Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Review: The Secret History of Queen Zarah

Oxford Compilation: Second Text

The second novel in the collection is Delarivier Manley’s The Secret History of Queen Zarah, written in 1705 but more interested by events twenty years previously. After the succession of shocks and surprises that was Aphra Behn’s ‘The Nun, this was a far more expected and (if I’m honest) flat experience.

It tells the story of Zarah, an initially naïve (if never exactly innocent) young woman who lives around the edges of the court. She falls in love with a man called Hippolito because he’s attractive, well-connected and rich but he’s also the love the King’s mistress. This is pretty simply solved when Zarah finds herself in a compromising position with him and is ‘caught’ by her mother, who nudges him into marriage. The two rise in power, playing different political groups off each other, swapping alliances at the smallest benefit, teasing with sex and power – the general set of activities for the rich and dodgy. 

Finally, after weaving through the reigns of three kings, Zarah finds herself the favourite of childhood friend Atalantia. In this position she can screen her friends, punish her enemies and generally rule. This is no problem for Atalantia, who gets all the cushiness of being Queen without the hard work. The piece ends rather abruptly here.

The main reason the book doesn’t have a proper ending is that the story of Sarah Churchill, the model of Zarah, didn’t have an ending yet. As seen in the recent film, The Favourite, she would find herself and exiled, but this happened in 1711 and the book came out in 1705. It’s interesting to compare the character of Zarah in this book to the depiction of Sarah in the film to see what her enemies were saying about Sarah Churchill at the time and the (also quite slanderous) things said about her now. Zarah is a schemer in the book, she uses politics more than she uses sex and when she does use sex as a weapon, it is against men. Most interestingly, beyond her natural political cunning, Zarah seems something of a dullard, not very interesting or interested beyond the acquisition of power. Sarah Churchill in The Favourite used the with-holding of sex and affection to manipulate Queen Anne and she gains power for its own sake but also because she is good with it. Sarah Churchill in the film is manipulative but she is extremely smart and a far more interesting character in general.

The most interesting thing about this book is not the story itself, it’s the controversy over authorship. Never was it attributed to Delrivier Manley in her lifetime. Apparently it doesn’t have the same flavour of Manley’s New Atalantis, which is far more sexually explicit (and imaginative). Nor was it published by the same bookseller, the racier work being published by our old friend Edmund Curll. The current probable author of the work was a man called Joseph Browne, a man who succeeded Manley in writing for The Examiner (who had in turn taken it over from Swift). This collection was put together in 1996 and the arguments against Manley being the author of this piece were in 2001 and 2004. 


The other most interesting part of the text is the extensive preface, which turns out to be a straight translation of a piece of French criticism. The piece questions why the English are turning away from the multi-volume French Romances and in favour of shorter, more grounded works. It suggests that the English being a mercantile nation are generally more grounded but also suggests being ‘brisk and impetuous’ do not require ‘long-winded performances’ and that ‘they have no sooner begun a book, that they desire to see the end of it’. This example of an author taking a French jibe against the English and re-contextualising it in their favour was probably the funniest part of the text.



Wednesday, 5 February 2020

Review: The Nun by Aphra Behn


Oxford Compilation: First text.

In an effort to clear my writing workload and free up time to work on my exciting new novel, I came upon the most cunning of plans. One of the books on my shelves is an intriguing anthology by Oxford University Press called Popular Fiction by Women 1660-1730. It contains work by authors I’ve not heard much of such as Penelope Aubin and Jane Barker but also a few from favourites like Eliza Haywood and Aphra Behn – they should give me something to talk about for a few weeks.

The first piece in the book is called The Nun; or, The Fair Vow-breaker and is by Aphra Behn. I know she is not an eighteenth century writer but I had enjoyed Oroonoko (and thought I had written a review of it) and was expecting something well written though, from the title, a little generic. What I quickly realised was that this was anything but generic, it’s a rollercoaster of reversals and surprises.

