ceased. In the morning I woke up and found my garden full with wonders of flowers. 
There is much joy and peace to be found in Tagore's Gitanjali; it is stirring, profound, and one read of it is not enough. I've already read it twice since the weekend, and I'm not alone - W. B. Yeats, in his introduction to the English version of the poems, quotes a Bengali Doctor as saying, "I read Rabindranath every day, to read one line of his is to forget all the troubles of the world." Many reviewers on Goodreads say the same - these poems are to be absorbed as well as simply read. I think this was an excellent introduction to Rabindranath Tagore, and I do plan on reading some of his other works as soon as I can!

To finish, three illustrations from the 1918 edition by Nandalal Bose and Abanindranath Tagore:





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Further Reading

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

A Love Episode by Émile Zola.

A Love Episode is Émile Zola's eighth novel of his 'Les Rougon Macquart' series in which he writes about the temperament and environment of the Rougon Macquart family during the Second French Empire (1852–1870). A Love Episode, or Une page d'amour (known too as A Page of Love and A Love Affair), was first published in 1878, following L'Assommoir (1877) and preceding Nana (1880). 

It is the novel which Zola hoped would "make all Paris weep", and unlike most of the Rougon Macquart novels (with the exception of The Dream, 1888) there is a dose of sentimentality that reminded me a little (only a little) of The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens (1841). The main character is Hélène Grandjean, the daughter of Ursule Mouret (née Macquart, who is the illegitimate child of Adélaïde Rougon) and sister of François Mouret (The Conquest of Plassans, 1874) and Silvère Mouret (The Fortune of the Rougons, 1871). Before the novel starts Hélène moved to Paris with her husband Charles Grandjean and daughter Jeanne, however as they arrived Charles fell ill and died a week later. Hélène and Jeanne live an isolated life, looking at Paris only from the window, having only visited the city a few times. She is a beautiful woman and a little like Emma Bovary in her imaginative life which is inspired by reading, particularly Walter Scott, and like Emma she romanticises Paris and the notion of 'love': the advert for A Love Episode in 'Le Bien Public' in which the novel was first serialised claimed that it would "address, above all, the sensibility of women readers". 

From Adélaïde (known also as Aunt Dide, the matriarch as it were of the Rougons and the Macquarts) Jeanne has inherited her neuroses and seizures. She is insecure, obsessed with her mother (think along the lines of Marcel in Proust's Swann's Way), and is abnormally jealous of anyone who takes her mother's attention away from her. Some readers will find her a very sympathetic character, but I must admit I didn't, hard-hearted as that makes me sound! As the novel opens Jeanne has a seizure and Hélène runs out into the street to find a doctor. She finds Dr. Henri Deberle and he saves Jeanne's life. From here Hélène comes to be friends with Deberle, and his wife Juliette and her friends, but Hélène and the doctor begin to fall in love: the first time, in fact, that Hélène has truly been in love. Jeanne's jealousy, however, is a force to be reckoned with.

L'Assommoir was Zola's first great success, and for A Love Episode which immediately followed it he wanted to "astonish readers of L'Assommoir with a good natured book". Good natured? Perhaps - but only comparatively. A good natured Zola is, after all, a world apart from, say, a good natured Jane Austen. But Zola was never truly satisfied with A Love Episode. He told Marguerite Charpentier (the wife of his publisher Georges Charpentier), 
There are days when I'm worried about this work, when it seems very flat and gray... On other days I find it good-natured and easy to read.... it must be said that we won't repeat L'Assommoir's success. Une Page d'amour ... is too sweet to excite the public. No sense deluding oneself there. Let's sell the thousand and count ourselves lucky. 
Yet Flaubert, the creator of Emma Bovary, praised it, assuring Zola it didn't "mar the collection", and writing that he found it disturbing and exciting. Guy Maupassant, another of Zola's literary friends, expressed his admiration too. For me, it was an interesting read as Hélène is essentially the most 'normal' descendent of the Rougon Macquarts. Zola writes about the petit-bourgeoisie in his attention to Deberle, his wife, and their friends with Hélène as the outsider - a key feature of many of the Rougon Macquart novels, and as the title suggests he writes on love, passion, and jealousy, which makes this novel stand out somewhat - the primary focus is on a more universal subject. Because of that this novel did not require the level of research that went into the likes of Germinal, Money, or The Ladies Paradise; this has the effect of reading perhaps more like a traditional novel that the others, but also I felt it lacking in the Zola passion that I love so much. I think I have to agree with Zola - sometimes it falls a little flat, other times it's quite sweet. Though different, it's still a key part of the series with it's focus on heredity - the similarities between Hélène and her brother Silvère are apparent, as are the obvious comparisons with Jeanne, Adélaïde, and Hélène's brother François. 

So, for those who are reading the Rougon Macquart novels - it's certainly not one to dread and not as disappointing as I'm perhaps making out, but if you're new to Zola this isn't a novel I'd especially recommend.

To finish - three illustrations from the 1905 edition by Dantan:


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Further Reading

Monday, 23 November 2015

Reading England 2016.

It's that time of year again! Challenges for 2016 are already appearing, and for 2016 I offer for the second year in a row Reading England (N.B. I'll be putting up a masterpost for the 2015 Challenge in December). This was inspired by the 50 States Reading Challenge, only for this one we would be reading books set in the various English counties. This year however there are two options (you can pick one or the other, or both):

Challenge #1

The Goal: To travel England by reading, and read at least one book per however many counties of England you decide to read.

Example: You aim to read three books set in three different counties, and you read Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, and The Darling Buds of May by H. E. Bates. Reading these means you have read a book from Dorset (Far From the Madding Crowd), London (Mrs Dalloway), and Kent (The Darling Buds of May).

