Saturday, 31 December 2016

Goodbye, 2016.

"When sorrows come, they come not single spies,
But in battalions."

- Hamlet (Act IV Scene V) by William Shakespeare.

2016 was an excellent year for Red Admiral butterflies, which were up 70 per cent compared with 2015, but alas, they seemed to be one of the few species on this planet (including our own) that weren't depleted, diseased, or depressed. What a dreadful year. Where does one begin? So much has happened, but there's been so little time to come to terms with it. I decided to write this post just to get my head around some of the madness.

One of the hallmarks of 2016 was how fast-paced it was. The world was shocked on the 10th January when David Bowie died. Four days later, another great Alan Rickman followed suit and from there a steady procession of world famous figures and national treasures left us. Terry Wogan, Prince, Tony Warren, Victoria Wood, Caroline Aherne, Richard Adams, Leonard Cohen, A. A. Gill, George Michael, Jean Alexander, Pete Burns, Gene Wilder, Ronnie Corbett, Paul Daniels, Frank Kelly, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, and more besides, these big names that were important to so many people.

Throughout all of this the numerous political shocks. Some small and inconsequential, I don't remember them now really; silly things - the battle of the Thames, for example, bizarre and random, or the rather surprising but yet not world changing Michael Heseltine incident (who can forget that BBC Headline "Heseltine: I did not kill my mother's Alsatian"). But then on 16th June the Labour MP Jo Cox was brutally murdered on the streets in her own constituency, her killer shouting far right slogans as he shot and stabbed her to death. That was one of the first and one of the most profound shocks of 2016. Following it a week later was of course the EU referendum result, itself very surprising, but the ensuing events perhaps more so. David Cameron, named in some polls as one of the worst post-war Prime Ministers, resigned and sparked a leadership contest for the Conservatives. George Osborne, a leading figure in Cameron's Britian, now sits on the backbenches as Theresa May takes on the role of Prime Minister. And that horrible moment when Britain waited for some clarity hearing Faisal Islam, political editor of Sky News, tell us that there was in fact "no plan". As this played out, the Leave campaign finally admitted it was lying when it claimed (on the side of a bus no less) that the NHS may not after all be getting the extra £350m a week. Nigel Farage, who had already resigned, unresigned, and resigned again was replaced by Diane James after one of her rivals Mike Hookem hospitalised Steven Woolfe, himself a contender in the second leadership contest after Dianne James resigned 18 days after being elected. Paul Nuttall, a climate change denier seeking to bring back the death penalty is now the leader. Mercifully the Green Party were more peaceful, electing Caroline Lucas (for a second term) and Jonathan Bartley as joint leaders. Jeremy Corbyn, whose leadership was also challenged, remains leader of the Labour Party though however much as I may like him, I doubt he will bring Labour back into power, potentially leaving us with at least another eight years of Tory rule.

Politics in the United Kingdom had reached a peak of divisive hatred. Certain Leave campaigners encouraged distrust and elements the campaign had some of the hallmarks of fascism with it's anti-intellectual immigrant blaming. Some agreed with that angle, joyously rejecting "experts" as they went, whereas some people voted Leave for fear of an imminent collapse of the European Union, an objection to the perceived disproportionate distribution of power, concern with globalisation, or the EU's apparent unwillingness to allow the UK to do certain things it wanted to do. Others, misguidedly I think (but at the same time understandably), voted as a protest against Cameron's government, austerity, and the London-centric politics that hurt the poor and ignored the North. Here a conversation could have been had, but it wasn't, we didn't talk, we shouted, but we cannot now say that all those who voted for Leave are racist bigots.

All of this was a farce, but I think it was well and truly put in perspective by the US Election. Donald Trump as we know won it, partly thanks (it is alleged) to a little help from Russia, if true well and truly undermines the image of the US as a democracy. I don't need go over the hateful things Trump has said this past year, his twitter rants, bizarre feuds (I'm thinking of the Vanity Fair feud but I'm sure Americans can think of better examples), the disgusting things he's said about women, non-whites, mocking disabled people... It is potentially catastrophic for both individuals and for nations, but we all know that, and it's all fresh in our minds, no need to go over it. 

And here we are now. Regarding the media, the hard and extreme right are positively jubilant, their bigotry now legitimised, and some of the left, centre, and moderate right newspapers (I'm thinking particularly in the UK) have an air of really wishing to punish those who voted Leave or for Trump. After a very long period of articles warning how voting Remain or for Clinton would essentially signal the end of the world, the left and centre papers certainly have taken over with terrifying articles such as "Frightened by Donald Trump? You don’t know the half of it", "The 13 impossible crises that humanity now faces" and the Indy100's unhelpful "This map tells you how likely you are to die in World War Three", despite their criticisms of the right wing press' scare-mongering contributing to actions such as the murder of Jo Cox. Wading one's way through media bias has never been fun, let's face it, but another one of 2016's less welcome features was fake news. Just yesterday it was reported that Queen Elizabeth II had died and there was a 24 hour blackout. Being informed just became even more challenging than ever.

All of that and more. At no point was there a moment to stand back, catch one's breath, just a tiny gap to take a moment before feeling ready to deal with whatever was next. It was just hurled at us; as ever, it doesn't matter if we're ready or not, it just comes. Whatever the case, this is where we are and it's not enough to acknowledge that and do nothing more. They say this is the time for action, but that does not necessarily mean demonstrating outside the House of Commons or the House of Lords, or marching on Washington, joining sit-ins, or what have you. Those who go out and demonstrate, face the freezing cold or pouring rain, being kettled, being arrested, looking ahead and a line of galloping horses in order to promote the greater good are to be praised very highly indeed, but let us not forget who we dismiss as the "armchair activist". By signing a petition one can contribute to making a discussion in parliament actually happen. By sharing articles, one raises awareness. By donating money, or even just retweeting the donation page, one can make a small contribution. Those who can donate will if they know about it. Those who are able to join in in a demonstration in London will if they know about it.

Other action can be apparently smaller but also of great value. As they say, no act of kindness is ever wasted. It's not easy in a world so divided and so against each other; it sounds as though it is full of people whose ignorance and hate is, as I've said, legitimised by the likes of Trump and Farage, those such as the folk who proudly tweet with the hashtag #AllLivesMatter (who simultaneously get and miss the point of #BlackLivesMatter) or mistake the terminally offended with political correctness (which is, essentially, a way of saying people should be treated with respect) and throw the baby out with the bathwater. But kindness, awareness, finding common ground, discussing matters without shouting or meeting aggression with aggression could go a long way with some, but sadly I have to admit not all. Learning how to argue, debate, and put one's case will be exceptionally valuable in 2017, I think.