I’m not much one for spoiler warnings but I will issue them for this, the impact of the story is in all the sudden about-faces coming along suddenly.

We start with a man of wealth who feels so depressed with the world when his beautiful wife dies, that he decides to join a monastery and have his charming two year old daughter raised by nuns, the Abbess being her auntie. There’s a lovely couple of sentences about how two is a lovely age and detailing how the nuns fall in love with her 'forward prattling', the toddler being a breath of fresh air. The nuns love playing with her and teaching her everything they know. Which seems to me to be the perfect set up to a story where  the fair innocent is seduced, runs away from the convent and dies in shame and penury.

This is not what happens though. She is encouraged to have a jaunt in the world and to make a decision about whether she would like to be a woman of the world (and have half her father’s fortune) or to stay in the convent. Despite winning the hearts of innumerable men (despite being 13 - ick), she decides the nun’s life is for her.

Of course, as soon as she does this, she meets a man who gets her attention. The wooing is slow, over a number of years (and edging her into less ick age-territory) and she decides to run away with him. They run away together, but he is no rake, they actually genuinely marry and settle down. I was then expecting them to fall out of love because of their poverty but they grow closer together. The cosmic punishment for breaking her vow that I expect from this kind of book is limited to her husband’s poor luck with farming.

That husband goes to war where he dies - this is something I expected. One of her earlier wannabe lovers returns and marries her. He’s rich and showers her with gifts. Now I’m expecting luxury to sour their pure love and tear them apart but that doesn’t happen either, they build a reasonable life of it.

One day, a bearded man turns up who happens to be the first husband who has in fact not died. This twist was a genuine shock to me, expecting that part of the story to have been forgotten now. I was genuinely stumped over what solution our fair ex-nun while arrive at - she isn’t, she smothers him without compunction. Then, when her current husband returns, she spins a lie about how he died of shock when he found she’d married again.

Then came the strangest part of the story, she surreptitiously sews her second husband to her first so that when the second throws the body of the first into a river, he falls in as well. At this point, I am giving huge style points to our protagonist. 

At this point I was utterly shocked, not only at her actions but at the way they were positioned to the reader. At no point was she racked with shame but nor did Aphra Behn ever present her as evil or wicked, if anything we admire her ingenuity. It even looks like she’ll get away with the double murder right up until the last two paragraphs in which she is arrested and then executed.

 Even then she is never destitute, she is never shamed, she maintains her strength and even (oddly) her goodness. As a prisoner waiting for the axe, she is a model prisoner, using her story to remind others to keep their vows and going to the block as unstained as she entered the story as a spritely toddler.

It’s not a long piece but crammed with so many wonderful surprises and gloriously free of that form of grimy pleasure that ‘moral’ texts can derive from degradation.  An entertaining and shocking work and I recommend digging it up.


Wednesday, 29 January 2020

'Edmund Burke' by Jesse Norman at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle


Edmund Burke is one of those impressive people who appear in Boswell’s Life of Johnson who earn Johnson’s full attention and appreciation. Johnson once said that he couldn’t meet Burke if he was under the weather as, ‘that fellow calls forth all my powers.’ When not tussling with Johnson at The Club, Burke was arguing with the honourable members of the House of Commons and we were lucky to have Jesse Norman, a current day MP and Burke biographer to share his passion for the man with us.

Edmund Burke: The First Conservative is split into two halves: the first dealing with his life and the second exploring his thinking. It’s an interesting way of tackling such as subject, allowing the Jesse Norman to go into more detail in the ideas section of the book than may be usual in a biography. He said he found reactions varied: some readers definitely preferring the first section, others finding more interest in the section on Burke’s thought. Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle were similarly divided. But we agreed it was effective as a biography of a politician by a politician with a love for the intricacies and delicacies of politics and the unusual quirks, polyps and appendices of the British constitution.