The Rules
  • This challenge begins on the 1st January 2016 and ends on 31st December 2016.
  • You can sign up any time between now and the end of 2016. Only books read after 1st January 2016 count, though.
  • Choose a level (below), but do not feel obliged to pick your books or even your counties beforehand. 
  • Because this is a classics blog, I'd encourage people to read classic novels, but how you define classics is up to you.
  • You are not limited to English authors. Henry James, for example, is American but his novel The Turn of the Screw is set in Essex, and so he counts for the challenge.
  • Don't feel obligated to blog about each book if you don't want to, and if you do - don't feel you have to include general information about the county. You could also include a description of the landscape described from the book in your posts, but again you don't have to. This is purely for fun :)
  • You don't have to read the books in their original language, translations are of course accepted.
  • Audio books, Kindles, etc are accepted too.
  • Poetry, plays, biographies, and autobiographies count as well as novels. 
The Levels:
  • Level one: 1 - 3 counties
  • Level two: 4 - 6 counties
  • Level three: 7 - 12 counties
  • Level four: 12 + counties
At the end this post there's a list but before we get to that, here is.....

Challenge #2

The Goal: To read as many books as you wish from just one county. You can 'Read London', 'Read Dorset', 'Read Yorkshire', 'Read Cumbria' - any county you wish!

The Rules: As above :)

The Levels:
  • Level one: 1 - 3 books
  • Level two: 4 - 6 books
  • Level three: 7 - 12 books
  • Level four: 12 + books

The List

As I said last year, this list is not exhaustive, and there are no doubt many books that you may decide is more suitable for a particular county than the ones I've listed. You get to choose your books, I'm not asking you to pick from this list. Secondly. this isn't even an exhaustive list of counties! Odd as this perhaps might seem to someone not from England, listing English counties is a tricky business! What I have listed here is based on the 39 Historic Counties of England, although I've listed novels set in Middlesex as London, as Middlesex would have once contained the likes of Bloomsbury, Kensington, Hampstead and the like within its borough of Ossulstone. Rutland is now made up of Leicestershire, Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire, and finally Westmorelandshire is a part of Cumbria. It wasn't easy to get the information together for this list, so there may be errors, but I hope there aren't!

Bedfordshire
  • The Two Sisters by H. E. Bates
  • My Uncle Silas by H. E. Bates
  • Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners by John Bunyan
  • The Autobiography of Mark Rutherford by William Hale White.
Berkshire
  • The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
  • Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy 
  • Tom Brown's School Days by Thomas Hughes
  • Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
  • The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare
  • The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde
Bristol
  • Evelina by Fanny Burney
Buckinghamshire
  • Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson
Cambridgeshire
  • The Longest Journey by E. M. Forster
  • Maurice by E. M. Forster
  • Glory by Vladimir Nabokov
  • Jacob's Room by Virginia Woolf
Cheshire
  • Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
  • Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
Cornwall
  • Frenchman's Creek by Daphne du Maurier
  • Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier
  • Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  • Basil by Wilkie Collins
  • Rambles Beyond Railways by Wilkie Collins
County Durham
  • Afternoon Off by Alan Bennett
  • Rokeby by Walter Scott
Cumbria
  • The Tennant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
  • The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
  • The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices by Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins
  • Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
  • Lady Anna by Anthony Trollope
  • The Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth
Derbyshire
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë [uncertain]
  • Adam Bede by George Eliot
  • Uncle Silas by J. Sheridan Le Fanu
  • The Lair of the White Worm by Bram Stoker
Devon
  • Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
  • Lorna Doone by R. D. Blackmore
  • The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Westward Ho! by Charles Kingsley
  • He Knew He Was Right by Anthony Trollope
  • Rachel Ray by Anthony Trollope
Dorset
  • The Worm Forgives the Plough by John Stewart Collis
  • Moonfleet by J. Meade Falkner
  • Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
  • The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy
  • Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
  • Two on a Tower by Thomas Hardy
  • Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy
  • Thank you, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse
Essex
  • Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
  • Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens
  • Nightingale Woods by Stella Gibbons
  • The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
Gloucestershire
  • Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee
  • The Tailor of Gloucester by Beatrix Potter
Hampshire
  • Watership Down by Richard Adams
  • The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
Herefordshire 
  • On The Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin
  • The Diaries of Francis Kilvert by Rev. Francis Kilvert
Hertfordshire
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  • Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers
Kent
  • The Darling Buds of May by H. E. Bates
  • The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
  • Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot
  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  • The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens
  • Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham
  • Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham
Lancashire
  • Surly Tim and other stories by Frances Hodgson Burnett 
  • Hard Times by Charles Dickens
  • Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
  • North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
  • Redburn by Herman Melville
  • The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell
  • Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
Leicestershire
  • The Right to an Answer by Anthony Burgess
  • Richard III by William Shakespeare
Lincolnshire
  • John Marchmount's Legacy by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
  • The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
  • Pamela, or, Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson
London
  • Emma by Jane Austen
  • Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie
  • A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler
  • The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
  • The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton
  • Fanny Hill by John Cleland
  • No Name by Wilkie Collins
  • Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
  • A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
  • The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens
  • Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
  • Daniel Deronda by George Eliot
  • The Nether World by George Gissing
  • New Grub Street by George Gissing
  • The Diary of a Nobody by George and Wheedon Grossmith
  • Hanover Square by Patrick Hamilton
  • Esther Waters by George Moore
  • The Diary of Samuel Pepys
  • Vanity Fairy by William Makepeace Thackerary
  • Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
  • Night and Day by Virginia Woolf
Norfolk
  • The Big Six by Arthur Ransome
  • Armadale by Wilkie Collins
Northamptonshire
  • Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
  • Doctor Wortle's School by Anthony Trollope 
  • Mistress Masham's Repose by T. H. White
Northumberland
  • 'The Man of Law's Tale' from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
  • The Ballad of Chevy Chase by Anonymous (15th Century)
  • The poetry of Wilfrid Gibson 
  • Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott
  • Henry IV Part II by William Shakespeare
  • Ruined City by Nevil Shute
Nottinghamshire
  • Lady Chatterley's Lover by D. H. Lawrence
  • The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence
  • Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence
  • The White Peacock by D. H. Lawrence
  • A New Way to Pay Old Debts by Philip Massinger
Oxfordshire
  • Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
  • The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
  • Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Rutland
  • Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope
Shropshire
  • The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens
  • Howards End by E. M. Forster
  • A Shropshire Lad by A. E. Housman
Somerset
  • Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
  • Persuasion by Jane Austen
  • No Name by Wilkie Collins
  • The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding
  • Black Sheep by Georgette Heyer
  • The Belton Estate by Anthony Trollope
  • Aunts Aren't Gentlemen by P. G. Wodehouse
Staffordshire
  • Anna of the Five Towns by Arnold Bennett
  • The Old Wives Tale by Arnold Bennett
  • Adam Bede by George Eliot
Suffolk
  • Celia by Fanny Burney
  • No Name by Wilkie Collins
  • We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea by Arthur Ransome
  • I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
Surrey
  • The Watsons by Jane Austen
  • A Room With a View by E. M. Forster
  • The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
  • The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells
Sussex
  • Sanditon by Jane Austen
  • The Worm Forgives the Plough by John Stewart Collis
  • The Last Post by Ford Maddox Ford
  • The Collector by John Fowles
  • Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
  • Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
  • The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell
  • The History of Mr. Polly by H. G. Wells
  • The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells
Tyne and Wear
  • The novels of Catherine Cookson
  • The Stars Look Down by A. J. Cronin
Warwickshire
  • Scenes of Clerical Life by George Eliot
  • The Diary of an Edwardian Lady by Edith Holden
  • Tom Brown's School Days by Thomas Hughes
  • Kenilworth by Walter Scott
  • As You Like It by William Shakespeare
Wiltshire
  • The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • The Chronicles of Barset by Anthony Trollope
  • Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Worcestershire
  • Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
  • The Well of Loneliness by Radcyffe Hall
Yorkshire
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë [uncertain]
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
  • Shirley by Charlotte Brontë
  • The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • 'The Summoner's Tale' from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
  • No Name by Wilkie Collins
  • Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens
  • The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith
  • A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines
  • The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shady, Gentleman by Lawrence Sterne
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker
As I've mentioned before, county boundaries do change, and the settings for books change too, so reading Great Expectations by Charles Dickens would see a jump between London and Kent, and Dracula by Bram Stoker describes both Kent and Yorkshire (Whitby). On this basis, it's up to you how you would categorise the novels you read, but it would be nice if, for example, you read Great Expectations for Kent, and then a different London novel or vice versa.