Solutions are what is needed now. Solutions make people feel less helpless and afraid, and less inclined to hide away shouting "I'm alright, Jack!". Solutions, in short, make it easier to carry on and be helpful to others, and identify some of our strengths and actually have a practical vision of how they may help those who may need it. Fake news, I've mentioned, is rampant, for example, so what do we do? As I've talked about it, here's a solution from the BBC in an article published just yesterday:
What you can do 
So whether you read, repeat or repost news in 2017, here are things to ask yourself:
  • Have I heard of the publisher before? 
  • Is this the source I think it is, or does it sound a bit like them? 
  • Can I point to where this happened on a map? 
  • Has this been reported anywhere else? 
  • Is there more than one piece of evidence for this claim? 
  • Could this be something else? 
There's a similar article in the Indy100: The answer to the question everyone's wondering about Facebook. And other things: articles such as those telling of how bumblebees are down some 85% from 2015. It's not enough to know that, there are potential solutions: bee-friendly plants (that help butterflies too), making the bees little shelters (a fun project too, especially I dare say for those with children), feeding them when they're visibly ill (yes, that can be done), and above all else not flattening them out of fear that they will sting. Hedgehogs are also in dramatic decline but there are ways in which they can be helped. On a global scale, the refugee crisis is one of the worst human crises of our time, but there are ways to help: 5 practical ways you can help refugees trying to find safety in Europe from The IndependentRefugee crisis: what can you do to help? from The Guardian, and websites such as HelpRefugees.org.

The lessons learned, hopefully, from 2016 is on the importance of knowledge and awareness as well as the art of rhetoric (hence one of the reasons I'm looking forward to Aristotle). Another important lesson that is, at least, in the process of being learned is on how to not be overwhelmed by events. Finally, one of the best lessons of all in politics: no matter what the outcome of an election, one is still allowed to continue to make the argument, something Ian Hislop spoke on very eloquently:


Yes, 2016 has had some hard lessons. Who would have thought that Kylie 'the sibyl' Jenner would be the one to make an astute prediction at the start of the year? When words such as "post-truth", "alt-right", and "project fear" are in vogue we know things have gotten a little dark. What 2017 will bring I don't know, but I hope all of us can find a quiet space to deal with some of these absolute shockers we've suffered socially and even privately, and be able to move forward and up safely and with kindness, understanding, and empathy. What I hope to see on a grander scale is moderation in politics. Whether that will happen remains to be seen, but I don't ever want to lose hope. I nearly did in 2016, but not quite.

And so, again, I wish you all a happy new year - a happy, safe, calm, and kind new year.

Illustration by Nadezda Fava.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Coriolanus by William Shakespeare.

When I look back at my reading year I'd say 2016 was the year of the English Renaissance history play. I've been reading a lot this year, from King Johan by John Bale (1534) to Shakespeare's plays on the English kings and Roman politicians and more in between, and I've enjoyed the Tudor and Jacobean portrayal of some of England and Rome's most famous names. And so, it's fitting to finish 2016 (for this will be my last review, though not necessarily my last post) with Coriolanus: not only is it the final of Shakespeare's Roman plays, but it's also Shakespeare's final tragedy.

Coriolanus was written around 1605 and 1608 (the same time as Antony and Cleopatra, Timon of Athens, Macbeth and King Lear) and it is based Plutarch's account of Gaius Marcius Coriolanus, a Roman general of the 5th Century B.C., from The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (2nd Century A.D.). The play begins with a riot: the people of Rome, which has recently suffered a famine, are protesting as the stores of grain are still being withheld from the people, blaming in particular Caius Marcius (Coriolanus), a general. As Menenius Agrippa attempts to soothe the crowds Caius Marcius is contemptuous, aggravating the situation. Before it gets too much worse however, Caius Martius departs to fight in the war against Volsci (an Italian tribe). When he returns the Volscians have been defeated and Caius Martius has proved to be a great hero. He is given the nickname "Coriolanus" and begins to get involved in politics. Seeking election, however, is a difficult matter given his previous contempt for the common people. Brutus (Tiberius Junius Brutus) and Sicinius (Lucius Sicinius Vellutus), both of whom have witnessed his bad behaviour, make sure to thwart him at every turn and portray him as an enemy of Rome after he wins the support of the Roman Senate. Coriolanus' reaction, his rejection of democracy, leads to exile. Once exiled in Antium (another part of Italy said to be founded by Anteias, the son of Odysseus) Coriolanus plots along with Attius Tullius (the leader of the Volsci) to invade Rome. When Coriolanus finally sees reason, however, it is too late.

I don't think Coriolanus is the most striking of Shakespeare's plays but, as ever, he is excellent writing on ambition, political disputes and plots (he shone the brightest however, in my opinion, in Richard III). I found it essentially plot-driven: the story itself is great, but the characters less so and it does rather lack depth. Coriolanus struggles, as others do, to fill the hole left by Tarquin the Proud (Lucius Tarquinius Superbus), the final king of Rome who was overthrown in 509 B.C. and that subject of almost desperate ambition despite personal unsuitability is something Shakespeare writes very well on, but, as I say, Coriolanus is not a good example of this: for a truly good example, one must turn to his English histories.

On a final note: I've been reading a lot of Shakespeare this year: part of this was intentional, I was eager to re-read the histories, but in doing so I was pushed into the tragedies! I've now actually finished re-reading both the tragedies and histories, and I find I have only eight comedies left, which I plan to read in 2017. Until then I have just one post left for 2016, which should be up on Saturday assuming I get the last few chores of the year out of the way!

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan.

The Pilgrim's Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come; Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream is a Christian allegory by John Bunyan, first published in 1678. It is one of the most influential texts ever written and I've seen it mentioned throughout literature more times than I can count, particularly in Victorian literature. Here are a few examples:
  • The subtitle of Oliver Twist, A Parish Boy's Progress by Charles Dickens (1837-9).
  • Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (1847-8) refers to a location in Pilgrim's Progress (the seventh section).
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847) makes frequent reference to Pilgrim's Progress (as does Shirley and Villette) and Jane Eyre's progress takes a similar path to the Pilgrim's.
  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868-9) refers to Pilgrim's Progress many times and the character's progress, like Jane Eyre often mirror the text.
  • The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain (1869) had the alternative title of The New Pilgrims' Progress
On top of all that, The Pilgrim's Progress is also regarded by some to be one of the first English novels (though Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, 1719, appears to be more commonly agreed on as the first). So, though I find The Pilgrim's Progress particularly difficult, I decided it was time to revisit it. I do think it's a book that must be read and re-read a few times before one really gets to grip with it, and as this is only my second read I think I'm a little way off! Nevertheless...

