Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare.

1891 edition.
Antony and Cleopatra is one of William Shakespeare's later plays, first performed in 1606. It's a tragedy and also one of his Roman plays (along with Julius Caesar, Titus Andronicus, and Coriolanus), based on Mark Antony (83 B.C. - 30 B.C.) and Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator, (69 B.C. - 30 B.C.).

The action takes place following Caesar's murder (in this respect it's almost like a sequel to Julius Caesar, 1599) and begins during Sicilian revolt (44 B.C. - 36 B.C.). Antony is a triumvir, one of the three rulers of Rome (along with Octavius Caesar and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus), and spends his time in Egypt with Cleopatra, with whom he is having an affair despite being married to Fulvia. When he learns of Fulvia's revolt against Octavius (known as the Perusine War, 41 B.C. - 40 B.C., during which time Fulvia died) he must return to Rome despite Cleopatra's entreaties.

Though he does return, Antony's reluctance and his interest in Cleopatra leads Octavius to accuse him of neglecting his duties. The pair quarrel and Lepidus attempts to bring about some peace between them, and meanwhile the rebel Sextus Pompey appears to be growing in strength and power. To prevent any problems between Pompey and Rome they must unite, and it is decided that now Fulvia is dead, Antony must marry Octavia, Octavius' sister.

Cleopatra by John William Waterhouse (1888).
The news eventually reaches Cleopatra, who strikes down the messenger with the words "The most infectious pestilence upon thee!". She goes on, repeatedly asking for confirmation of the news between curses. She later learns however that Octavia is a plain woman, giving her the confidence that she will soon win Antony back. As this plays out, the relations between the triumvirs and Pompey are not well: with Antony and Octavia in Athens, Octavius breaks the agreed truce and war is declared. Octavius also imprisons Lepidus; Octavia begs Antony to keep the peace, fearing divided loyalties between her brother and her husband, so from Athens to Rome for Octavia, meanwhile Antony travels to Egypt to gather together an army. There, of course, he is once again reunited with Cleopatra.

It is of course a tragedy with a Romeo and Juliet ending (I'm feeling as though I have déjà vu at this point having recently written about Dryden's All For Love, 1677, which was written in imitation of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra). Antony's reunion with Cleopatra ends in chaos, false messages are sent, and Antony believes Cleopatra to be dead and so kills himself; shortly before he dies he sees that she is in fact alive, but not for long - after his death she too commits suicide.

Though Antony and Cleopatra is not a favourite of mine, I did admire the way Shakespeare deals with the conflict of duty and reason against love and emotion. Antony is brave, but he is very sensual too, barely able to resist being with Cleopatra who, whilst being presented as rather histrionic, is very passionate and devoted to Antony. In a way this relationship also shows the differences between Egypt and Rome, both characters almost personifying their empire. Cleopatra herself is also as conflicted as Antony - she is strong, yet painfully insecure. It is a remarkable relationship brilliantly presented; the fact that it's not a favourite is not so much a fault Shakespeare's, rather that I'm just not wildly fond of the story. But, whatever the case, Antony and Cleopatra is an unforgettable. 

To finish, some illustrations from the 1891 edition of Antony and Cleopatra by Paul Avril:

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Ralph Roister Doister by Nicholas Udall.

Ralph Roister Doister is a comedy by Nicholas Udall, and it's possibly the first English comedy. Quite when it was written is unknown: Ashley Thorndike, the editor of my edition (The Minor Elizabethan Drama vol. II: Pre-Shakespearean Comedies, 1968) suggests that it was sometime around 1540, others suggest in the early 1550s. Whatever the case, Nicholas Udall was a schoolmaster and it seems Ralph Roister Doister was written to be performed by his pupils. He had taught in a London grammar school, Eton (where he taught Latin; one of his pupils was the poet Thomas Tusser), was a vicar for a period (having been sacked from Eton for sexual misconduct), then returned to teaching as headmaster of Westminster School. Udall was also a translator, most notably of Erasmus, but he also produced in 1534 Floures for Latine Spekynge Selected and Gathered out of Terence; Terence, and indeed Plautus, were great influences on Ralph Roister Doister.

It's said that this play went on to influence William Shakespeare, particularly Comedy of Errors (1589); it's been such a long time since I read that play I'll refrain from comment, but I must say Ralph Roister Doister very much reminded me of another Shakespearean comedy: The Merry Wives of Windsor (1602). Ralph is very similar to the great John Falstaff (who also appears in Shakespeare's Henry IV Part I and Part II, 1597-8). He is a boaster, as his name would suggest - interestingly there's a helpful definition of the word "roister" in Johnson's Dictionary (although Johnson attributes the word to Shakespeare, clearly it's been going for a little longer than that):

Like Falstaff, Ralph is not a bad person as such, a boaster yes, and to use Johnson's word, somewhat "turbulent". To make another literary comparison - he is a little like Mr. Tupman of Pickwick Papers, whose "admiration for the fair sex was still [his soul's] ruling passion". Matthew Merrygreeke, a trickster who enjoys fun at Ralph's expense, encourages Ralph to pursue Christian Custance, a widow who is to be married to Gawyn Goodluck. As with Falstaff, a letter is sent (though admittedly Falstaff was pursuing more than one widow) and Ralph, with the help of others, makes an absolute blundering mess of it. A letter is sent, love tokens, and Ralph's servants but to no avail, thanks to Matthew Merrygreeke's tricks and Ralph's presumptuousness. 

It is a fun play, very silly, but very energetic and lighthearted. One thing that particularly stood out for me was the prologue, a great defence of comedies:
What creature is in health, either young or old,
But some mirth with modesty will be glad to use?
As we in this Interlude shall now unfold,
Wherein all scurrility we utterly refuse,
Avoiding such mirth wherein is abuse:
Knowing nothing more commendable for a man's recreation
Than Mirth which is used in an honest fashion:
For Mirth prolongeth life, and causeth health,
Mirth recreates our spirits and voideth pensinveness,
Mirth increaseth amity, not hindering our wealth,
Mirth is to be used both of more and less,
Being mixed with virtue in decent comliness,
As we trust no good nature can gainsay the same:
Which mirth we intend to use, avoiding all blame.
The wise Poets long time heretofore,
Under merry Comedies secrets did declare,
Wherein was contained very virtuous lore,
With mysteries neither Plautus nor Terence did spare,
These with such other therein did excel.
Our Comedy or Interlude which we intend to play
Is named Roister Doister indeed.
WHich against vain-glorious doth inveigh,
Whose humour the roisting sort continually doth feed.
Thus by your patience we intend to proceed
Is this our Interlude by God's leave and grace,
And here I take my leave for a certain space.
I do feel that other great defender of comedy, Sleary of Dickens' Hard Times (1854) who observed "People mutht be amuthed, Thquire, thomehow," would approve of Udall's sentiments.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Moments of Being: Slater's Pins Have No Points by Virginia Woolf.

Slater's Points Have No Pins, also known as Moments of Being, was written by Virginia Woolf as she was preparing to write The Waves (1931), but it was not published until after her death when it appeared in A Haunted House (1944), a short story collection prepared by her husband Leonard Woolf (which also includes the stories first published in Monday or Tuesday, 1921). Slater's Pins Have No Points and other stories from around this period were, as Woolf told Ethel Smyth, little sketches written every morning "to amuse myself".