So, all that's left is to leave me a comment if you're interested, and if you are here are your buttons! For the second challenge I've tried to anticipate which counties would be the most popular. If I don't include the county you want to focus on let me know and I'll make you a button :)


Friday, 20 November 2015

Desperate Remedies by Thomas Hardy.

1889 edition.
Desperate Remedies is Thomas Hardy's first published novel, published in 1871: Hardy's first novel, The Poor Man and the Lady was completed in 1867 however he was unable to find a publisher and so destroyed the manuscript. The ideas and some scenes can be found in his poem 'The Poor Man and the Lady' and his novella An Indiscretion in the Life of an Heiress (1878).

I think it's fair to say that Desperate Remedies is a pure sensationalist novel, like that of Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon, but (and I did very much enjoy it) not quite as good. These novels were popular at the time - The Woman in White (1860), Lady Audley's Secret (1862), and The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) to name a few. It has many of the elements - murder, bigamy, villains, danger, and ambiguous identities. It's a thrill of a read, and though set in Hardy's beloved Wessex, Wessex doesn't feature so highly: in this, the drama in central and what it lacks in subtlety, excitement rather makes up for it!  

The heroine is Cytherea Graye. She is attractive and, oddly enough, an excellent mover:
Her face was exceedingly attractive, though artistically less perfect than her figure, which approached unusually near to the standard of faultlessness. But even this feature of hers yielded the palm to the gracefulness of her movement, which was fascinating and delightful to an extreme degree.
Indeed, motion was her speciality, whether shown on its most extended scale of bodily progression, or minutely, as in the uplifting of her eyelids, the bending of her fingers, the pouting of her lip. The carriage of her head—motion within motion—a glide upon a glide—was as delicate as that of a magnetic needle. And this flexibility and elasticity had never been taught her by rule, nor even been acquired by observation, but, nullo cultu, had naturally developed itself with her years. 
When her father dies and leaves her and her brother Owen almost penniless she works as a lady's maid to Miss Aldclyffe - Miss Cytherea Aldclyffe: by coincidence this is the woman whom her father once loved, and who Cytherea Graye is named after. Miss Aldclyffe is older (in her forties, described once as "elderly", such were the times), irritable, strange, and cantankerous, but Cytherea is more than capable of standing up for herself. And, by this time, our heroine has fallen in love with a young architect, Edward Springrove, but she finds out he is already engaged to a woman he doesn't love. Fear of poverty, her brother's illness, and Miss Aldclyffe's intervention leads her to accept a marriage proposal from Aeneas Manston, whose wife has recently died in a fire. 

But all is not what it seems in this intriguing novel. Questions are constantly raised, doubt hangs in the air, and there are so many twists and turns - I wouldn't want to write any more on the plot because the enjoyment of reading it will be entirely ruined, and I do hope everyone will read it at some point in their lives! 