Jesse Norman told us  that the book grew out of a number of pamphlets he had written early in the Cameron/Clegg coalition, in which he developed ideas about social capital, fleshing out ideas behind Cameron’s ‘Big Society’. In doing so, he said, he found himself returning again and again to Burke. This ignited an interest that is clearly still burning bright. The aims of the book are to deliver a ‘rollicking’ good read, to give a good idea of the man and his ideas, and to foster a broad understanding of the tradition began in Burke and carrying on today. 

The book guides us through the complexity of eighteenth-century politics, explaining who exactly the Whigs and Tories were, why an eighteenth-century Tory need not be automatically read as a Conservative today and the significance of the Rockingham Whigs. Understanding the role of the Rockingham Whigs (as opposed to Whigs of other stripes) is especially important to Burke’s story. Norman argues that as one of their chief spokesmen, Burke helped them evolve from a temporary faction into something closer to a modern political party. Despite being in power for only two years, the strength of their core ideology allowed them to be a consistent and strong group of opposition.

As well Burke’s understanding of the usefulness of parties (as opposed to factions), he was an insightful critic of the British stance on trade with the American Colonies and a vocal supporter of the Americans in the Revolutionary War. At this stage of his career, he spoke passionately on the dangers of excessive monarchical power. The most critical issue in assessing Burke’s lasting importance in the history of political philosophy, therefore, is his pro-monarchical, anti-radical
Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Having fought for the people against the Crown, he appeared to be arguing for the fundamental importance of the Crown and propertied classes. Was his position therefore fundamentally inconsistent, as many critics have insisted? Norman examines these claims carefully, arguing that Burke maintains a clear notion of the different estates of people being balanced within the constitution and that the politician’s role, therefore, is to protect, preserve, and perhaps even conserve this balance.

Burke was a man of strong convictions and equally powerful emotions. The most controversial period of his life was his role in the impeachment of Warren Hastings, Governor-General of the East India Company, on grounds of corruption. The tenacity with which Burke hounded Hastings through nine years of legal proceedings seems notably extreme, especially as Hastings was finally acquitted on all charges. To what extent, we wondered, could Burke be accused of abusing his parliamentary power, and using the trial as a ‘bully pulpit’?  Or should we read Burke’s pursuit of Hastings as a way of bringing reckless colonial greed to account? 

For all his faults, Burke certainly came through the book as a clear thinker, an eloquent speaker, a man of ideals - and in the final judgement, a decent person. One of the joys of writing the book, Jesse Norman said, was continually finding new things to like about him, whether it was the early adoption of abolition, the deep love for his son (and distress when he died young) or the way he took his duties as statesman seriously. We also remembered Boswell’s anecdote in which Johnson proclaimed:

Burke, Sir, is such a man, that if you met him for the first time in the street where you were stopped by a drove of oxen, and you and he stepped aside to take shelter for five minutes, he'd talk to you in such a manner, that, when you parted, you would say, this is an extraordinary man.

As for Burke’s relevance now, it seems he would be very distressed at the revolutions of today, the shaking of the delicate balances and the increasing factionalism of parties. If I could take one lesson from Burke and this book, it would be to never fully trust when someone fights for abstract nouns. ‘Sovereignty’ may be a very appealing thing but when someone is waving it on a banner, they are appealing to the heart more than the head and might not have much of a clue on what it really means and how to achieve it.

Oh, and to celebrate 5 years of the group, I've made a list challenge of the books read at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle and put it here.




Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Review: The Brothers Boswell by Phillip Baruth


I can’t tell exactly how I found out about The Brothers Boswell, or BozzyBros as my notes called it. All I know, is that as soon as I had realised that there existed a novel somewhere about James Boswell and Samuel Johnson being hunted down by an insane, underrated younger Boswell, I had to read it.

Recently I went to see a play called Teenage Dick which was an interpretation of Richard III but set in an American High School (of the kind I don’t really believe exist). I was very nervous about the play. It either needed to be very schlocky, with their Duke of Clarence being drowned with White Lightning cider (or US equivalent) or it needed to be very clever. Luckily, the play was very clever -just- and it managed to be an enjoyable time on some slightly uncomfortable chair, though a part of me would have preferred full schlock. 