The story begins,
Slater’s pins have no points—don’t you always find that?” said Miss Craye, turning round as the rose fell out of Fanny Wilmot’s dress, and Fanny stooped, with her cars full of the music, to look for the pin on the floor.
Fanny Wilmot imagines the moment Miss Julia Craye bought the pins:
Did she stand at the counter waiting like anybody else, and was she given a bill with coppers wrapped in it, and did she slip them into her purse and then, an hour later, stand by her dressing table and take out the pins? What need had she of pins? For she was not so much dressed as cased, like a beetle compactly in its sheath, blue in winter, green in summer. What need had she of pins—Julia Craye—who lived, it seemed in the cool glassy world of Bach fugues, playing to herself what she liked, to take one or two pupils at the and only consenting Archer Street College of Music (so the Principal, Miss Kingston, said) as a special favour to herself, who had “the greatest admiration for her in every way.”
This marks the beginning of the stream-of-consciousness writing so familiar to readers of Woolf. Fanny pontificates further on Miss Craye, and a friend of Miss Craye, Miss Kingston, which goes on to consider the nature of marriage in terms of independence (or lack of, more pertinently), freedom, and potential loneliness. These thoughts on men and women and the relationship between the two is suddenly brought to an end:
Julia blazed. Julia kindled. Out of the night she burnt like a dead white star. Julia opened her arms. Julia kissed her on the lips. Julia possessed it. 
“Slater’s pins have no points,” Miss Craye said, laughing queerly and relaxing her arms, as Fanny Wilmot pinned the flower to her breast with trembling fingers.
Slater's Pins Have No Points is a remarkably in depth study of imagination, facts and reality, and what it is to be a woman in this time, all in six pages. Like An Unwritten novel Woolf uses one character to imagine the life of another which has the effect of almost losing the author entirely; the character Fanny essentially becomes the author. Like many of Woolf's short stories it is brilliant; so clever and so immersive, yet so very brief. This "little sketch" is perfectly Woolf.

And that was my 48th title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Hard to believe I only have four titles left! Next week - How to Become a Critic by Samuel Johnson.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster.

The Duchess of Malfi is a tragic play by John Webster (written around 1612-13) based on the life of the Italian aristocrat Giovanna d'Aragona, Duchess of Amalfi (1478 - 1510). Her life indeed seems to have captured the imagination of Renaissance writers; aside from The Duchess of Malfi, there is a story in William Painter's The Palace of Pleasure (1566; from which Webster got his inspiration) and the play El mayordomo de la Duquesa Amalfi (The Duchess of Amalfi's Steward) by Lope de Vega (late 16th / early 17th Century). She was married at the age of 12 to Alfonso Piccolomini, who became the Duke of Almalfi in 1493. He was killed just five years later at the age of thirty. In 1499, a few months after his death Giovanna gave birth to their son, Alfonso, who with his birth became the next Duke of Almalfi. She later fell in love with Antonio Beccadelli her steward, and the two married in secret, unable to tell her family for fear of disgrace. Eventually, in 1511, she left Almalfi for Ancona where Antonio was waiting for her, however when the secret was revealed her brother Cardinal Luigi d'Aragona had them expelled from the city. They went to Siena, then attempted to go to Venice however they were caught and brought back to Amalfi. Antonio stayed in Milan where he was killed by the Cardinal's men, but it would appear that the Duchess and her three children (by Antonio) were murdered. Whilst in Milan Antonio met Matteo Bandello and told him the tale: Bandello was an author (whose stories inspired Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing, Romeo and Juliet, Cymbeline, and Twelfth Night) and he recorded the story of the Duchess of Malfi, part of his collection known now as The novels of Matteo Bandello.

Illustration of the 1900 edition ofThe Duchess of Malfi.
Webster's play follows these events beginning after the death of Alfonso Piccolomini, the Duke of Malfi and the arrival of Antonio. Her brothers Ferdinand, Duke of Calabria, and the Cardinal are adamant that their sister must not get re-married, which will maintain her political position (particularly strong as the now Duke of Malfi is only an infant). They convince her to employ Daniel de Bosla, who will spy on her. Despite promising that she will never remarry she falls in love with Antonio Bologna and proposes to him. He accepts and they keep their marriage a secret; de Bosla is aware that she is having an affair with a man, but is unsure who the man is. He duly informs the brothers; Ferdinand confronts her and she reveals that she is indeed marry. Whilst preparing to flee, she makes the mistake of telling Bosla the man to whom she is married is Antonio. The brothers follow her around Italy and eventually capture her and strangler her and her two children. Bosla's guilty conscience finally gets the better of him and he helps Antonio, however, in an attempt to kill the Cardinal he kills Antonio. Ultimately he does end up killing both the Cardinal and Ferdinand, but dies in the fight. The young duke is then taken in by Delio, Antonio's friend, with the hope "To establish this young hopeful gentleman / In's mother's right."

The Duchess of Malfi is a dark play on corruption and betrayal. Giovanna is a striking character, determined to make her decisions; remarkable given the time period. There is that suggestion that she "wilfulness" is responsible for the whole debacle, but, more interestingly, it's the reaction to her independence that lead to the tragedy, not the fact that she attempted independence. Her enemies, her brothers that is, are truly vile; in this respect it's an easy play with the 'goodies' on one side and the 'baddies' on the other. Yet events in it make it particularly complex, it's not an easy play to follow but it's worth the effort. Webster is excellent in his portrayal of suffering, fear, and injustice, so good in fact I did feel a little flat having read it. Still, a brilliant work. It's only my second Webster (the first being The White Devil) and I do think this is my favourite of the two.

Friday, 25 November 2016

The Prime Minister by Anthony Trollope.

1876 edition.
I've said this before but it needs repeating for this post: Anthony Trollope's Palliser series is quite the roller coaster for me. The first novel Can You Forgive Her? (1865) I loved. The second, Phineas Finn (1869) - hated. The third, The Eustace Diamonds (1873): the best one yet. The fourth - Phineas Redux (1874): hated. Now here we are at the fifth: The Prime Minister, first published in 1876. Quite liked it. Quite. And it is this point I ought to conclude that despite two successes, it might be a good point to give up reading the Pallisers, given how much I dread reading them (yes, despite those two successes). But it's far too late anyway, there's only one more to go: The Duke's Children, 1880; I'd be mad not to read the final one. We're not there yet, but I am happy that I am now likely to finish one of my last 2016 goals: to finish the Palliser series, which I've been reading since March '15.