An interesting element of Desperate Remedies is its depiction of female sexuality - the name Cytherea recalls Aphrodite, the goddess of love, who is also known as Cytherea or Lady of Cythera. Though young, she is very sensual and even sexual; her falling for Edward Springrove has its element of lust. Then there is the moment between Cytherea and Miss Aldclyffe, which some interpret as a Victorian lesbian scene -
A distinct woman's whisper came to her through the keyhole: 'Cytherea!'
Only one being in the house knew her Christian name, and that was Miss Aldclyffe. Cytherea stepped out of bed, went to the door, and whispered back, 'Yes?'
'Let me come in, darling.'
The young woman paused in a conflict between judgement and emotion. It was now mistress and maid no longer; woman and woman only. Yes; she must let her come in, poor thing.
She got a light in an instant, opened the door, and raising her eyes and the candle, saw Miss Aldclyffe standing outside in her dressing-gown.
'Now you see that it is really myself; put out the light,' said the visitor. 'I want to stay here with you, Cythie. I came to ask you to come down into my bed, but it is snugger here. But remember that you are mistress in this room, and that I have no business here, and that you may send me away if you choose. Shall I go?'
'O no; you shan't indeed if you don't want to,' said Cythie generously.
The instant they were in bed Miss Aldclyffe freed herself from the last remnant of restraint. She flung her arms round the young girl, and pressed her gently to her heart.
'Now kiss me,' she said.
Cytherea, upon the whole, was rather discomposed at this change of treatment; and, discomposed or no, her passions were not so impetuous as Miss Aldclyffe's. She could not bring her soul to her lips for a moment, try how she would.
'Come, kiss me,' repeated Miss Aldclyffe.
Cytherea gave her a very small one, as soft in touch and in sound as the bursting of a bubble.
'More earnestly than that—come.'
She gave another, a little but not much more expressively.
I'm inclined to think this passion of Miss Aldclyffe's was not quite how it appears to the modern reader because lesbianism was so suppressed that, assuming Hardy was aware of it which he may well not have been, this would have been particularly daring. It's possible that this represents a kind of power play with the strange and difficult Miss Aldclyffe attempting to bully Cytherea into submission having previously seen what she perceived as arrogance in the young Cytherea. Whatever the case may be, Miss Aldclyffe is uncomfortably imposing - and is through much of the novel.

It is, I think, a clever and exciting novel, but I do have to admit it's not a masterpiece. In 1889 The Guardian reviewed it, mentioned that it had merit, but wrote too "The story is full of improbabilities", which indeed it is. Another aspect I wasn't keen on, which again The Guardian drew attention to, was the peculiar chapter headings. The Guardian wrote,
The device here followed of heading each chapter or subdivision of a chapter with a precise date, such as "Half-past twelve to one am" and "August the fourth, till four o'clock", though sufficiently irritating and by no means to be recommended for adoption, is curious as illustrating the sort of process which goes on in the writer's mind, and the care and pains which help to make up an effect loosely attributed to some special power of gift in an author, working outside ordinary means.
It certainly gave a clear time-frame, however! And The Spectator was yet more damning, calling the novel "a desperate remedy for an emaciated purse". It is true Hardy was on a mission to be published, having been advised by George Meredith to discard The Poor Man and the Lady and work on something with 'more of a plot'. I think for Hardy fans this is naturally a must-read, and too for those who enjoy sensation novels. But despite its flaws it still remains good, and so I wouldn't relegate it to the mere "curiosity" genre!

All in all, I've had an enjoyable start to my Thomas Hardy challenge with this novel. next I'm planning on reading his short story from 1864 - How I Built Myself a House, and then Far From the Madding Crowd (1874).

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.

Madame Bovary is one of the first classics I ever read - not the very first, but without a doubt it was one of the first five. I remember being very impressed with it, and surprised too because I was of the age when I thought classics had to be boring and dull because of their great age (Madame Bovary then seemed to me to be practically an ancient text!). But like it or not, Madame Bovary is certainly not dull.

It was of course written by Gustave Flaubert and first published in 1857, serialised first in 'La Revue de Paris' between 1st October 1856 and 15th December 1856. It was his first novel, and Flaubert was promptly charged with "offence to public and religious morality and to good morals" on its publication. Ernest Pinard the prosecutor argued,
No gauze for him, no veils - he gives us nature in all her nudity and crudity.
It became notorious for it's depiction of extramarital affairs, but Flaubert was acquitted (though left with a hatred of middle class values and hypocrisy). The heroine of the novel is Emma Bovary, but the novel begins not with her but her husband Charles. We briefly see him as a child and youth, shy and fairly bright but lacking in motivation. Because he doesn't apply himself he fails his medical exam, and the second time he takes it he passes but only just and he becomes a country doctor. He marries a woman much older than he, but she dies, and so he re-marries - Emma. She is beautiful, romantic, loves reading romantic novels, and dreams of fabulous wealth, devotion, and love. 

I get the impression that readers of Madame Bovary tend to fall into two camps regarding Emma: those who like or love her as a tragic heroine, and those who hate her. Despite loving the book I can't say which I think is "right". Her very nature is divisive, and so it is "right" that there are two camps! Her marriage to Charles is a disaster from the very start when she wonders "exactly what was meant in life by the words 'bliss', 'passion', 'ecstasy', which had looked so beautiful in books". She finds no bliss, no passion, and no ecstasy in her marriage, but such is her nature, her thirst for excitement, her need for avid devotion, the fact that she lives not in Paris but Normandy, and, frankly, her lacking of a moral compass, she embarks on affairs. Her ideals, her notion of romanticism, leaves her wide open to being used, and she is. Her bad marriage, the circumstances, and she herself lead to her inevitably tragic end. 

