Thursday, 1 January 2015


BlurbMiddlemarch is a complex tale of idealism, disillusion, profligacy, loyalty and frustrated love. This penetrating analysis of the life of an English provincial town during the time of social unrest prior to the Reform Bill of 1832 is told through the lives of Dorothea Brooke and Dr Tertius Lydgate and includes a host of other paradigm characters who illuminate the condition of English life in the mid-nineteenth century.

Thoughts: Brilliant. I'll be frank and say that it is, to start with, a pretty impossible read. But when you get into the rhythm of the narration, it is an incredible one. The novel is simultaneously epic and minute, profound and insignificant, a metaphor for life and a simple documentary.

Realism as a literary concept is a tricky one. Fiction is by definition not real. Yet Middlemarch manages to create a world that has a sense of the real in it. I read an essay somewhere that said that no one really knows how to define realism, but everyone agrees that Eliot is it. The beauty of her writing is tied up in her belief that 'all truth and beauty are to be attained by a humble and faithful study of nature'. Her focus on the minute and inner workings of the seemingly insignificant is not only beautifully executed but also succeeds in slowing down our sense of our own reality: shaping how we observe the world around us.

It is a marathon of a read, and like many marathon reads it is not really until after it is over that you realise what a masterpiece you just experienced,  but there are moments of this novel so profound and beautiful that reading it is truly a joy. Here is one of my favourites:

"An eminent philosopher among my friends, who can dignify even your ugly furniture by lifting it into the serene light of science, has shown me this pregnant little fact. Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent-- of Miss Vincy, for example."

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad's He<a href=BlurbAt the peak of European Imperialism, steamboat captain Charles Marlow travels deep into the African Congo on his way to relieve the elusive Mr Kurtz, an ivory trader renowned for his fearsome reputation. On his journey into the unknown Marlow takes a terrifying trip into his own subconscious, overwhelmed by his menacing, perilous and horrifying surroundings.

The landscape and the people he meets force him to reflect on human nature and society, and in turn Conrad writes revealingly about the dangers of imperialism.

Thoughts: I really enjoyed this. The atmosphere that surrounds the tale is incredible. The story unfolds through the haze of Marlow's memory - but at the same time Conrad creates an incredibly vivid sensory world. As he himself said, "My task is to make you hear, to make you feel -- it is, before all, to make you see."

 It is an oddly hard read, which at first I wasn't sure if was due to English not being his first language (he had no knowledge of the language at the age of 20) or an intention towards disturbance and disorientation. On reflection I think it is definitely the latter. In either case, the often unconventional use of lexis is both incredibly powerful and disturbing. 

Monday, 25 August 2014

The Portrait of a Lady

BlurbIn this portrait of a "young woman affronting her destiny," Henry James created one of his most magnificent heroines, and a story of intense poignancy. When Isabel Archer, a beautiful, spirited American, is brought to Europe by her wealthy aunt, it is expected that she will soon marry. But Isabel, resolved to enjoy her freedom, does not hesitate to turn down two eligible suitors. Then she finds herself irresistibly drawn to the charming and cultivated Gilbert Osmond. Isabel, however, soon discovers the cruelty and stifling darkness beneath Gilbert's civilized veneer.

Comments: I loved this book. I found the writing beautifully subtle and thoughtfully observed. The characters have incredible psychological depth and development (something perhaps not entirely surprising given Henry James' closeness with his brother William, who has been labelled "the father of American psychology").

The structure of the novel, too, impressed me. The gradual wearing away of her naive outlook and its ideals - the development novel's tragedy - is incredibly well conceived and gently brought upon the reader. Isabel's realisation at the end of novel is skilfully built and last hundred pages are unputdownable.

I did find it slightly tricky to get into at first. The pace of the novel is much slower and the writing more thoughtful than a lot of what I read. But I think a bit of a challenge for our 21st century short attention span is no bad thing.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Great Expectations

Blurb: Great Expectations charts the progress of Pip from childhood through often painful experiences to adulthood, as he moves from the Kent marshes to busy, commercial London, encountering a variety of extraordinary characters ranging from Magwitch, the escaped convict, to Miss Havisham, locked up with her unhappy past and living with her ward, the arrogant, beautiful Estella. Pip must discover his true self, and his own set of values and priorities. Whether such values allow one to prosper in the complex world of early Victorian England is the major question posed by Great Expectations, one of Dickens's most fascinating, and disturbing, novels.

Thoughts: This was actually my first Dickens novel. In fact, I haven't read a huge amount of Victorian literature at all and I think it's something quite different to get into (the length, the heavy description, the format of the novels given that a lot were originally released serially). 

I suppose also because I tend to prefer modernist literature, I'm used to the style of writing being - very consciously - the most important component of a novel, and while it is undoubtedly well written, I think that the characterisation is more important. (Although I suppose the characterisation is wrapped up in the narrative as it's in first person...) Every character is incredibly well formed and feels so present.

I must admit though that it took me a while to get through, but maybe that is partly to do with me having to get used to the length of Victorian novels. Still, the storyline itself actually wasn't my favourite. I was slightly frustrated at the way it came together so neatly (although I suppose that could be seen as one of the book's successes). Nonetheless, I think I'd recommend it simply for its characters.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

on altering faces

I've noticed, although I am slightly reluctant to admit it, that talking with people here I write with a slightly different 'face'. I read myself say things like "oh you must" and "it's darling" that I would never say in any other context. It makes me wonder to what extent our sense of self (through language) changes in different contexts and among different groups.