The Pilgrim's Progress is divided into two parts which are subdivided into sections. It begins with a poem, 'The Author's Apology for his Book', in which Bunyan writes on his motivations for The Pilgrim's Progress, before he goes into the first part which begins not that unlike Dante's Inferno:
As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a Den, and I laid me down in that place to sleep: and, as I slept, I dreamed a dream. I dreamed, and behold, I saw a man clothed with rags, standing in a certain place with his face from his own house, a book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back. I looked, and saw him open the book, and read therein; and, as he read, he wept, and trembled; and, not being able longer to contain, he brake out with a lamentable cry, saying, What shall I do?
This man is called Christian and he is told by his spiritual guide named Evangelist that he must leave his home in the City of Destruction and seek salvation in Celestial City, known also as Mount Zion. And so Bunyan describes Christian, our pilgrim's, journey from the City of Destruction to Mount Zion. He first tries to convince his family and a few friends and neighbours to accompany him but he is ultimately unsuccessful so goes the journey alone. We see him pass many of the great landmarks of salvation and, rather than go into them too deeply (I don't think I'm quite there yet with Pilgrim's Progress to pretend to have a great in-depth understanding!), here are some examples:
  • The Slough of Despond: Here Christian sinks under the weight of his sins. He is rescued by Help. This is seen elsewhere in literature, for example Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights in which Heathcliff says to Catherine, "Well, you dropped Linton with it into a Slough of Despond", and in Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham when Cronshaw likens poverty to the "slough of despond".
  • House Beautiful: This palace sits on top of the Hill Difficulty, and it's a rest-stop for pilgrims before they reach the Celestial City. Here Christian is cared for by Prudence, Piety, and Charity. In this I couldn't fail to notice the similarities between this and Edmund Spenser's description of the House of Holiness in Book I of The Faerie Queene, where Dame Caelia (the name suggesting 'heavenly spirit') lives with her three daughters, Fidelia (faith), Speranza (hope), and Charissa (charity).
  • Valley of Humiliation: Here Christian must defeat Apollyon 'the Destroyer', the king of the City of Destruction.
  • Valley of the Shadow of Death: A reference to Psalm 23:4 - "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me." It is a wilderness close to the mouth of Hell.
  • Vanity Fair: This is a town obsessed with the 'low' pleasures of life: money, sensual delights, objects and idols.
  • Doubting Castle: This is the home of the giant Despair. He captures, imprisons and tortures Christian and Hopeful (who joined him from Vanity Fair). They manage to escape using the key of Promise.
  • The Delectable Mountains: From here one can see the Celestial City. Here Christian and Hopeful meet four shepherds, Experience, Knowledge, Watchful, and Sincere.
  • The Enchanted Ground: This a bit of land the pilgrims must cross, however to sleep on it is fatal.
  • The Celestial City: This is situated on Mount Zion and is the Kingdom of God. On the Celestial Gates are written, "Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city".
Having spent but a little time in the Celestial City, Bunyan awakes and discovers it was all a dream.

Following this is the second part first published in 1684 telling of the spiritual journey of Christiana, Christian's wife. The full title:

The Pilgrim's Progress
From this World to that which
is to come
The Second Part
Delivered
Under the Similitude of a Dream
Wherein is Set Forth
The Manner of the Setting of 
Christian's Wife and Children, Their Dangerous
Journey, and Safe Arrival at the
Desired Country.

I did read it, but I think that perhaps deserves it's own post: quite when I'll do it I'm not sure!

And that is my very brief outline of a very complex work. It's major theme is of course the Christian journey through the world to the Kingdom of God and the challenges and hurdles faced. It is a very literal spiritual journey or development of personality or character. With each challenge Christian overcomes and with that grows ever closer to God and it is his strength of faith that he needs to meet these challenges.

It is a fascinating work of Protestant Christian allegory, and it has too a very interesting background: John Bunyan was in fact in prison when he began The Pilgrim's Progress: he had been imprisoned in Bedfordshire for violating the then newly established Conventicle Act of 1664 that forbade conventicles (religious assemblies of more than five people) outside the auspices of the Church of England in order to prevent the growth of the Nonconformist or Protestant faith. The Pilgrim's Progress, particularly taking into account the circumstances in which is was written, was quite the rebellion.

To finish, here are some very beautiful illustrations by Frank C. Papé for the 1910 edition (I hope you love these as much as I do!):

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Beowulf.

Beowulf is a poem I've read quite a few times now, the first, if I recall correctly, was in high school. I've always been struck by how impressive it is, very dark and so very atmospheric. It's an English poem by an unknown author set in Scandinavia, and is possibly the oldest long poem written in the English language. It's uncertain when it was composed (some estimate that it was around the late 7th, early 8th Century), but it appears the manuscript dates somewhere between 975 and 1025 A.D. during the times of Edward the Martyr (Eadweard), Æthelred the Unready (Æþelræd Unræd) and Edmund Ironside (Eadmund) of the House of Wessex, and Sweyn Forkbeard (Svend Tveskæg) and Cnut (Knútr) of the House of Denmark, several decades before William the Conqueror and the House of Normandy.

The original text, written in Old English, is of course difficult to understand so I read the Seamus Heaney translation. Out of curiosity however, I did look up the original text and I was surprised to see I could work out one or two words. Here's how it starts:
Hwæt! Wé Gárdena in géardagum
þéodcyninga þrym gefrúnon·
hú ðá æþelingas ellen fremedon. 
Oft Scyld Scéfing sceaþena þréatum
monegum maégþum meodosetla oftéah·
egsode Eorle syððan aérest wearð
féasceaft funden hé þæs frófre gebád·
wéox under wolcnum· weorðmyndum þáh
oð þæt him aéghwylc þára ymbsittendra
ofer hronráde hýran scolde,
gomban gyldan· þæt wæs gód cyning.
"þæt wæs gód cyning" - "That was a good king" and "Oft" for "Often" were, by the way, the only bits I understood.

This "gód cyning" of the poem refers to Shield Sheafson, the founder of the royal line of Spear-Danes. After his death his son Beow or Béowulf (not Beowulf of the title) became king, then after his Halfdane (Healfdene) then Hrothgar (Hróðgár). One night a demon, Grendel, arrives and terrorises the Danes. During this time (the action takes place around 500 A.D.) Beowulf of the title, the son of Ecgtheow (Ecgþéo) and nephew of the Geatish king Hygelac (Higeláces), is regarded as a great hero, and hearing of the Danes' misfortune he decides to travel from Geatland (which would now be south Sweden) to Denmark to help Hrothgar defeat Grendel in repayment for a favour Hrothgar did for his father.