So then, The Prime Minister. It is the fifth of the Palliser novels, published as I say in 1876, 140 years ago but with some very familiar themes. The Whig government (who eventually turned into the Liberals, who then transformed into the Liberal Democrats) fell and neither Mr. Gresham of the Whigs nor Mr. Daubeny of the Tories were able to establish a majority, so a coalition government was formed (naturally reminding me of the Conservative / Liberal Democrat coalition of 2010-15, though it was a Labour government that fell). Plantagenet Palliser (who we first caught a glimpse of in The Small House at Allington, 1864), now the Duke of Omnium and former Chancellor of the Exchequer is to lead this coalition government. Coalitions are by their nature very fragile, and the Duke relies on his wife the Duchess (best known as Lady Glencora Palliser of Can You Forgive Her?, 1864-5) to help him win friends and support. It is a portrait of a marriage of two people who have come to love and respect each other but aren't quite on the same page so to speak. Elsewhere, we meet Ferdinand Lopez who, to the fury of the Duke, succeeds in persuading Lady Glencora to back him in standing as a candidate at the Silverbridge by-election against Arthur Fletcher, and meanwhile marries the woman Fletcher loves - Emily Wharton, against her father's expressed disapproval; a match very difficult to understate how disastrous.

One of the more interesting aspects of The Prime Minister is the portraits of two imperfect couples. The marital strains of the Duke and Duchess of Omnium began to be explored in Can You Forgive Her? and in The Prime Minister we see a degree of settling, and a relationship of mutual love and respect, yet mistakes continue to be made. The most dramatic of the two couples though is Emily Wharton and Ferdinand Lopez: he is a risk taker whose endeavours end in tragedy and we see Emily deal with her catastrophic decision in marrying Lopez. Like the Duchess, he is ambitious: Glencora's ambition is to make her husband one of the greatest Prime Ministers in British history, Lopez too seeks power and glory, but with far less success, in part owing to his "foreign name" (the word "foreign" is repeated several times in disparaging ways).

As ever the political wranglings of the Palliser series are of interest, and, for me, the novel was saved by the ever-brilliant Lady Glencora Palliser, who is one of Trollope's finest characters (and I believe it wouldn't take too much to put Emily Wharton in the shade: she's not the most engaging of characters). It wasn't a bad read, but there are much better Trollope novels out there. Next on my list is of course the final Palliser, The Duke's Children, which I've vaguely hopeful for, after which I think there'll be a period of 'getting over': this series has unfortunately rather dented my love of Trollope. I think perhaps 2017 would be a good time for re-reading some of his greats (He Knew He Was Right being first on my list!).

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

A Pocket Philosophical Dictionary by Voltaire.

1822 edition.
The 18th Century was a good century for encyclopedias. In the early 1700s (1704-10) Lexicon Technicum was published; in 1728, Chamber's Cyclopædia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences; later came Diderot's Encyclopédie (1751-72), Encyclopædia Britannica from 1768-71, and then Brockhaus Enzyklopädie 1796 - 1808), and finally not forgetting Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language (1755). Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary appeared somewhere in the middle of it all - 1764.

The Philosophical Dictionary (Dictionnaire philosophique), first published as Dictionnaire philosophique portatif, almost immediately went on the Vatican's Index Librorum Prohibitorum, which is usually where Voltaire ended up (it's not, after all, his only work on that list), because of it's anti Roman Catholic sentiment. In his short articles Voltaire writes on God, the concept of God, religion, religious figures, morality, and other religious concepts such as the soul, hell, and free will. He begins with Abraham and ends with Virtue, stopping along the way at Soul (Âme), Cannibals (Anthropophages), Apocalypse, Good, Certainty, Body, Equality, Hell, Fanaticism, Flood, Luxury, Prejudice, Tyranny, even China and the Japanese Catechisms are mentioned (among many other subjects). 

The articles or entries are fairly succinct and very much of the period: Voltaire's Dictionary is a great insight into Enlightenment philosophy, outlook and attitude. As one would expect it is very anti-religion, shockingly so at some points in its bluntness. I did love reading it and learned a lot, and it felt remarkably modern, like an article by, say, Frankie Boyle almost - funny, pessimistic, and very enlightening, and above all else rather controversial. The Vatican, as I said, took exception, among many others - copies were even burned (this apparently didn't bother Voltaire who saw "no reason to be upset"). To the religious class it represented a great danger. There is one very disturbing story about a young man called François-Jean de la Barre. He was charged with blasphemy and sacrilege; one of the reasons he was found guilty was the fact he was found to have had Voltaire's Dictionary in his possessions. The judge remarked,
Regarding Jean-Francois Lefebvre, chevalier de La Barre, we declare him convicted of having taught to sing and sung impious, execrable and blasphemous songs against God; of having profaned the sign of the cross in making blessings accompanied by foul words which modesty does not permit repeating; of having knowingly refused the signs of respect to the Holy Sacrament carried in procession by the priory of Saint-Pierre; of having shown these signs of adoration to foul and abominable books that he had in his room; of having profaned the mystery of the consecration of wine, having mocked it, in pronouncing the impure terms mentioned in the trial record over a glass of wine which he held in his hand and then drunken the wine; of having finally proposed to Petignat, who was serving mass with him, to bless the cruets while pronouncing the impure words mentioned in the trial record.
He was then executed, and the Dictionary burned alongside him.

It's a great work, even now surprising in his lack of sugar-coating (I read with a mixture of enjoyment and uncomfortableness), and as I keep saying - it is such a valuable insight into the world of the Enlightenment. I do love Voltaire.

Monday, 21 November 2016

The Phoenix and the Turtle by William Shakespeare.

1878 edition.
1601 saw the publication of Robert Chester's Love's Martyr, or, to give it its full title:

Lᴏᴠᴇ's Mᴀʀᴛʏʀ: 
ᴏʀ Rᴏꜱᴀʟɪɴs Cᴏᴍᴘʟᴀɪɴᴛ. 

Allegorically shadowing the truth of Loue, 
in the constant Fate of the Phoenix and Turtle. 
A Poeme enterlaced with much varietie and raritie; 
now first translated out of the venerable Italian Torquato 
Caeliano, by Robert Chester. 
With the true legend of famous King Arthur the last of the nine 
Worthies, being the first Essay of a new Brytish Poet: collected 
out of diuerse Authenticall Records. 
To these are added some new compositions of seuerall moderne Writers 
whose names are subscribed to their seuerall workes, vpon the 
first subiect viz. the Phoenix 
and Turtle.

Following Chester's poem are "Poetical Essays on the Former Subject viz. The Turtle and the Phoenix", including poems by George Chapman, Ben Jonson, John Marston, and William Shakespeare, most notably his The Phoenix and the Turtle.