I think to see Emma as this 'tragic heroine' as I said is possible, for we do not have to like or feel sorry for tragic heroines. They can be frustrating, irritating, and stupid at times and it is not always possible to feel sympathy with such people. On the other hand, a kinder reader (which I am trying to be, but the fact is I don't like Emma Bovary) will be less hard on her. She was young, and yes, foolish, and she was a strong and passionate woman who lived in a small town in the 19th Century. She was born out of her time; she was ahead of her time perhaps. A 20th or 21st Century Emma Bovary could have come at least close to realising her dreams, though, on the other hand, perhaps no century could contain her. 

This is one of the reasons I greatly admire and love Madame Bovary - Flaubert created a character so vivid that everyone has an opinion on her, and his writing is so close to being flawless that many readers cannot put the book down despite hating the heroine. This book seems to call a brutal halt to Romanticism and mark a beginning of Realism: happy endings are for old novels, but not for this, mid-19th Century provincial France. This adds to the sadness, whether it is Emma you feel sorry for, her husband Charles, or her daughter Berthe, who is really the victim in the novel - of her mother's excess and her father's incompetency, and the fact that they simply should never have married.  

What ever the case, the novel is intriguing, beautifully written, and most provocative. Everyone who has read it has an opinion, and the debate that rises from it is always very engaging. For that Madame Bovary must be read. 

To finish - two illustrations from Madame Bovary by E. Boilvin (1875), found on La vie est belle:

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

On Books by Michel de Montaigne.

Detail of the title page of Essais.
'On Books' is the tenth essays from Michel de Montaigne's Essays (Essais), first published in 1580: a great surprise to me because de Montaigne feels so much more modern than that. 

The essay opens with the rather odd statement,
I have no doubt that I often happen to speak of things that are much better and more truly handled by those who are masters of the trade.
Nevertheless he presses on (with the essay and indeed the complete collection, which contains 107 essays I believe), and he tells us why he reads - 
In books I only look for the pleasure of honest entertainment; or if I study, the only learning I look for is that which tells me how to know myself, and teaches me how to die well and to live well: Has meus ad metas sudet oportet equus [This is the goal towards which my horse should strain].
Thus, he goes on, he does not get too concerned over that which he doesn't understand or like: "What I do not see immediately, I see even less by persisting", and "If one book bores me, I take up another". 

He writes of the books he likes for "simple entertainment" - Boccaccio's Decameron, Rabelais (presumably Gargantua and Pantagruel, which is on my Classics Club list and I'm very much looking forward to!), and The Kisses of Johannes Everaarts. Virgil's Georgics, he writes, is "the most accomplished work in all poetry", and the fifth book of the Aeneid is "the most perfect". "Good old Terence", he says, "personifies the charm and grace of the Latin tongue", and Terence and Plautus together "crowd into a single play five or six tales by Boccaccio". Plutarch and Seneca are both mentioned too - "[t]hey both have this particular advantage for my temperament that the knowledge I seek is there treated in disconnected pieces that do not demand the bondage of prolonged labour, of which I am incapable".

Plato, on the other hand, doesn't get such a good write-up - "Will the licence of the age excuse my sacrilegious boldness in thinking that even Plato's dialogues drag, and stifle their meaning in a plethora of argument?" Aristotle, too - for Montaigne feels as though his works could do with a re-ordering ("I should like him to begin with his conclusion"). As for Cicero (though he admits to liking reading Letters to Atticus),
... I am of the common opinion that, apart from his learning, he had no great excellence of mind; he was a good citizen, and easy-going by nature, as stout and jovial men of his kind usually are; but he had, in all truth, a great deal of weakness and ambitious vanity about him. And I do not know how to excuse him for thinking his poetry fit to be published...
From the ancients to the medieval - Jean Froissart, "who pursued his task with such candid simplicity that when he made a mistake he was not afraid to acknowledge it and set it right as soon as it was pointed out to him".  Montaigne then writes on the art of history writing, admonishing those who "take it upon themselves to judge, and consequently to fashion history to their own ideas". Then from history, we return to the start - Montaigne again acknowledges his poor memory, and concludes -
To compensate a little for the treacheries and deficiencies of my memory, which are so extreme that more than once I have picked up, thinking it new and unknown to me, some book that I had carefully read some years before, and scribbled all over with my notes, I have adopted the habit for some time now of noting at the end of every book - I mean of those I do not intend to read again - the date when I finished it and the opinion. 
Motaigne, as you can see, would most likely have been a blogger, or at the very least had a Goodreads account!

I loved this essay. It felt very much of the moment - very lively, warm, and witty. It's also reassuring - so often we're told that the classics are classics because they're good and that we ought to like them, and if we don't we're missing the point. Montaigne has no qualms about writing about the books and authors he didn't care for, nor does he have any issue with not finishing a book he's started. And yet , with very good reason, he's one of the most celebrated essayists of the western canon. 

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Clarissa by Samuel Richardson.

Clarissa, The History of a Young Lady is by Samuel Richardson and was first published in 1748. It is one of the longest novels ever written and the longest novel in the English language. To put that in context - Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu, the Guinness World Record holder for the longest novel, is about 1,267,069 words long. Clarissa is less - 984,870 words according to the New York Times. That's about 200,000 words more than the Bible (783,137 words), but 105,869 less than the Harry Potter series (1,090,739 words). Length-wise, then, clearly half-way between the Bible and Harry Potter. It is undoubtedly huge - the kind of book that tears if not held properly, and with no support whilst reading can easily injure one's wrists (I speak from experience). Is it worth it? Oh yes. Definitely.