From here three great battles take place in Beowulf. The first is against Grendel, the man-eating demon who was a descendent of Cain:
Grendel was the name of this grim demon
haunting the marches, marauding round the heath
and the desolate fens; he had dwelt for a time
in misery among the banished monsters,
Cain's clan, whom the Creator had outlawed
and condemned as outcasts. For the killing of Abel
the Eternal Lord had exacted a price:
Cain got no good from committing that murder
because the Almighty made him anathema
and out of the curse of his exile there sprang
ogres and elves and evil phantoms
and the giants who strove with God
time and again until He have them their reward.
Beowulf manuscript held by the
British Library
.
The battle is of course bloody and fierce, and it takes place in Heorot, the great hall of Hrothgar's palace. Beowulf discovers his sword cannot pierce Grendel's skin and so Beowulf tears off Grendel's arm, killing him.

This victory is, however, short-lived: a second battle must take place between Beowulf and Grendel's mother who seeks revenge. The wetlands which she inhabits is described:
A few miles from here
a frost-stiffened wood waits and keeps watch
above a mere; the overhanging bank
is a maze of tree-roots mirrored in its surface.
At night there, something uncanny happens:
the water burns. And the mere-bottom
had never been sounded by the sons of men.
On its bank, the heather-stepper halts:
in the hart in flight from pursuing hounds
will turn to face them with firm-set horns
and die in the wood rather than dive beneath its surface. That is no good place.
When wind blows up and stormy weather
makes clouds scud and the skies weep,
out of its depths a dirty surge
is pitched towards the heavens. Now help depends
again on you and you alone.
The gap of danger where the demon waits
is still unknown to you. Seek it if you dare.
And so the battle takes place underwater and our hero defeats her, and the Danes are now free of their monsters.

This is not the end of Beowulf however, there is still one battle remaining. It takes place after some time has passed since the defeating of Grendel's mother and this time involves a dragon. Beowulf, now king of the Geats, must defeat a recently disturbed dragon, and defeat it he does but at a heavy cost: Beowulf himself is mortally wounded during the battle.

This is such an exciting poem. As Cleo points out in her post one of the things we see is the subtle beginnings of Christian motifs in literature amongst the description of what is essentially a pagan society. There is the obvious example of the monsters of the poem being descendants of Cain, but also the hero of the tale, unlike his pagan counterparts on the whole, is a good man, but also imperfect, and he defeats evil: the violent, the unjust, and the demons; those, in short, that represent deadly sins. We see what it is to be a good king: strong, moral, kind, and loyal, and how, ultimately, good will prevail. I do love Beowulf; it is dark at times, very moving, and a very gripping read.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Chapters XXVII - XXIX of The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens.

Here we are, the half-way point of The Pickwick Papers! This post is going to be a bit of a three-parter: firstly, this tenth instalment is a Christmas special so a good opportunity to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas! Next, a wee summary of Instalment X, and finally what's coming next year.

A Queen Victoria snow-woman of the 1890s.
But, before we get into Chapters 27 - 29, let it first be said that December of 1836 was particularly snowy, and the scenes in this tenth instalment coupled with his other works, particularly A Christmas Carol (1843) inspired by that winter and ones before it have greatly influenced our perception of an ideal Christmas - snow, frost, and roaring fires. In December 1836 the snow fell up to fifteen feet in some places and there were even snow drifts of up to fifty feet. On 27th December Britain saw its worst avalanche in Lewes in Sussex: a buildup of snow on the hills surrounding the village collapsed, and some eight people were killed that day. To commemorate this a pub was built and named the Snowdrop Inn, and it still is there today. This wintry weather was set only to get worse. 

In this episode of The Pickwick Papers the cold snowy days were an ideal backdrop for the Christmas celebrations. The tenth instalment begins with Sam Weller visiting his father and step-mother.

Chapter XXVII
Samuel Weller Makes a Pilgrimage to Dorking, and Beholds his Mother-in-Law

In this Sam leaves Mr. Pickwick planning the trip to Dingley Dell and goes to visit his father and step-mother in Dorking, Surrey. There he finds his father being ganged up on by his wife Susan and the awful Reverend Stiggins, who Dickens refers to as the "red-nosed man":
He was a prim-faced, red-nosed man, with a long, thin countenance, and a semi-rattlesnake sort of eye—rather sharp, but decidedly bad. He wore very short trousers, and black cotton stockings, which, like the rest of his apparel, were particularly rusty. His looks were starched, but his white neckerchief was not, and its long limp ends straggled over his closely-buttoned waistcoat in a very uncouth and unpicturesque fashion. A pair of old, worn, beaver gloves, a broad-brimmed hat, and a faded green umbrella, with plenty of whalebone sticking through the bottom, as if to counterbalance the want of a handle at the top, lay on a chair beside him; and, being disposed in a very tidy and careful manner, seemed to imply that the red-nosed man, whoever he was, had no intention of going away in a hurry.
To do the red-nosed man justice, he would have been very far from wise if he had entertained any such intention; for, to judge from all appearances, he must have been possessed of a most desirable circle of acquaintance, if he could have reasonably expected to be more comfortable anywhere else. The fire was blazing brightly under the influence of the bellows, and the kettle was singing gaily under the influence of both. A small tray of tea-things was arranged on the table; a plate of hot buttered toast was gently simmering before the fire; and the red-nosed man himself was busily engaged in converting a large slice of bread into the same agreeable edible, through the instrumentality of a long brass toasting-fork. Beside him stood a glass of reeking hot pine-apple rum-and-water, with a slice of lemon in it; and every time the red-nosed man stopped to bring the round of toast to his eye, with the view of ascertaining how it got on, he imbibed a drop or two of the hot pine-apple rum-and-water, and smiled upon the rather stout lady, as she blew the fire.
Sam and his father are united in their dislike of the Rev. Stiggins, but as Tony, Sam's father observes, he is stuck with the situation:
"Cause I’m a married man, Samivel, ‘cause I’m a married man. Ven you’re a married man, Samivel, you’ll understand a good many things as you don’t understand now; but vether it’s worth while goin’ through so much, to learn so little, as the charity-boy said ven he got to the end of the alphabet, is a matter o’ taste. I rayther think it isn’t."