Chester writes of the significance of the Phoenix and the Turtle (turtle in this context meaning a turtledove):
Phoenix of beautie, beauteous, Bird of any
To thee I do entitle all my labour,
More precious in mine eye by far then many
That feedst all earthly sences with thy savour:
Accept my home-writ praises of thy love,
And kind acceptance of thy Turtle-dove...
He writes, as the title suggests, on an ideal love exemplified by these two birds. When we get to Shakespeare's poem The Phoenix and the Turtle we reach the end of love: the two birds have died. Here's the poem in full:
Let the bird of loudest lay
On the sole Arabian tree
Herald sad and trumpet be,
To whose sound chaste wings obey.  
But thou shrieking harbinger,
Foul precurrer of the fiend,
Augur of the fever's end,
To this troop come thou not near.  
From this session interdict
Every fowl of tyrant wing,
Save the eagle, feather'd king;
Keep the obsequy so strict.  
Let the priest in surplice white,
That defunctive music can,
Be the death-divining swan,
Lest the requiem lack his right.  
And thou treble-dated crow,
That thy sable gender mak'st
With the breath thou giv'st and tak'st,
'Mongst our mourners shalt thou go.  
Here the anthem doth commence:
Love and constancy is dead;
Phoenix and the Turtle fled
In a mutual flame from hence.  
So they lov'd, as love in twain
Had the essence but in one;
Two distincts, division none:
Number there in love was slain.  
Hearts remote, yet not asunder;
Distance and no space was seen
'Twixt this Turtle and his queen:
But in them it were a wonder.  
So between them love did shine
That the Turtle saw his right
Flaming in the Phoenix' sight:
Either was the other's mine.  
Property was thus appalled
That the self was not the same;
Single nature's double name
Neither two nor one was called.  
Reason, in itself confounded,
Saw division grow together,
To themselves yet either neither,
Simple were so well compounded;  
That it cried, "How true a twain
Seemeth this concordant one!
Love has reason, reason none,
If what parts can so remain."  
Whereupon it made this threne
To the Phoenix and the Dove,
Co-supremes and stars of love,
As chorus to their tragic scene:  
Beauty, truth, and rarity,
Grace in all simplicity,
Here enclos'd, in cinders lie.  
Death is now the Phoenix' nest,
And the Turtle's loyal breast
To eternity doth rest,  
Leaving no posterity:
'Twas not their infirmity,
It was married chastity.  
Truth may seem but cannot be;
Beauty brag but 'tis not she;
Truth and beauty buried be.  
To this urn let those repair
That are either true or fair;
For these dead birds sigh a prayer.
Detail of 'The Phoenix Portrait'
of Elizabeth I, thought to be painted
by Nicholas Hilliard. 
This is a strange poem indeed; it reminded a little of William Blake, and Geoffrey Chaucer too - particularly Chaucer's Parlement of Foules (1382) in which the birds discuss love, companionship, and fulfilment. Associating birds with love is also seen in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1600): on finding the lovers in the woods, Theseus remarks, "Saint Valentine is past, / Begin these wood birds but to couple now?".

It's thought that the eagle in Chaucer's poem represented Anne of Bohemia, and the eagle's three suitors represented King Richard II, Friedrich of Meissen, and Dauphin and future King Charles VI of France. In Shakespeare's The Phoenix and the Turtle some believe the birds were inspired by John and Ursula Salisbury (Love's Martyr is dedicated to John Salisbury); others believe the Phoenix of the title represented Queen Elizabeth I (the phoenix being a royal emblem, seen on the left) who Shakespeare referred to in Henry VIII (1613) as the 'maiden phoenix':
Nor shall this peace sleep with her: but as when
The bird of wonder dies, the maiden phoenix,
Her ashes new create another heir,
As great in admiration as herself...
Whoever inspired the poem, it is a very beautiful and moving one on love, dedication, perfection, and loyalty. It's notoriously one of Shakespeare's most difficult works, but very short and very much worth reading.

The poem in the 1878 edition of Love's Martyr.

That was my 47th Deal Me In title. Next week - Moments of Being by Virginia Woolf.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Chapters XXIV - XXVI of The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens.

This morning I woke up to the hardest frost yet of the season: not spectacular, mind, I'd say an average late autumn frost, but still remarkable in that it's not been this cold for many months. I smashed the water of the chicken's water bowls, attempted to put their jumpers on (they flat out won't wear them) and now I'm sitting at my desk in front of the fire. November 1836, however, puts any chill I might have into perspective: October 1036 marked the start of one of the coldest winters on record; by November the gales had begun; several trees had even been blown down in London. The winter would get more brutal yet and it lasted even through to May of 1837, that spring also breaking records. But readers of the ninth instalment of The Pickwick Papers weren't to know that; it was just the beginning.

Chapter XXIV
Wherein Mr. Peter Magnus Grows Jealous, and The Middle-Aged Lady Apprehensive, 
which Brings the Pickwickians Within the Grasp of the Law

'Mr Weller attacks the executive of Ipswich'
by Phiz.
Mr. Magnus, who we first met in the eighth instalment (Chapter XXII), asks Mr. Pickwick for his advice on proposing to a certain middle aged lady with whom he is in love, asking him if he himself has ever proposed: unsurprisingly Pickwick, who faces legal action following a misunderstanding in which he did not actually propose replies "with great energy, ‘never.’". He goes on to share some ideas before Magnus "rushed desperately from the room" to go about his proposal, meanwhile Tupman, Snodgrass, and Winkle arrive. Mr. Magnus swiftly returns, is introduced to the aforementioned, and then shares the happy news the lady has accepted. There is only one problem: when she is brought to be introduced to the Pickwickians, she is unfortunately very familiar to Mr. Pickwick: it was her bedroom Pickwick found himself in in the previous instalment when he was lost in Gray's Inn. 
The lady was at the upper end of the room. As Mr. Pickwick bowed, he took his spectacles from his waistcoat pocket, and put them on; a process which he had no sooner gone through, than, uttering an exclamation of surprise, Mr. Pickwick retreated several paces, and the lady, with a half-suppressed scream, hid her face in her hands, and dropped into a chair; whereupon Mr. Peter Magnus was stricken motionless on the spot, and gazed from one to the other, with a countenance expressive of the extremities of horror and surprise.
This certainly was, to all appearance, very unaccountable behaviour; but the fact is, that Mr. Pickwick no sooner put on his spectacles, than he at once recognised in the future Mrs. Magnus the lady into whose room he had so unwarrantably intruded on the previous night; and the spectacles had no sooner crossed Mr. Pickwick’s nose, than the lady at once identified the countenance which she had seen surrounded by all the horrors of a nightcap. So the lady screamed, and Mr. Pickwick started.
‘Mr. Pickwick!’ exclaimed Mr. Magnus, lost in astonishment, ‘what is the meaning of this, Sir? What is the meaning of it, Sir?’ added Mr. Magnus, in a threatening, and a louder tone.
‘Sir,’ said Mr. Pickwick, somewhat indignant at the very sudden manner in which Mr. Peter Magnus had conjugated himself into the imperative mood, ‘I decline answering that question.’
‘You decline it, Sir?’ said Mr. Magnus.
‘I do, Sir,’ replied Mr. Pickwick; ‘I object to say anything which may compromise that lady, or awaken unpleasant recollections in her breast, without her consent and permission.’
‘Miss Witherfield,’ said Mr. Peter Magnus, ‘do you know this person?’
‘Know him!’ repeated the middle-aged lady, hesitating.
‘Yes, know him, ma’am; I said know him,’ replied Mr. Magnus, with ferocity.
‘I have seen him,’ replied the middle-aged lady.
‘Where?’ inquired Mr. Magnus, ‘where?’
‘That,’ said the middle-aged lady, rising from her seat, and averting her head—‘that I would not reveal for worlds.’
‘I understand you, ma’am,’ said Mr. Pickwick, ‘and respect your delicacy; it shall never be revealed by me depend upon it.’
‘Upon my word, ma’am,’ said Mr. Magnus, ‘considering the situation in which I am placed with regard to yourself, you carry this matter off with tolerable coolness—tolerable coolness, ma’am.’
The horror of it! The absolute sheer awkwardness of the encounter, coupled with having no idea quite what is going on, sends Mr. Magnus into a fury and the only way to really settle this is, of course, a duel. Duelling generally took place to restore honour to the offended: three months after this ninth instalment for example, Alexander Pushkin would die in a duel. Another example: whilst Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington even fought in a duel (in 1829) with Earl of Winchilsea; he was one of four Prime Ministers who fought in a duel (the others being William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne in 1780, Pitt the Younger in 1798, and George Canning in 1809). The thought of our Mr. Pickwick in a duel is rather alarming, and Miss Witherfield agreed and reported them both to the magistrate Mr. Nupkins who has them both arrested.