Clearly we change how we write in an academic context, having to avoid contractions or using the word 'I'. I find myself always writing "indeed, ..." in essays, something I would never say or write anywhere else. But when you are making point upon point, it makes sense to adapt language to fit need.

But it interests me the way that I take on a slightly different persona writing with different groups of people. It's in human nature to mirror what we see around us - like how often in stressful situations people copy the body language of those around them. And it is true that in many cases I mirror other people's speech habits. But with so many altering faces, I wonder what it is that defines me. It's likely that this altering of tone and voice is something I do subconsciously when speaking aloud, but having a written account really makes me aware of how I change and what defines me - as a writer (in the informal sense) and as a person. I wonder whether finding this balance of flexibility vs continuity and working out what in my language marks who I am is something that will naturally develop as I get older, or whether identity through language is something that has to be consciously sought.

I guess in many ways it is the same with authors: they try out different settings, different voices, different styles. But throughout there is some essence of who it is they are as a writer.

I have no answer or conclusion here, or any real question for that matter, just thought I'd share some thoughts...

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

classics club march meme: what is your favourite literary period and why?

In response to the this month's Classics Club meme, I'd definitely say early twentieth century modernism. This can almost 100% be accounted for by my love of T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf. While this is driven primarily the beauty and creativity of the writing, there is also something to be said for what puts a lot of people off modernist writers. I think the sometimes off-puttingly "difficult" nature of the texts in fact makes the reader an active participant in the development of narrative and the emphasis on literature as a form makes us more conscious of how we shape our sense of self through language. Of course I say all this without ever having attempted Joyce's Ulysses, so maybe after struggling through that I might change my mind!

I thought I'd leave you with one of my favourite Eliot poems, a poem whose protagonist was rather amusingly proposed by Roger Mitchell to be representative of early Modernism itself: self-aware, overly perceptive and contemplative, retiring and isolated.

(If anyone's interested, here are some really interesting critical views of the poem)

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.

LET us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats        5
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question….        10
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,        15
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,        20
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.
And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window panes;        25
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;        30
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.
In the room the women come and go        35
Talking of Michelangelo.
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—        40
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)
Do I dare        45
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,        50
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
  So how should I presume?
And I have known the eyes already, known them all—        55
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?        60
  And how should I presume?
And I have known the arms already, known them all—
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)
Is it perfume from a dress        65
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
  And should I then presume?
  And how should I begin?
.      .      .      .      .      .      .      .
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets        70
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows?…
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
.      .      .      .      .      .      .      .
And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!        75
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep … tired … or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?        80
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,        85
And in short, I was afraid.
And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,        90
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—        95
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
  Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;
  That is not it, at all.”
And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,        100
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:        105
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
  “That is not it at all,
  That is not what I meant, at all.”
.      .      .      .      .      .      .      .
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,        115
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.
I grow old … I grow old …        120
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.        125
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown        130
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

yet another of these...

Looking though this blog, I've realised that there are almost as many posts apologising for not blogging or setting out new reading resolutions that there are actual book reviews. So logically I thought the solution to this was to write another post apologising and setting out a new reading resolution!

A lot has happened since I last wrote here. Most excitingly, I got into my top uni choice and fingers crossed on me getting my grades I'll be off to read English next year! Rather more dauntingly, I received a fifty book long reading list from them last week...

So I thought as I really do have to read at least the majority of these books before October, this would be the perfect place for me to share and discuss my thoughts about them - especially as once term starts it'll be very useful to have a record of what I thought.

A lot of the list were literary theory books and preparatory reading for studying Anglo-Saxon literature (which I'd be happy to copy into this blog if anyone is interested). But I thought as a lot of you will have read books from the Victorian literature list, it might be a good idea to pop that down here. Let me know which ones you've read and would recommend, and which ones for which I should prepare myself for a hard read...

Charlotte, Jane Eyre (1847); Villette (1853) 
Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847)
Anne Brontë, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848)  
Charles Dickens, Hard Times (1854); Bleak House (1852-3); Great Expectations (1860-1) 
Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton (1848); North and South (1855)
George Eliot, Adam Bede (1859); The Mill on the Floss (1860); Middlemarch (1874)
Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White (1859)
Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret (1862)
Thomas Hardy, The Return of the Native (1878); Tess of the D’Urbevilles (1891); Jude the Obscure (1895)
Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady (1881)
Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1902); Nostromo (1904)
Alfred Tennyson, especially In Memoriam, Ulysses, Tithonus  (Longman edition)
Robert Browning, (Penguin edition of the complete works)
Either: Nineteenth-Century Women’s Poetry, eds. Isobel Armstrong and Joseph Bristow, especially Emily Brontë, Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Oxford University Press, 1996)
Or: Gerard Manley Hopkins (Penguin Edition of the Poems and Prose)
Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance (1893), The Importance of Being Ernest (1895); An Ideal Husband (1895); and a selection from Nineteenth-Century Plays ed. by George Rowell (Oxford UP, 1972)