Chapter XXVIII
A Good-Humoured Christmas Chapter, Containing an Account of a Wedding, and Some Other Sports Beside: Which Although in Their Way, Even as Good Customs as Marriage Itself, are Not Quite So Religiously Kept Up, in These Degenerate Times

This here is one of the loveliest Christmas chapters one could ever hope to find in a book. In this Charles Dickens' love of Christmas comes pouring out: the chapter itself is very simple: the Pickwickians travel to Dingley Dell where they are met by our sleepy old friend the fat boy and they are given a warm and festive welcome by the Wardles. Isabella Wardle is to be married to Mr. Trundle and they are visited by yet more friends, and Mr. Winkle takes a great interest in one lady whilst Mr. Snodgrass is happy to see Emily again. Isabella and Mr. Trundle are married, and the rest of the chapter describes their celebrations.

This part is absolutely full of beautiful Christmas quotes but I've picked my favourite: the opening two paragraphs of the chapter:
As brisk as bees, if not altogether as light as fairies, did the four Pickwickians assemble on the morning of the twenty-second day of December, in the year of grace in which these, their faithfully-recorded adventures, were undertaken and accomplished. Christmas was close at hand, in all his bluff and hearty honesty; it was the season of hospitality, merriment, and open-heartedness; the old year was preparing, like an ancient philosopher, to call his friends around him, and amidst the sound of feasting and revelry to pass gently and calmly away. Gay and merry was the time; and right gay and merry were at least four of the numerous hearts that were gladdened by its coming.
And numerous indeed are the hearts to which Christmas brings a brief season of happiness and enjoyment. How many families, whose members have been dispersed and scattered far and wide, in the restless struggles of life, are then reunited, and meet once again in that happy state of companionship and mutual goodwill, which is a source of such pure and unalloyed delight; and one so incompatible with the cares and sorrows of the world, that the religious belief of the most civilised nations, and the rude traditions of the roughest savages, alike number it among the first joys of a future condition of existence, provided for the blessed and happy! How many old recollections, and how many dormant sympathies, does Christmas time awaken!
Chapter XXVIII ends with the promise of a Christmas tale:
‘Ah!’ said the old lady, ‘there was just such a wind, and just such a fall of snow, a good many years back, I recollect—just five years before your poor father died. It was a Christmas Eve, too; and I remember that on that very night he told us the story about the goblins that carried away old Gabriel Grub.’
‘The story about what?’ said Mr. Pickwick.
‘Oh, nothing, nothing,’ replied Wardle. ‘About an old sexton, that the good people down here suppose to have been carried away by goblins.’
‘Suppose!’ ejaculated the old lady. ‘Is there anybody hardy enough to disbelieve it? Suppose! Haven’t you heard ever since you were a child, that he was carried away by the goblins, and don’t you know he was?’
‘Very well, mother, he was, if you like,’ said Wardle laughing. ‘He was carried away by goblins, Pickwick; and there’s an end of the matter.’
‘No, no,’ said Mr. Pickwick, ‘not an end of it, I assure you; for I must hear how, and why, and all about it.’
Wardle smiled, as every head was bent forward to hear, and filling out the wassail with no stinted hand, nodded a health to Mr. Pickwick, and began as follows—
But bless our editorial heart, what a long chapter we have been betrayed into! We had quite forgotten all such petty restrictions as chapters, we solemnly declare. So here goes, to give the goblin a fair start in a new one. A clear stage and no favour for the goblins, ladies and gentlemen, if you please. 

Chapter XXIX
The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton

Like most people I enjoy reading ghostly tales on Halloween, but for Christmas nothing beats a good Dickens ghost story. I suppose Christmas does have that element of ghosts - ghosts of the past, the ghost of a memory, who we spend day with and who is no longer with us. Another element of the Dickens ghost story is what we see in 'The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton' and also A Christmas Carol: the need for a change in one's ways. Like Ebeneezer Scrooge, the Sexton the tale - Gabriel Grub - is a mean spirited man who we see digging a grave one Christmas Eve:
In an old abbey town, down in this part of the country, a long, long while ago—so long, that the story must be a true one, because our great-grandfathers implicitly believed it—there officiated as sexton and grave-digger in the churchyard, one Gabriel Grub. It by no means follows that because a man is a sexton, and constantly surrounded by the emblems of mortality, therefore he should be a morose and melancholy man; your undertakers are the merriest fellows in the world; and I once had the honour of being on intimate terms with a mute, who in private life, and off duty, was as comical and jocose a little fellow as ever chirped out a devil-may-care song, without a hitch in his memory, or drained off a good stiff glass without stopping for breath. But notwithstanding these precedents to the contrary, Gabriel Grub was an ill-conditioned, cross-grained, surly fellow—a morose and lonely man, who consorted with nobody but himself, and an old wicker bottle which fitted into his large deep waistcoat pocket—and who eyed each merry face, as it passed him by, with such a deep scowl of malice and ill-humour, as it was difficult to meet without feeling something the worse for.
‘A little before twilight, one Christmas Eve, Gabriel shouldered his spade, lighted his lantern, and betook himself towards the old churchyard; for he had got a grave to finish by next morning, and, feeling very low, he thought it might raise his spirits, perhaps, if he went on with his work at once. As he went his way, up the ancient street, he saw the cheerful light of the blazing fires gleam through the old casements, and heard the loud laugh and the cheerful shouts of those who were assembled around them; he marked the bustling preparations for next day’s cheer, and smelled the numerous savoury odours consequent thereupon, as they steamed up from the kitchen windows in clouds. All this was gall and wormwood to the heart of Gabriel Grub; and when groups of children bounded out of the houses, tripped across the road, and were met, before they could knock at the opposite door, by half a dozen curly-headed little rascals who crowded round them as they flocked upstairs to spend the evening in their Christmas games, Gabriel smiled grimly, and clutched the handle of his spade with a firmer grasp, as he thought of measles, scarlet fever, thrush, whooping-cough, and a good many other sources of consolation besides.
As he rests from digging the grave he meets the King of the Goblins:
Seated on an upright tombstone, close to him, was a strange, unearthly figure, whom Gabriel felt at once, was no being of this world. His long, fantastic legs which might have reached the ground, were cocked up, and crossed after a quaint, fantastic fashion; his sinewy arms were bare; and his hands rested on his knees. On his short, round body, he wore a close covering, ornamented with small slashes; a short cloak dangled at his back; the collar was cut into curious peaks, which served the goblin in lieu of ruff or neckerchief; and his shoes curled up at his toes into long points. On his head, he wore a broad-brimmed sugar-loaf hat, garnished with a single feather. The hat was covered with the white frost; and the goblin looked as if he had sat on the same tombstone very comfortably, for two or three hundred years. He was sitting perfectly still; his tongue was put out, as if in derision; and he was grinning at Gabriel Grub with such a grin as only a goblin could call up.
The Goblin accuses him kidnap him having said "we know the man with the sulky face and grim scowl, that came down the street to-night, throwing his evil looks at the children, and grasping his burying-spade the tighter. We know the man who struck the boy in the envious malice of his heart, because the boy could be merry, and he could not...". Gabriel is taken away and given a good kicking, and, happily, shown the error of his ways. He leaves "an altered man, and he could not bear the thought of returning to a place where his repentance would be scoffed at, and his reformation disbelieved. He hesitated for a few moments; and then turned away to wander where he might, and seek his bread elsewhere." The tenth instalment ends with the words,
... this story has at least one moral, if it teach no better one—and that is, that if a man turn sulky and drink by himself at Christmas time, he may make up his mind to be not a bit the better for it: let the spirits be never so good, or let them be even as many degrees beyond proof, as those which Gabriel Grub saw in the goblin’s cavern.’