Chapter XXV
Showing, Among a Variety of Pleasant Matters, How Majestic and Impartial Mr. Nupkins Was; and How Mr. Weller Returned Mr. Job Trotter’s Shuttlecock as Heavily as it Came—with Another Matter, Which will Found in its Place

'Job Trotter encounters Sam in Mr. Muzzle's
kitchen' by Phiz.
Mr. Nupkins really is rather pompous, and the trial is conducted fittingly:
The scene was an impressive one, well calculated to strike terror to the hearts of culprits, and to impress them with an adequate idea of the stern majesty of the law. In front of a big book-case, in a big chair, behind a big table, and before a big volume, sat Mr. Nupkins, looking a full size larger than any one of them, big as they were. The table was adorned with piles of papers; and above the farther end of it, appeared the head and shoulders of Mr. Jinks, who was busily engaged in looking as busy as possible. The party having all entered, Muzzle carefully closed the door, and placed himself behind his master’s chair to await his orders. Mr. Nupkins threw himself back with thrilling solemnity, and scrutinised the faces of his unwilling visitors.
His unwilling visitors, in the end, are ordered to pay a fine apart from Pickwick and Tupman who are ordered to pay a large sum of money for bail. Mr. Pickwick then requests a private interview - and here's the shock - we learn that Nupkins daughter's suitor is none other than Mr. Jingle, currently assuming the name of Captain Fitz-Marshall! Pickwick reveals all:
Mr. Pickwick proceeded to pour into the horror-stricken ear of Mr. Nupkins, an abridged account of all Mr. Jingle’s atrocities. He related how he had first met him; how he had eloped with Miss Wardle; how he had cheerfully resigned the lady for a pecuniary consideration; how he had entrapped himself into a lady’s boarding-school at midnight; and how he (Mr. Pickwick) now felt it his duty to expose his assumption of his present name and rank.
As the narrative proceeded, all the warm blood in the body of Mr. Nupkins tingled up into the very tips of his ears. He had picked up the captain at a neighbouring race-course. Charmed with his long list of aristocratic acquaintance, his extensive travel, and his fashionable demeanour, Mrs. Nupkins and Miss Nupkins had exhibited Captain Fitz-Marshall, and quoted Captain Fitz-Marshall, and hurled Captain Fitz-Marshall at the devoted heads of their select circle of acquaintance, until their bosom friends, Mrs. Porkenham and the Misses Porkenhams, and Mr. Sidney Porkenham, were ready to burst with jealousy and despair. And now, to hear, after all, that he was a needy adventurer, a strolling player, and if not a swindler, something so very like it, that it was hard to tell the difference! Heavens! what would the Porkenhams say! What would be the triumph of Mr. Sidney Porkenham when he found that his addresses had been slighted for such a rival! How should he, Nupkins, meet the eye of old Porkenham at the next quarter-sessions! And what a handle would it be for the opposition magisterial party if the story got abroad!
‘But after all,’ said Mr. Nupkins, brightening for a moment, after a long pause; ‘after all, this is a mere statement. Captain Fitz-Marshall is a man of very engaging manners, and, I dare say, has many enemies. What proof have you of the truth of these representations?’
‘Confront me with him,’ said Mr. Pickwick, ‘that is all I ask, and all I require. Confront him with me and my friends here; you will want no further proof.’
Having consulted with Mrs. Nupkins and Miss Nupkins, Jingle, and later Job Trotter, are thrown out unceremoniously; meanwhile Sam Weller finds himself falling in love with "the pretty housemaid".

Chapter XXVI
Which Contains A Brief Account Of The Progress Of The Action 
Of Bardell Against Pickwick

After all that excitement, a brief chapter concerning Mrs. Bardell who still intent on suing Mr. Pickwick for breach of promise. In Chapter XXVI he wisely decides to move out of Goswell Street in London, the home of him and his landlady. Sam goes about collecting Mr. Pickwick's personal effects and learns not only that Mrs. Bardell will continue her legal action but also Messrs Dodson and Fogg believe they have a good chance of winning. The chapter concludes:
Mr. Weller wended his way back to the George and Vulture, and faithfully recounted to his master, such indications of the sharp practice of Dodson & Fogg, as he had contrived to pick up in his visit to Mrs. Bardell’s. An interview with Mr. Perker, next day, more than confirmed Mr. Weller’s statement; and Mr. Pickwick was fain to prepare for his Christmas visit to Dingley Dell, with the pleasant anticipation that some two or three months afterwards, an action brought against him for damages sustained by reason of a breach of promise of marriage, would be publicly tried in the Court of Common Pleas; the plaintiff having all the advantages derivable, not only from the force of circumstances, but from the sharp practice of Dodson & Fogg to boot.
Yes, Christmas really is just around the corner now! 

Thursday, 17 November 2016

News from Nowhere by William Morris.

News from Nowhere is a utopian novel by William Morris, first published in 1890. William Morris I think is perhaps best known as a painter and textile designer, closely associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, founded in 1848. But Morris was also a writer, his works including the epic poem The Earthly Paradise (1868-70), The Well at the World's End (1896), and of course News from Nowhere.

William Morris has been very much influenced by Past and Present by Thomas Carlyle (1843) and grew increasingly against Victorian capitalism, finding refuge in Medieval culture with its art, literature, and even architecture. He became a socialist, involved with the Social Democratic Federation and then founding the Socialist League (1884 - 1901), though abandoning it in 1890. Socialism contains a myriad of movements - Morris, in his university days, began to associate with Christian socialism, which is a socialism based upon the teachings of Jesus, arguing that the worship of money has displaced God and that money is the root of all evil, and using Bible references such as "Defend the poor and the fatherless. Vindicate the afflicted and the poor. Rescue the poor and the needy, delivering them from the power of the wicked" (Psalm 82: 3-4), "For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs" (1 Timothy 6: 10), and "He executes justice for the orphan and the widows, loves the foreigner, and gives them food and clothing. You are to love the foreigner, because you were foreigners in the land of Egypt" (Deuteronomy 10:18–19). I picked on these specifically because I think they're worth noting in this current political climate. 

News from Nowhere is a socialist classic - utopian science fiction. It begins with the narrator, William Guest, returning home from an acrimonious meeting with the aforementioned Socialist League. He falls asleep and wakes up in 1955, a time where Marxism meets an idealised Medievalism that Morris was so fascinated. Here is a time where there is no private property, no cities, no money, and no prisons, social class is a thing of the past, and there is no kind of hierarchy; Morris himself had interested in anarchy, and I think here it's important to note that the very definition of anarchy is simply without authority - "a", or "ἀ" from the Greek meaning without, and "archy" or ἀρχή meaning leader or authority, so literally 'without rules' or leadership. Like socialism however, the interpretations are numerous. 