You would think for a novel this length I would write a monster length review to go with it, but no - Clarissa, despite all that, is straight forward in its plot. Furthermore, I think it can be divided into three parts - to go too far in describing the first part would ruin the reader's experience and I wouldn't want to do that to anyone. The full title of Clarissa sums up the whole book best without giving away any plot details:


CLARISSA
ᴏʀ, ᴛʜᴇ
HISTORY
ᴏғ ᴀ 
YOUNG LADY
Comprehending
THE MOST IMPORTANT 
CONCERNS OF PRIVATE LIFE
And particularly showing
ᴛʜᴇ ᴅɪsᴛʀᴇss ᴛʜᴀᴛ ᴍᴀʏ ᴀᴛᴛᴇɴᴅ ᴛʜᴇ
ᴍɪsᴄᴏɴᴅᴜᴄᴛ ʙᴏᴛʜ ᴏғ ᴘᴀʀᴇɴᴛs ᴀɴᴅ ᴄʜɪʟᴅʀᴇɴ,
ɪɴ ʀᴇʟᴀᴛɪᴏɴ ᴛᴏ ᴍᴀʀʀɪᴀɢᴇ.

In terms of action - well, it's not half-way between the Bible and Harry Potter. What happens is important of course, but what this novel is really about is emotion. Samuel Johnson wrote that Clarissa was "the first book in the world for the knowledge it displays of the human heart". He did however concede, when someone remarked that Richardson was rather tedious,
Why, Sir, if you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself. But you must read him for the sentiment, and consider the story as only giving occasion to the sentiment. [from The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell]
It is slow, I'll give the critic that. But no, it's not tedious at all. The heroine is Clarissa Harlowe, the daughter of the newly wealthy and ambitious James Harlowe and Lady Charlotte Harlowe. She has two siblings - James (the younger) and Arabella, and two uncles - Antony and John Harlowe. Her best and dearest friend is Anna Howe. Through a series of letters (537 of them, from 10th January to 18th December) we learn first from Miss Howe that Clarissa's brother James has fought and been wounded in a duel with Robert Lovelace, The story begins with Miss Howe writing to Clarissa (dated 10th January),
I am extremely concerned, my dearest friend, for the disturbance that have happened in your family. I know how it must hurt you to become the subject of the public talk: and yet, upon an occasion so generally known, it is impossible but that whatever relates to a young lady, whose distinguished merits have made her the public care, should engage every body's attention. I long to have the particulars from yourself; and of the usage I am told you receive upon an accident you could not help; and in which, as far as I can learn, the sufferer was the aggressor. 
Mr. Diggs, the surgeon, whom I sent for at the first hearing of the rencounter, to inquire, for your sake, how your brother was, told me, that there was no danger from the wound, if there were none from the fever; which it seems has been increased by the perturbation of his spirits. 
Mr. Wyerley drank tea with us yesterday; and though he is far from being partial to Mr. Lovelace, as it may well be supposed, yet both he and Mr. Symmes blame your family for the treatment they gave him when he went in person to inquire after your brother's health, and to express his concern for what had happened. 
They say, that Mr. Lovelace could not avoid drawing his sword: and that either your brother's unskilfulness or passion left him from the very first pass entirely in his power.
Clarissa by John Everett Millais (1887).
Robert Lovelace is the novel's anti-hero, a sort of combination of Mr. Darcy and Heathcliff, though with such cunning and lack of regard of others' emotions one can easily suppose he is far more of a sociopath than Heathcliff ever was (even his name suggests it - "Lovelace" sounding very much like "Loveless" when spoken aloud). Clarissa is the very opposite - an archetypical English heroine - beautiful, virtuous, kind, generous, intelligent, a good writer, and accomplished. Yet Lovelace and Clarissa are drawn to each other somehow. Following the duel it is out of the question of their making a match, and besides Clarissa certainly knows how unsuitable a husband Lovelace would be. Her parents decide that Roger Solmes would be the perfect husband for Clarissa, despite the fact that she despises him. She writes to Anna (Letter VIII, 24th February) of their persistence - her family's and Solmes,
They drive on here at a furious rate. The man lives here, I think. He courts them, and is more and more a favourite. Such terms, such settlements! That's the cry. 
O my dear, that I had not reason to deplore the family fault, immensely rich as they all are! But this I may the more unreservedly say to you, as we have often joined in the same concern: I, for a father and uncles; you, for a mother; in every other respect, faultless. 
Hitherto, I seem to be delivered over to my brother, who pretends as great a love to me as ever. 
You may believe I have been very sincere with him. But he affects to rally me, and not to believe it possible, that one so dutiful and discreet as his sister Clary can resolve to disoblige all her friends. 
Indeed, I tremble at the prospect before me; for it is evident that they are strangely determined. 
My father and mother industriously avoid giving me opportunity of speaking to them alone. They ask not for my approbation, intended, as it should seem, to suppose me into their will. And with them I shall hope to prevail, or with nobody. They have not the interest in compelling me, as my brother and sister have: I say less therefore to them, reserving my whole force for an audience of my father, if he will permit me a patient ear. How difficult is it, my dear, to give a negative where both duty and inclination join to make one wish to oblige! 
I have already stood the shock of three of this man's particular visits, besides my share in his more general ones; and find it is impossible I should ever endure him. He has but a very ordinary share of understanding; is very illiterate; knows nothing but the value of estates, and how to improve them, and what belongs to land-jobbing and husbandry. Yet I am as one stupid, I think. They have begun so cruelly with me, that I have not spirit enough to assert my own negative. 
They had endeavoured it seems to influence my good Mrs. Norton before I came home—so intent are they to carry their point! And her opinion not being to their liking, she has been told that she would do well to decline visiting here for the present: yet she is the person of all the world, next to my mother, the most likely to prevail upon me, were the measures they are engaged in reasonable measures, or such as she could think so. 
My aunt likewise having said that she did not think her niece could ever be brought to like Mr. Solmes, has been obliged to learn another lesson.
And so we have two men - Solmes and Lovelace, and, as Anna Howe remarks, 
What a fatality, that you have no better an option—either a Scylla or a Charybdis [Letter XII, 25th March]
Samuel Richardson by Joseph Highmore (1750).
What follows is a tremendous battle of wills. Clarissa is determined to remain single, her parents are determined that she will marry Solmes; Solmes is determined too that she will marry him, and Lovelace will not stop until Clarissa is his. No one will give up their goal, no one will concede defeat, and no one will stop until they get Clarissa to do what they want her to do.