Can you believe we're half-way through? I truly can't. This year has flown by and so has The Pickwick Papers. I said at the start of it this was my second read, I hated it the first time, and now I really am enjoying it very much and looking forward to more. Here then is 2017's schedule:
XI –       January 2017 (chapters 30–32)
XII –      February 2017 (chapters 33–34)
XIII –     March 2017 (chapters 35–37)
XIV –     April 2017 (chapters 38–40)
XV –      June 2017 (chapters 41–43)
XVI –     July 2017 (chapters 44–46)
XVII –   August 2017 (chapters 47–49)
XVIII –  September 2017 (chapters 50–52)
XIX –     October 2017 (chapters 53–55)
XX -       November 2017 (chapters 56–57)
Don't forget there's no instalment for May.

Until then, a hearty thank you to all you Pickwickians who joined me for this read-along! And a big well done to Joseph who has blogged along with me and not missed blogging about a single instalment!

Finally, let me again wish everyone a very Happy Christmas! I'll be offline now more or less until after Boxing Day, and I hope everyone has a lovely day :) I'll catch you all next week!

Santa Claus by Arthur Rackham.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay by Robert Greene.

The Honorable Historie of Frier Bacon and Frier Bongay is a comedy by Robert Greene, who it is thought contributed to William Shakespeare's King John and Henry VI Parts I, II, and III, and, furthermore, was a possible inspiration for one of Shakespeare's greatest comic characters Sir John Falstaff (of Henry IV Parts I and II and The Merry Wives of Windsor).

I enjoyed reading historical plays this year so I was very happy to see that Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay is a historical comedy (of sorts, at least). The play was written and performed somewhere around 1588 - 1592 and it's set during the reign of King Henry III, who reigned form 1216 to 1272: he first came to the throne he was just nine years old. Henry III immediately followed King John and, in terms of historical plays, after King Henry III came King Edward I (of whom George Peele wrote about in his The Famous Chronicle of King Edward the First, 1593), who was followed by Edward II (of Marlowe's play), then from Edward III to more or less Queen Elizabeth I we have, thanks to Shakespeare, either a play per king, or at least a mention of monarchs (I'm thinking of Richard III which has in it Henry VII, and Henry VIII which mentions Queen Elizabeth I).

Now, back to Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay. The two friars are based on real men: Friar Bacon is Roger Bacon (1219-20 - 1292), a philosopher and Franciscan friar who had the reputation of being a wizard. Friar Bungay is Thomas Bungay (1214 - 1294) who was also a Franciscan friar and claimed to be an alchemist. A the start of the play we see a very dejected Prince Edward (who will become Edward I). He is in love with Margaret, the daughter of the keeper of Fressingfield (a village in Suffolk) and plans to seduce her with the help of Friar Bacon, however his friend Lacy, the Earl of Lincoln (John de Lacy) when he goes to deliver the message of love to Margaret, ends up falling in love with her himself and falling very much out with Edward. Meanwhile Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay show their magical capabilities throughout the play: Edward is shown in a glass the marriage of Margaret and Lacy, Bacon does battle with Jacques Vandermast in front of King Henry, the King of Castile and the German Emperor, and Bacon and Bungay create a brass head known as the brazen head, an animated magical metal head that first appeared in English literature in 1125 in  William of Malmesbury's History of the English Kings. This head is referenced many times throughout literature in, for example, Don Quixote and Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year, and there's even a legend that claims Thomas Aquinas deliberately broke it for constantly interrupting him. In Greene's play however Bacon's plans for it are scuppered when he falls asleep and the head falls to the floor and breaks.

As I said this is a historical play but it has next to nothing in common with Shakespeare's of the time. It is far more comparable with the Faust myth: Marlowe's The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus was written pretty much at the same time. As with Faust, here we have demons, the devil, witchcraft, duelling wizards, and magical transportations. It's not an easy play to read, in fact I found it very hard, but it is great fun. Above all else it's a comedy: the couples all find love in the end, and everyone more or less gets their happy ending, though Bacon's servant does end up riding to hell on the devil's back to work as a tapster. And why not!

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

The Duke's Children by Anthony Trollope.

One of my resolutions for 2016 was to finish Anthony Trollope's Palliser series (that was also a 2015 resolution but there it is) and now, with just over a week to go, I have finally finished it having now read -
  • Can You Forgive Her? (1864-65)
  • Phineas Finn (1867-68)
  • The Eustace Diamonds (1871-73)
  • Phineas Redux (1873-74)
  • The Prime Minister (1876)
  • The Duke's Children (1880)
If you've been keeping up with my posts you'll know that this read has not gone too well at all, which, given how much I love Anthony Trollope, is very unfortunate. The first novel Can You Forgive Her?, which I read in March 2015, went very well indeed, I loved it very much. By contrast, Phineas Finn was quite the disaster, I couldn't get into that, not even a smidgen and it wasn't until April 2016 that I finally completed it (after numerous false starts). The third, The Eustace Diamonds (I read it in May '16), was a return to form and this is by far my favourite of the Pallisers and even one of my favourite Trollopes overall. The fourth novel I had already resigned myself to not liking - back to Phineas of the second novel, I finally read it in July '16. Everything, I felt, hinged on the fifth, The Prime Minister, which I had no reason to begin with any preconceptions. But, having put it off until November '16, I couldn't get into that either, and, with only one book to go, I thought I may as well read it rather than prematurely call it a day with the Pallisers. So now, finally, The Duke's Children, another one I was largely unmoved by. Overall, reading the Pallisers was an enormous disappointment, but (and I'm not saying this because I usually love Anthony Trollope) I think it's perhaps more because I wasn't so interested in the subject matter; my lack of enthusiasm was not down to poor writing.