Morris uses this structure to reply to the objections to socialism, using characters such as the wise Old Hammond, Dick and Clara, and Ellen and giving the reader a very vivid vision of a socialist society. It is a beautiful work, inspiring too, but very much of its time; women, for example, are seen as 'bearers of children' who continue to look after the home. This is not an unusual belief for the 19th Century and I doubt very much that people will read it as a handbook on how to live like socialists. It is simply a beautiful and insightful work and it does answer some questions people may have on this topic. It's also a very sad book, through no fault of Morris: as I say it is set in 1955, a utopia Morris created and no doubt hoped for, so far away from how things really turned out. I loved reading it, despite that melancholic air, and though for it's vision it is far from perfect, it is a very hopeful work and almost practical in not only in it's attempts to answer questions but also in the fact Morris offers this vision to accompany what would be an abstract idea. 

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

The Years by Virginia Woolf.

About five years ago I made it my mission to read all of Virginia Woolf's novels, and since then, I've been re-reading them. The Years was the final novel on the list, and not by coincidence; this, and it's 'non-fictional sister' Three Guineas have always been my least favourite of Woolf's works. I'm happy to say with a second read I came to like The Years

Rather than focusing on women's creative lives as she had done in the brilliant A Room of One's Own (1929) Woolf focused in this novel and Three Guineas on their social and economic lives. In The Years Woolf follows the lives of the upper middle class Pargiter family from 1880 to 'the present day', which, my Penguin edition suggests, is about 1931-33. Each year has some relevance, for example 1880 was the year  William Ewart Gladstone (Liberal) succeeded Benjamin Disraeli (Conservative) as Prime Minister; in 1910 Edward VII died, to be succeeded by George V; in 1914 the First World War began, and in 1918 it ended. Woolf writes almost in snapshots; as with life, there is no single unifying story line. Instead we read about Eleanor, Milly, Rose, and Delia Pargiter and their brothers Martin, Morris, and Edward in the various periods of their lives, and how it is not only personal factors but also social and political changes that impact upon their lives.

The concept of The Years is a brilliant one, I think. As in Mrs Dalloway, which is punctured by the chiming clocks, The Years is measured in the changing seasons. Woolf makes frequent references to time, weather, the seasons, and even astronomy. One particular passage I like is the opening of the final part, 'Present Day':
It was a summer evening; the sun was setting; the sky was blue still, but tinged with gold, as if a thin veil of gauze hung over it, and here and there in the gold-blue amplitude an island of cloud lay suspended. In the fields the trees stood majestically caparisoned, with their innumerable leaves gilt. Sheep and cows, pearl white and parti-coloured, lay recumbent or munched their way through the half transparent grass. An edge of light surrounded everything. A red-gold fume rose from the dust on the roads. Even the little red brick villas on the high roads had become porous, incandescent with light, and the flowers in cottage gardens, lilac and pink like cotton dresses, shone veined as if lit from within. Faces of people standing at cottage doors or padding along pavements showed the same red glow as they fronted the slowly sinking sun.
All, in fact, are beautiful; these details of nature and weather are effective, and recall Turgenev, an author Woolf very much admired. Her prose, as ever, is breathtaking, but however brilliant the concept, The Years doesn't quite work, nor does it come close to some of her finest works, To the Lighthouse, Mrs Dalloway, and Orlando for example. Nevertheless The Years was a bestseller in its day, though now it is generally overlooked in favour of her earlier works, despite the similarities in outlook: the old and the new, and the transition through what was a difficult and remarkable period, both socially and literary. Certainly it is worth reading, but I think it would be a poor introduction to Woolf's writings.

Further Reading

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev.

1921 edition.
Fathers and Sons (Отцы и дети, also known as Fathers and Children) is a novel by the Russian author Ivan Turgenev. It marks the beginning of an effective trilogy: when Fathers and Sons was published in 1862, Nikolay Chernyshevsky, a philosopher, critic, and socialist responded to it with a novel titled What Is To Be Done? (Что делать?) in 1863. In turn, Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1864) is a response to that. As I haven't read Chernyshevsky yet I think it's wise to leave it there, but it's interesting; I'll certainly read Chernyshevsky when I get the chance.

Back to Fathers and Sons: it's set in Maryino, a district of Moscow, and Turgenev tells the story of Arkady Kirsanov, recently graduated from the University of St. Petersberg, who returns to his father's home along with his friend Eugene Bazarov. Arkady's father Nikolai has recently freed his serfs and, trying to make money, has sold off much of his land. In the meantime he has married Fenichka, a former servant, and together they have a son, Mitya. The family live together with Nikolai's brother Pavel.

Parvel, once an army general, is upset by a new trend towards the philosophy of nihilism, a rejection of religion and social rules on the basis that life essentially means nothing. Bazarov, as we learn, is a nihilist, and things become awkward in the household.

During their stay Arkady and Bazarov spend time with Arkady's aunt, where they meet Madame Odintsova. Bazarov finds himself becoming more and more drawn to her, however when he declares his love for her she doesn't respond, leaving him in a depression; meanwhile Arkady becomes attracted to her sister Katya. From here, the two men go to meet Arkady's parents and Bazarov becomes increasingly difficult, argumentative, and sullen; when they return to Maryino, things become yet more tense.

Fathers and Sons is a fascinating novel on the phenomena of nihilism that was gripping Russia in the 1860s. Turgenev popularised the term with this novel, in which he explores not only young men maturing in provincial Russia but also the philosophical wranglings of the young and the old, and between liberalism and nihilism. He portrays a changing society reflected in this changing family, and the fear that comes with that, and also the changing forces on individuals, be it love, social class, even nature itself. A great novel for which Turgenev faced a great deal of criticism from all sides, it would appear, but time has proved its endurance; not only is it interesting from a historical view, but also it is very beautiful indeed.

Further Reading

Monday, 14 November 2016

All for Love by John Dryden.

All for Love is a Restoration tragedy by John Dryden, written in 1677. It was written in imitation of William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra (1606), a play I have recently read but unfortunately not got around to writing about yet.