But Clarissa is more than that: it's a novel of moods and emotion - the very feel of the novel peaks and dips, Richardson is an absolute master in this respect of portraying feelings of fear and tension. The situation may be a mess but Richardson isn't - he is in complete control and events are easily followed bar one incident whereby, for the sake of 18th Century decency, he was unable to be explicit. Nevertheless, the mood of the novel changes again and the reader is in no doubt of the reasons for the ensuing drama.

And so it plays out - the majority of the letters are between Clarissa and Anna, and Lovelace and John Belford, who is as near to a friend as Lovelace can manage. As Clarissa is an archetypical English heroine, he is the archetype of English villains: cruel, deceitful, immoral, yet very handsome and charismatic. He spends more time describing Clarissa's clothes and how she frustrates his endeavours than worrying about her own distress and fear. Yet Richardson's villain is entirely convincing, and so is Clarissa - it would take a very hard heart not to appreciate that she is, as Anna Howe remarked, caught between a Scylla and a Charybdis.

Clarissa is Samuel Richardson's masterpiece I think, though I have not yet read Sir Charles Grandison (1753), I have read Pamela (1740; I'm frankly surprised it's by the same author - I thought Pamela was dreadful). Once one gets past the slight struggle of reading 18th Century English, Clarissa is very readable and very hard to put down. Though long, and though with a slow plot, the range of it, the sensitivity and depth is outstanding. It is one of the greatest novels ever written, it's only problem is its length. As Eneas Sweetland Dallas (the editor of the abridged 18688 version) wrote,
He [Richardson] gives us indeed gold, but the gold is shapen into a goblet so huge that few of us can lift it to our lips.
That is the challenge, but it is worth persisting.

******
Further Reading

Friday, 13 November 2015

Ajax by Sophocles.

The Quarrel between Ajax and Odysseus by Leonaert Bramer (1625 - 1630).
Ajax (Αἴας) is a tragic play by Sophocles. It's perhaps his earliest play of the seven that survived, composed around 450 - 430 B.C. The hero Ajax has fought in the Trojan War, as Homer tells in The Iliad, where he was known for his strength and courage, however when Achilles died, Achilles' armour was give to Odysseus, thus recognising him as the great hero, not Ajax. At the beginning of the play the two meet again - Odysseus slowly approaches him -
Aᴊᴀx: Odysseus! What are you looking for? Still on the trail
Of some advantage over your enemy?
Yes, I have watched you, and I watch you now
Here by the seaboard where the tend of Ajax
Guards the furthest flank of the line; I see you,
Doglike, nose to the ground, reading the tale
Of his freshly printed traces, whither they lead,
Inwards or outwards. You'll find him, if anyone will;
No Spartan hound has a keener sent for the chase.
He's there, the man you're looking for, his head
And hands sweating and blooded from the sword.
Leave peering and prying around the doors and tell me
What is the purpose of your anxious search;
My knowledge can give you guidance.
Odysseus, accompanied by the goddess Athena, who reveals to Odysseus that she had tricked Ajax - he intended to kill Agamemnon and Odysseus however with Athena's intervention he actually killed sheep and cattle. This could almost be funny but it isn't - Ajax, once one of the greatest of Greek heroes, has now fallen. Tecmessa, his captive-wife, tells the chorus of how he is mad, "struck blind / With madness in the night": he suffers great shame and humiliation, he feels disgraced and hated by all that was dear to him. He resolves to kill himself, and does so, throwing himself on to Hector's sword which he has planted in the earth with the blade sticking up.

What remains is what to do with his body. His enemies Menelaus and Agamemnon do not wish to bury him, Menelaus says, "let the sea-birds / Feed on his carcase". Teucer, Ajax's half-brother, wishes to give him a proper burial. They argue, but Odysseus steps in, saying -
... For the love of all the gods, think twice
Before you do so rash and vile a thing.
You cannot leave this man to rot unburied.
You must not let your violent will persuade you
Into such hatred as would tread down justice.
There was a time when I too hated him;
From the time I won the armour of Achilles,
He was the bitterest enemy I had; and yes,
Such though he was, I could not bring myself
To grudge him honour, or refuse to admit
He was the bravest man I ever saw,
The best of all that ever came to Troy,
Save only Achilles. It is against all justice
For you to treat him with contempt. God's laws,
And not the man himself, you would annihilate.
Even if you hate him, it is against all justice
To lift your hand against a good man dead.
The play ends with Teucer preparing a proper burial for Ajax.

This is one of Sophocles' psychological dramas, like Antigone or Philoctetes. The focus is not on action as such, it is about the fall of a noble hero who is at times morally questionable and very stubborn. It is a study of public humiliation, uncompromising hatred, suicide, and death rites, and such is Sophocles' writing, it is a very disturbing, dark, and unsettling play. And it contains one of my favourite lines - this from Odysseus -
... Are we not all,
All living things, mere phantoms, shadows of nothing?
It isn't my favourite of Sophocles' plays, but nevertheless, as with the others, it is still outstanding.

The Death Of Ajax by Antonio Zanchi.
~ Sophocles' Plays ~

The Theban Plays: Oedipus Rex (429 B.C.) | Oedipus at Colonus (406 B.C.) Antigone (441 B.C.)
OthersAjax (450 - 430 B.C.) | Women of Trachis (440 - 430 B.C.)
Electra (410 B.C.) | Philoctetes (409 B.C.)