So, for this post, I will (rather dejectedly) say a few words (but not many) on The Duke's Children. To warn you, though, the book opens with the mother of all spoilers, so if you're reading or planning to read the Palliser novels (and please don't let me put you off - there are a myriad of good reviews out there for all the novels), I would stop reading now and don't look below this fine picture of the Houses of Parliament.

The Houses of Parliament from the Thames.

The Duke's Children was first serialised in 1879 in All the Year Round, the periodical founded by Charles Dickens, and a year later in 1880 it was published in novel form. It begins with the profoundly disappointing news that my favourite character Lady Glencora, one of the only characters I genuinely loved in the series, has died:
No one, probably, ever felt himself to be more alone in the world than our old friend, the Duke of Omnium, when the Duchess died. When this sad event happened he had ceased to be Prime Minister. During the first nine months after he had left office he and the Duchess remained in England. Then they had gone abroad, taking with them their three children. The eldest, Lord Silverbridge, had been at Oxford, but had had his career there cut short by some more than ordinary youthful folly, which had induced his father to agree with the college authorities that his name had better be taken off the college books,—all which had been cause of very great sorrow to the Duke. The other boy was to go to Cambridge; but his father had thought it well to give him a twelvemonth's run on the Continent, under his own inspection. Lady Mary, the only daughter, was the youngest of the family, and she also had been with them on the Continent. They remained the full year abroad, travelling with a large accompaniment of tutors, lady's-maids, couriers, and sometimes friends. I do not know that the Duchess or the Duke had enjoyed it much; but the young people had seen something of foreign courts and much of foreign scenery, and had perhaps perfected their French. The Duke had gone to work at his travels with a full determination to create for himself occupation out of a new kind of life. He had studied Dante, and had striven to arouse himself to ecstatic joy amidst the loveliness of the Italian lakes. But through it all he had been aware that he had failed. The Duchess had made no such resolution,—had hardly, perhaps, made any attempt; but, in truth, they had both sighed to be back among the war-trumpets. They had both suffered much among the trumpets, and yet they longed to return. He told himself from day to day, that though he had been banished from the House of Commons, still, as a peer, he had a seat in Parliament, and that, though he was no longer a minister, still he might be useful as a legislator. She, in her career as a leader of fashion, had no doubt met with some trouble,—with some trouble but with no disgrace; and as she had been carried about among the lakes and mountains, among the pictures and statues, among the counts and countesses, she had often felt that there was no happiness except in that dominion which circumstances had enabled her to achieve once, and might enable her to achieve again—in the realms of London society.
Then, in the early spring of 187—, they came back to England, having persistently carried out their project, at any rate in regard to time. Lord Gerald, the younger son, was at once sent up to Trinity. For the eldest son a seat was to be found in the House of Commons, and the fact that a dissolution of Parliament was expected served to prevent any prolonged sojourn abroad. Lady Mary Palliser was at that time nineteen, and her entrance into the world was to be her mother's great care and great delight. In March they spent a few days in London, and then went down to Matching Priory. When she left town the Duchess was complaining of cold, sore throat, and debility. A week after their arrival at Matching she was dead.
It is, I think, testament to Trollope's great characterisation that I, who largely did not like these novels, did feel great sadness. I had that melancholy moment all readers know - putting the book down after that second paragraph and staring very sadly out of the window. The death of Lady Glencora was a great blow. The final novel must go on without her, and so it does: the Duke is left to care for his three children, Lord Silverbridge, who is expelled from Oxford, Lord Gerald Palliser, an average student at Cambridge university, and the Duke's daughter Lady Mary Pailliser, who is intent on marrying the very unsuitable Frank Tregear. It would appear, to the Duke's disappointment, that Lady Glencora approved of this match and the two are engaged.

And so it is for the Duke to sort out his children, having recently lost too his position as Prime Minister: he wishes Lord Silverbridge to follow his footsteps into parliament despite the Oxford incident, and meanwhile Lord Silverbridge (who is financially unstable owing to an unwise involvement in horses) seems unable to make a match, proposing first to Lady Mabel Grex and then to the American heiress Isabel Boncassen. As this pans out Gerald adds to the Duke's woes by being expelled from Cambridge, and all the while the Duke must deal with Mary and her choice of husband.

This really has all the ingredients for a great novel, but I think I've been so fed up with my block with the Pallisers I couldn't get into it. Perhaps one day I'll revisit The Duke's Children (I'm unlikely to revisit The Prime Minister and I certainly won't ever re-read the two Phineas novels) because I do think it has such great promise. The Duke is a very interesting man and we've watched him grow from the very first novel Can You Forgive Her?. I just wish this had been less of a disaster for me!

So, what next? I always said I'd read The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy once I'd finished the Pallisers, so I do think I'll go more or less straight into that (I might possibly start it this evening). As for Trollope: I'm certainly not swearing off him for a while: I'm planning on reading at least two of his novels, Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite and Nina Balatka, next year, plus I have a long list of essays I'd like to read by him, all concerning the Church of England. For now I'm very happy at last to have finished the Pallisers: it's been something I've been meaning to read for many years now.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf.

The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf is divided into two editions; The Common Reader First Series (1925) and The Common Reader Second Series (1932). I've read them several times now, and this latest re-read I began in January 2014. Since then I've been reading random chapters, some for fun, some it seemed pertinent to read at the time, but in November of this year I was moved to read it all, all the way through. Trump had just been elected and the nightmarish quality of 2016 seemed to have peaked, and the world most certainly lacked any sense (still true, to be honest) and I needed not so much escapism but some cohesion. I'm now at the stage where I've read a lot of the authors and works mentioned in The Common Reader (by no means all) and I agree with so much of what Virginia Woolf has to say, so for me, reading The Common Reader was about bringing that sense, order, and unity to a big part of my life: reading. For that, reading this work was largely quite a settling and enjoyable experience, inspiring too of course, but on the whole it was about feeling some sense of peace in some part of life. Reading what one agrees with is by no means a rule that should be universal, there must always be balance, but often it is necessary.