It begins with the prologue:
What flocks of critics hover here today,
As vultures wait on armies for their prey,
All gaping for the carcass of a play!
With croaking notes they bode some dire event,
And follow dying poets by the scent.
Ours gives himself for gone: y' have watched your time!
He fights this day unarmed - without his rhyme; -
And brings a tale which often has been told,
As sad as Dido's; and almost as old...
This tale is of course that of the doomed love affair of Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII. Act I begins full of dark omens:
Portents and prodigies have grown so frequent,
That they have lost their name. Our fruitful Nile
Flowed ere the wonted season, with a torrent
So unexpected, and so wondrous fierce,
That the wild deluge overtook the haste
Even of the hinds that watched it: Men and beasts
Were borne above the tops of trees, that grew
On the utmost margin of the water-mark.
Then, with so swift an ebb the flood drove backward,
It slipt from underneath the scaly herd:
Here monstrous phocae panted on the shore;
Forsaken dolphins there with their broad tails,
Lay lashing the departing waves: hard by them,
Sea horses floundering in the slimy mud,
Tossed up their heads, and dashed the ooze about them.
It is feared that Antony's interest in Cleopatra is waning despite her devotion to him. Meanwhile Ventidius, a Roman General, wishes to discourage Antony's relationship with Cleopatra and attempts to bribe him by giving more troops if he leaves her. Antony, though angry, accepts his bribe, so Cleopatra's maid Charmion and Alexas, a eunuch, are sent to persuade then bribe him to reconsider. Eventually Cleopatra wins him back and he declares his love for her until his estranged wife Octavia intervenes, telling him that if he returns home and leave Cleopatra the war will be over. He consents, despite Cleopatra's best efforts, having heard a false rumour she is romantically involved with Dolabella. Later, he hears another false rumour from Alexas, that Cleopatra is dead. He kills himself, however she has not died: she finds him on the point of death. After he dies, she then kills herself. The play ends with these words:
See how the lovers sit in state together,
As they were giving laws to half mankind!
The impression of a smile, left in her face,
Shows she died pleased with him for whom she lived,
And went to charm him in another world.
Caesar's just entering: grief has now no leisure.
Secure that villain, as our pledge of safety,
To grace the imperial triumph.—Sleep, blest pair,
Secure from human chance, long ages out,
While all the storms of fate fly o'er your tomb;
And fame to late posterity shall tell,
No lovers lived so great, or died so well.
I've been looking forward to this play: the Shakespeare homage, the fact that I enjoyed Dryden's translation of Virgil's Æneid, and my curiosity - I've been reading a fair amount of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays this year and have struggled with almost all of them, and I wondered how I'd manage with a play written some fifty years after the Jacobean era had ended. It wasn't an easy read, but it wasn't exceptionally tough either. I enjoyed the elements of fate and the Shakespearean and Ancient dark omens that haunted it from the beginning, and I did find I followed it with somewhat more ease than some of the Elizabethan plays I've been reading of late. It is a play about love, that goes without saying, and also gender identity with regards to love: Antony was accused of being almost womanly in his love for Cleopatra:
O Antony!
Thou bravest soldier, and thou best of friends!
Bounteous as nature; next to nature's God!
Couldst thou but make new worlds, so wouldst thou give them,
As bounty were thy being! rough in battle,
As the first Romans when they went to war;
Yet after victory more pitiful
Than all their praying virgins left at home!
It is a great play, insightful, and I'm looking forward to reading more Dryden, specifically The Tempest written in collaboration with William D'Avenant in 1667, another reworking of a Shakespeare play.

All for Love was my 46th title for the Deal Me In Challenge, and also the final play on my list. Next week - The Phoenix and the Turtle by William Shakespeare.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher.

The Knight of the Burning Pestle is only the second work I've read by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher (the first being Philaster, composed a little later). It was first performed in 1607 and first published in 1613, making it one of their earlier collaborations. However: some do believe that Francis Beaumont wrote The Knight alone, others argue it was indeed with Fletcher. As my edition (Oxford World Press' Six Plays by Contemporaries of Shakespeare, 1915) states it is Fletcher and Beaumont, I shall go with that, though it must be stated that there is a good argument for saying it was Beaumont wrote it alone.

The play is a comedy that begins with the start of another play, 'The London Merchant':
Several Gentleman sitting on Stools upon the Stage. The Citizen, his Wife, and Rᴀʟᴘʜ sitting below among the Audience. 

Enter the Speaker of the Prologue. 
Sᴘᴇᴀᴋᴇʀ ᴏꜰ ᴛʜᴇ Pʀᴏʟᴏɢᴜᴇ: 'From all that's near the court, from all that's great,
Within the compass of the city-walls,
We now have brought our scene...' 
Citizen leaps on the stage. 
Cɪᴛɪᴢᴇɴ: Hold your peace, goodman boy!
Sᴘᴇᴀᴋᴇʀ ᴏꜰ ᴛʜᴇ Pʀᴏʟᴏɢᴜᴇ: What do you mean, sir?
Cɪᴛɪᴢᴇɴ: That you have no good meaning: this seven years there hath been plays at this house, I have observed it, you have still girds at citizens; and now you call your play 'The London Merchant'. Down with your title, boy! down with your title!
Sᴘᴇᴀᴋᴇʀ ᴏꜰ ᴛʜᴇ Pʀᴏʟᴏɢᴜᴇ: Are you a member of the noble city?
Cɪᴛɪᴢᴇɴ: I am.
Sᴘᴇᴀᴋᴇʀ ᴏꜰ ᴛʜᴇ Pʀᴏʟᴏɢᴜᴇ: And a freeman?
Cɪᴛɪᴢᴇɴ: Yea, and a grocer.
The exchange goes on and the Citizen and Wife remain on stage throughout, certain that if they did not the players of 'The London merchant' would misrepresent them. And so the wife and Citizen act almost as directors or censors, and they demand a new character for the play: the Knight of the Burning Pestle, which will be played by Ralph, the Citizen's apprentice; he has demonstrated his skills by speaking some lines from Shakespeare's Henry IV Part I:
'By Heavens, methinks, it were an easy leap,
To pluck bright the honour from the pale-faced moon;
Or dive into the bottom of the sea,
Where never fathom-line touched any ground,
And pluck up drowned honour from the lake of hell.'
The actual quote, from Hotspur, is from Act I.iii:
By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap
To pluck bright honour from the pale-fac'd moon,
Or dive into the bottom of the deep,
Where fadom line could never touch the ground,
And pluck up drowned honour by the locks,
So he that doth redeem her thence might wear
Without corrival all her dignities;
But out upon this half-fac'd fellowship! 
No matter, as I say he gets the part and from here we descend into farce. Ralph, the "Grocer Errant" (i.e. knight-errant, or wandering knight) causes chaos for the players of 'The London Merchant' (the plot of which is similar to Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday, 1599) and so The Knight of the Burning Pestle, or 'The London Merchant' effectively has two strands and becomes a play within a play: a pretty early example of meta-fiction, in short. Ralph bumbles his way though as the Citizen and his Wife shout at the players; things get complicated, then surreal, but above all else it is very amusing. It is, essentially, a play about the audience and how an audience may interpret a play, understand or misunderstand, and how the actors and director attempt to appeal not only to their conventional audience but also maintain some free reign to be creative. It's a fun and unusual read, but I suspect it would be much better to watch than to read.

Further Reading

Friday, 11 November 2016

Piers the Ploughman by William Langland.

Piers the Ploughman is a poem by William Langland, a 14th Century cleric born around 1332 in Shropshire and who died somewhere around the end of the 14th Century. It's thought Piers was written between 1370 and 1390.

It's a dream vision, something Langland's contemporary Geoffrey Chaucer was particularly fond of (I'm thinking of The Parliament of Foules, The House of Fame, Romaunt of the Rose, the Book of the Duchess and The Legend of Good Women, as well as The Knight's Tale, the Tale of Sir Thopas and The Nun's Priest's Tale from The Canterbury Tales, and Boece, Chaucer's translation of Boethius' The Consolation of Philosophy). The poem is divided into two parts, which are then subdivided: Part I is 'William's Vision of Piers the Ploughman', consisting of a prologue and seven books, and Part II is 'Willaim's Vision of Do-Well, Do-Better, and Do-Best", consisting of a prologue and twelve books. 