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey.

Eminent Victorians is a collection of biographical writings on four 'Eminent Victorians': Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold, and General Gordon. It was written by Lytton Strachey, a member of the Bloomsbury Group, and was first published in 1918.

Like Virginia Woolf, Strachey had an interest in biography as a genre or concept. As he writes in his preface -
It is not by the direct method of a scrupulous narration that the explorer of the past can hope to depict that singular epoch. If he is wise, he will adopt a subtler strategy. He will attack his subject in unexpected places; he will fall upon the flank, or the rear; he will shoot a sudden, revealing searchlight into obscure recesses, hitherto undivined. He will row out over that great ocean of material, and lower down into it, here and there, a little bucket, which will bring up to the light of day some characteristic specimen, from those far depths, to be examined with a careful curiosity. Guided by these considerations, I have written the ensuing studies. I have attempted, through the medium of biography, to present some Victorian visions to the modern eye. They are, in one sense, haphazard visions—that is to say, my choice of subjects has been determined by no desire to construct a system or to prove a theory, but by simple motives of convenience and of art. It has been my purpose to illustrate rather than to explain. It would have been futile to hope to tell even a precis of the truth about the Victorian age, for the shortest precis must fill innumerable volumes. But, in the lives of an ecclesiastic, an educational authority, a woman of action, and a man of adventure, I have sought to examine and elucidate certain fragments of the truth which took my fancy and lay to my hand.
He begins with Cardinal Manning - Henry Edward Manning (15th July 1808 – 14th January 1892) - and he writes not only what we would expect from any biography, about his life, his influence and importance, but also offers other insight - Manning's unswerving  ambitions, writing,
Undoubtedly what is most obviously striking in the history of Manning's career is the persistent strength of his innate characteristics. Through all the changes of his fortunes the powerful spirit of the man worked on undismayed. It was as if the Fates had laid a wager that they would daunt him; and in the end they lost their bet.
On Florence Nightingale (12th May 1820 – 13th August 1910) Strachey writes on her neuroses, beginning,
And so it happens that in the real Miss Nightingale there was more that was interesting than in the legendary one; there was also less that was agreeable. 
Doctor Arnold (13th June 1795 – 12th June 1842), the headmaster of Rugby School from 1828 to 1841 (who is featured in Thomas Hughes' Tom Brown's School Days, 1857) is used for a critique of the public school system, Strachey writes that Arnold -
... hoped to turn Rugby into 'a place of really Christian education'. The boys were to work out their own salvation, like the human race. He himself, involved in awful grandeur, ruled remotely, through his chosen instruments, from an inaccessible heaven. Remotely—and yet with an omnipresent force. As the Israelite of old knew that his almighty Lawgiver might at any moment thunder to him from the whirlwind, or appear before his very eyes, the visible embodiment of power or wrath, so the Rugby schoolboy walked in a holy dread of some sudden manifestation of the sweeping gown, the majestic tone, the piercing glance, of Dr. Arnold. Among the lower forms of the school his appearances were rare and transitory, and upon these young children 'the chief impression', we are told, 'was of extreme fear'. The older boys saw more of him, but they did not see much. Outside the Sixth Form, no part of the school came into close intercourse with him; and it would often happen that a boy would leave Rugby without having had any personal communication with him at all.
General Gordon (28th January 1833 – 26th January 1885) does not escape Strachey's sharp eye either. In the final chapter, 'The End of General Gordon', he concludes the piece with,
... General Gordon had always been a contradictious person—even a little off his head, perhaps, though a hero; and besides, he was no longer there to contradict … At any rate, it had all ended very happily—in a glorious slaughter of 20,000 Arabs, a vast addition to the British Empire, and a step in the Peerage for Sir Evelyn Baring.
The fact is, and perhaps it's already evident - I really didn't like this book. Perhaps the first problem was I was at a disadvantage in having not even heard of Cardinal Manning or General Gordon, and I don't feel as though I learned about anything other than Strachey in this. The time of its publication and post-Victorian Britain was, intellectually, an interesting time - the stuffy age was over, ways of thinking and expressing oneself was changing. There's a sense of striking out in Eminent Victorians - it was not enough to move forward, Strachey fired shots at what had past. As Virginia Woolf wrote in 'How it Strikes a Contemporary' from The Common Reader First Series (1925; this book was dedicated to Strachey),
No age can have been more rich than ours in writers determined to give expression to the differences which separate them from the past and not to the resemblances which connect them with it.
That attitude I understand, but Eminent Victorians came out, I felt, as rather snide at times (as Leon Edel remarks, Eminent Victorians is full not so much of truth but "malice and subterfuge". For example with Florence Nightingale - she was an eminent Victorian and she did great work: does her character lessen that? Had a less neurotic woman or man done what she had, would it have been more noble? And even if it hadn't been noble at all, does that mean the good that had been done was less good? I think not. 

Strachey's occasional spite was sometimes amusing, I do concede. E. M. Forster believed Strachey was 'in pursuit of the truth' (though I should note that he didn't quite reach it - critics have pointed to the many inaccuracies in Eminent Victorians), but I do think Strachey's words towards the end of his preface - "Je n'impose rien; je ne propose rien: j'expose" ["I do not impose anything; I proposed nothing: I expose"] is revealing of some kind of bias in itself. "Expose" can be a harsh word, and he does impose - he imposes the idea that, essentially, these old and as I said 'stuffy' Victorians were not as eminent as we might have thought. By that he does come closer to seeking the truth in that he refuses to conform to the accepted general perception and for that it is a good work. All the same, I felt I learned more about Strachey and about the Bloomsbury Group than I did of Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold, and General Gordon.

Portraits included in the first edition of Eminent Victorians

Cardinal Manning.
Florence Nightingale.
Dr. Arnold.
General Gordon.

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