So, as I say I've been reading this for a few years now and I've written several posts on various chapters. Here's the chapters I've blogged about:
First Series (1925)
'The Pastons and Chaucer'
'The Duchess of Newcastle'
'On Not Knowing Greek'
'Modern Fiction'
'Jane Austen'
"Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights"
'The Russian Point of View'
'The Patron and the Crocus'
Second Series (1932)
'Two Parsons: James Woodforde and John Skinner'
'Dr. Burney's Evening Party'
'Four Figures'
'George Gissing'
"I am Christina Rossetti"
"Aurora Leigh"
'How Should One Read a Book?'
In fact there are 43 essays, 21 in the first, 22 in the second (the titles of each can be found on the online edition: The First Series here and The Second Series here).

The collection begins with a very brief essay explaining what is meant by 'The Common Reader', so brief in fact it can be quoted in full:
There is a sentence in Dr. Johnson’s Life of Gray which might well be written up in all those rooms, too humble to be called libraries, yet full of books, where the pursuit of reading is carried on by private people. “ . . . I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers, uncorrupted by literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours.” It defines their qualities; it dignifies their aims; it bestows upon a pursuit which devours a great deal of time, and is yet apt to leave behind it nothing very substantial, the sanction of the great man’s approval.
The common reader, as Dr. Johnson implies, differs from the critic and the scholar. He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole — a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing. He never ceases, as he reads, to run up some rickety and ramshackle fabric which shall give him the temporary satisfaction of looking sufficiently like the real object to allow of affection, laughter, and argument. Hasty, inaccurate, and superficial, snatching now this poem, now that scrap of old furniture, without caring where he finds it or of what nature it may be so long as it serves his purpose and rounds his structure, his deficiencies as a critic are too obvious to be pointed out; but if he has, as Dr. Johnson maintained, some say in the final distribution of poetical honours, then, perhaps, it may be worth while to write down a few of the ideas and opinions which, insignificant in themselves, yet contribute to so mighty a result.
From here we embark on a journey through literature, beginning with 'The Pastons and Chaucer', but this is not a strictly chronological expedition through the printed word, though on the whole there is an element of that. From the Medieval and Early Modern era we step back to the Greeks in the third essay 'On not knowing Greek', which has similarities with the first essay of The Second Series 'The Strange Elizabethans', the idea of a familiar body of literature written in a time so very alien to us. On the Greeks she writes,
For it is vain and foolish to talk of knowing Greek, since in our ignorance we should be at the bottom of any class of schoolboys, since we do not know how the words sounded, or where precisely we ought to laugh, or how the actors acted, and between this foreign people and ourselves there is not only difference of race and tongue but a tremendous breach of tradition. 
And on the Elizabethans:
There are few greater delights than to go back three or four hundred years and become in fancy at least an Elizabethan. That such fancies are only fancies, that this “becoming an Elizabethan”, this reading sixteenth-century writing as currently and certainly as we read our own is an illusion, is no doubt true. Very likely the Elizabethans would find our pronunciation of their language unintelligible; our fancy picture of what it pleases us to call Elizabethan life would rouse their ribald merriment. 
On the subject of Elizabethans: she writes on that familiarity I mentioned in 'Notes on an Elizabethan Play' but then brings to our attention those we have forgotten: Shakespeare, she rightly points out, dominates, but why?
Nobody can fail to remember the plot of the Antigone, because what happens is so closely bound up with the emotions of the actors that we remember the people and the plot at one and the same time. But who can tell us what happens in the White Devil, or the Maid’s Tragedy, except by remembering the story apart from the emotions which it has aroused? As for the lesser Elizabethans, like Greene and Kyd, the complexities of their plots are so great, and the violence which those plots demand so terrific, that the actors themselves are obliterated and emotions which, according to our convention at least, deserve the most careful investigation, the most delicate analysis, are clean sponged off the slate. And the result is inevitable. Outside Shakespeare and perhaps Ben Jonson, there are no characters in Elizabethan drama, only violences whom we know so little that we can scarcely care what becomes of them. 
On this theme of the lost or forgotten, Woolf writes on authors and people perhaps no longer on a radar. The obvious example of this is 'Lives of the Obscure' in the First Series, portraits of the Taylors and the Edgeworths, and also Laetitia Pilkington. But, from the strange to old favourites: Woolf writes on authors we know and love: Michel de Montaigne, Daniel Defoe, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, George Gissing (perhaps better known in her time), the Brontës and others.

Not only does Woolf look back but she also looks forward: The Common Reader also has elements of a kind of treatise in some parts. By looking at what has passed, in particular her essay titled 'The Russian Point of View' (one of my favourites) she writes about being inspired by 19th Century authors such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy, and Anton Chekhov:
... it is the soul that is the chief character in Russian fiction. Delicate and subtle in Tchekov, subject to an infinite number of humours and distempers, it is of greater depth and volume in Dostoevsky; it is liable to violent diseases and raging fevers, but still the predominant concern... The novels of Dostoevsky are seething whirlpools, gyrating sandstorms, waterspouts which hiss and boil and suck us in. They are composed purely and wholly of the stuff of the soul. Against our wills we are drawn in, whirled round, blinded, suffocated, and at the same time filled with a giddy rapture. Out of Shakespeare there is no more exciting reading.
Such authors would, as she explains in this and in 'Modern Fiction', shape her methods for her works.

The Common Reader is an outstanding work of literary criticism. As one would expect from Woolf it is beautifully and elegantly written, insightful, moving, exciting, bringing together the past, present, and future in one work. Her excitement is infectious and also touching: my favourite quote from this is the final paragraph:
Yet who reads to bring about an end, however desirable? Are there not some pursuits that we practise because they are good in themselves, and some pleasures that are final? And is not this among them? I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgement dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards — their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble — the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when he sees us coming with our books under our arms, “Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.”
This is my favourite work by her and because of that I will always return to it when I fancy and when appropriate, so in 2017 I will certainly be singling out some more of these fine essays. A great and wonderful read, and, at the time, it was very necessary.

*****

My final Deal Me In title of 2016 was 'The Strange Elizabethans' by Virginia Woolf, but as you can see I've read the entire The Common Reader. I have a great many titles on my Classics Club list from the Elizabethan and Jacobean period, and when I've finished then I'll no doubt return to 'The Strange Elizabethans'. For now, though, yes, this is the last title of the year for this challenge. I've very much enjoyed all the titles, particularly these from The Common Reader! Tomorrow Jay is announcing the new 2017 Challenge, and until then here's a look back at what I read for this in 2016:

52 / 52

♥ Essays ♥


♦ Poems ♦

♣ Plays ♣

♠ Short Stories ♠

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