It is of course written in Middle English, in this instance the West Midland dialect. These Middle English dialects can be radically different; I'm more familiar with Chaucer's London dialect: here's an example from the opening lines of the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales:
Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open eye...
In contrast, an example of the North-West Midlands dialect, taken from the opening lines of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by the 'Pearl Poet' (this was written around about the same time as Piers the Ploughman and The Canterbury Tales):
SIÞEN þe sege and þe assaut watz sesed at Troye,
Þe borȝ brittened and brent to brondeȝ and askez,
Þe tulk þat þe trammes of tresoun þer wroȝt
Watz tried for his tricherie, þe trewest on erthe:
Hit watz Ennias þe athel, and his highe kynde,
Þat siþen depreced prouinces, and patrounes bicome
Welneȝe of al þe wele in þe west iles.
And now, the West Midlands dialect: the opening lines to Piers the Ploughman:
In a somer seson, whan softe was the sonne,
I shoop me into shroudes as I a sheep were,
In habite as an heremite unholy of werkes,
Wente wide in this world wondres to here.
Ac on a May morwenynge on Malverne hilles
Me bifel a ferly, of Fairye me thoghte.   
Chaucer I can read, Sir Gawain I cannot, and Piers: possible, I think, but with a great deal of hard work. No wonder, then, I went for the translation (J. F. Goodridge)!

In modern day English then, here's how Piers the Ploughman opens:
In a summer season when soft was the sun,
I clothed myself in a cloak as I shepherd were,
Habit like a hermit's unholy in works,
And went wide in the world wonders to hear.
But on a May morning on Malvern hills,
A marvel befell me of fairy, methought.
I was weary with wandering and went me to rest
Under a broad bank by a brook's side,
And as I lay and leaned over and looked into the waters
I fell into a sleep for it sounded so merry.
He goes on to describe his vision, and goes on a quest to learn about the true Christian path, which is based on the Catholic ideas of the period. Along the way, guided by Piers the Ploughman: a ploughman, in Medieval literature, was often associated with virtuous hard work. In Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales there was, in the General Prologue, a ploughman described in these glowing terms:
With hym ther was a Plowman, was his [the Parson's] brother,
That hadde ylad of dong ful many a fother;
A trewe swynkere and a good was he,
Lyvynge in pees and parfit charitee.
God loved he best with al his hoole herte
At alle tymes, thogh him gamed or smerte,
And thanne his neighebor right as hymselve.
He wolde thresshe, and therto dyke and delve,
For Cristes sake, for every povre wight,
Withouten hire, if it lay in his myght.
His tithes payde he ful faire and wel,
Bothe of his propre swynk and his catel.
In a tabard he rood upon a mere.
This is the last we see of the Ploughman in The Canterbury Tales, but in Langland the narrator and Piers his guide meet a variety of characters such as Lady Fee, False, even the Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Daughters of God (Truth, Mercy, Peace, and Justice). In the second part of the book he examines the lives of the three characters, Do-Well, Do-Better, and Do-Best, and it is in this section he imagines Christ going down to hell and bringing back with him the souls of the righteous (the Harrowing of Hell).

Stylistically, Goodridge's prose translation didn't present me with any problems, but Langland's allegorical tale is so very dense and complicated I think it needs more than just one read. It has a deep and complex symbolism underlying a fairly difficult tale that makes the read very demanding. That said, I enjoyed it very much and I'd certainly re-read it in the future.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

The Debacle by Émile Zola.

The Debacle (La Débâcle, also known as The Downfall) is the penultimate novel in Émile Zola's Rougon-Macquart novels and was first published in 1892. In these novels Zola aimed -
... to explain how a family, a small group of human beings, behaves in a given society after blossoming forth and giving birth to ten or twenty individuals who, though they may seem at first glance totally dissimilar from each other, are, as analysis shows, linked together in the most profound ways. Heredity, like gravity, has its laws.
This "given society" was France during the Second Empire (1852 - 1870), so the novels not only explore this idea of heredity, but also serve as a critique of the Second Empire. The Debacle, which is about the Franco-Prussian War (1870), a war that effectively ended the Second French Empire, is thus the beginning of the end of the Rougon Macquart novels.

In it, we return to Jean Macquart, the main character of The Earth (1887),  the son of Antoine and Joséphine Macquart (of The Fortune of the Rougons), the grandson of Adélaïde Rougon (the matriarch of the family), and the brother of Gervaise Coupeau (of L'Assommoir) and Lisa Quenu (of The Belly of Paris). The novel begins at war, something readers of Money (the novel preceding The Debacle, 1891) will anticipate with its frequent references to the troubles between Prussia and France. Jean is a Corporal with a group of soldiers who bicker, miserable and hating being there, nothing like the organised patriotic army they were facing in the Prussians. Despite those in charge feeling certain the war will quickly be over with a French victory, the soldiers face defeat after defeat; Jean and his army retreat multiple times whilst the powers-that-be make mistake after mistake. The constant moving and lack of organisation leave the soldiers demoralised and irritable. When they do see action it is the Battle of Sedan in which they are out-manoeuvred by the Prussian army before being held prisoner. Jean and his friend Maurice Levasseur escape, but the war is still not yet over...

It is a poignant account of a war so badly organised, a complete 'debacle' as the title clearly states, from the point of view of the ordinary foot soldiers: this is no sanitised upper class reminiscing and excusing. The novel was written a little over twenty years after the war took place: Zola had to be careful, any inaccuracies or misrepresentations would have been immediately picked up on by his readers, many of whom lived during this period. As ever, Zola assembled his dossier, studied the landscape (spending time in Sedan), and consulted history books such as La Campaigne de 1870 by Prince Georges Bibesco, La Guerre de 1870: Bazeilles-Sedan by General Lebrun, L'Histoire militaire contemporaine by Col. Frédérick Canonge, and Froeschwiller, Châlons, Sedan by Alfred Duquet, the latter of whom he also met in person. His hard work paid off: The Debacle quickly became Zola's greatest commercial success, despite the right-wing denouncements and condemnations, such as Father Théodore Delmont's description of it being "a nightmare, a hideous nightmare, heinous in its unpatriotism". Anatole France, however, for Le Temps, praised it, saying Zola had surpassed himself. Similarly, Émile Faguet said it was his greatest work, whilst Le Journal des débats wrote,
... after one has closed this massive, tufted book where life overflows, where crowds swarm, where Napoleon's moribund empire crawls and groans and bleeds, one is haunted by the anguish of a frightful, ineffaceable drama; one has seen a dynasty, a society, a nation crumble.
Like it or not, it's effects are profound. It is an exploration of the human condition in the worst possible circumstances and the paths it may take. It's an impressive work, for me not wholly enjoyable, but an integral part of the Rougon Macquart series. Such is my love of Zola's Rougon Macquart novels I began re-reading them as soon as I finished them the first time around. Now, three years on from picking up The Fortune of the Rougons for the second time I find myself about to re-read the final novel, Doctor Pascal. I hope to read this in the next three weeks or so and plan to have a review written in the first few days of December.

Further Reading

Popular Posts of the Year