The Brothers Boswell tries to be clever but is never quite clever enough, occasionally it leans into its schlock but is not quite schlocky enough. In failing to be one one thing or another, the book manages to be entertaining enough but hints at being far more gloriously silly, or far more intriguing. There are big risks taken but only up to so far.

Take the case of John Boswell. I happened to be at Dr Johnson’s House while I was reading this book and it didn’t take me much to double check the quotations from Boswell’s London Journal and confirm them as correct, including their mentions of James’s younger brother. This brother was a soldier who was committed to an insane asylum for a bit before being shipped off to the family house in Auchinleck and generally hidden away. Making this largely unknown person the narrator and giving him nefarious plans for Sammy and Bozzy was a really interesting notion, it’s the reason I bought the book. How much more would I have enjoyed this book had the narrator been a completely unhistorical Boswell twin, or if the nefarious plan had been a little more nefarious but in these parts, the book played it safe.

There’s a lot of teasing. We learn about John Boswell’s brilliant golden pistols, about his homosexual love affair with an actor and his chaster but still close affair with Samuel Johnson. This all seems like prime, grade-A nonsense, and I was all for it. Unfortunately, it was all revealed to be the result of John’s muddled mind. All that fun, naughty, teasing the Johnsonians stuff evaporated in the final chapters, meaning that John Boswell’s plan was to do nothing in particular for no particular provocation - it’s not nearly as much fun as it should have been.

There are a number of historical folk in this. Anna Williams is described as, ‘a stone-cold charity case’, Garrick appears as smooth and suave as he probably was, and Goldsmith gets an appearance. I was delighted, as this is pretty much the only fictional depiction of Goldsmith I have ever read - but it wasn’t very good. The Goldsmith in this book was peculiarly socially skilled and in the know to such an extent that he could advise Boswell on the right social cues - which is very much not Goldsmith.

In its merit, the book was very intriguing in the initial stages, when John Boswell stalks the friends down to Greenwich and there’s a truly unpleasant depiction of the Boswell family house with the overbearing father. Had the book been simply about the two brothers growing up, it would have been an interesting historical novel - it’s the stalking/thriller-esque plot which means the book didn’t live up to my expectations of it.

As the book is narrated by someone who currently hates James Boswell, it does work as a wonderfully vicious takedown on the character of James Boswell, his moments of sincerity, his joy to be around but also his total self-absorption. 


I also liked how there was a unicorn called Charlie.


Wednesday, 15 January 2020

Plans for 2020

This is just a little note to sketch out the year as I see it.

Death of a Dream-Pedlar is finished, utterly finished, put-to-bed, done and I am now going through the tedious, soul-sapping and laborious business of showing it around to agents. I really hope that I get some bites this time and I can start this new decade with something getting close to a book deal.

I am exploring some ideas toward a funded PHD, though I am a little hesitant to say much about that at the moment, if anything comes of it, it would mean a move and the chance to bury my snout deep in some archives like a happy hog.

I am also working on a brand new novel, provisionally titled Inanna Underground. It starts with the body of a woman called Inanna being found in a disused WWII bunker in North West London. She belonged to a group of people with a special interest in old bunkers and underground spaces. Most of the novel is told in flashback and tells the story of Inanna’s entry to the group and builds up the various reasons members of that group may have wanted to kill her. Who it was that killed her and why are revealed at the end.

As the story is pretty simple, I need a challenge to keep me invested. I have two. The first is a simple one of time, I hope to finish a rough draft by Easter Sunday, I estimate this should be about a thousand words a day. The other challenge is the narrator, he’s a humourless, unimaginative, detail-orientated nerd who gives loads of information but very rarely the big picture. It’s a difficult character to get in the head of and even harder to try and make the story interesting when the narrator is interested in completely different things for me. I haven’t cracked it yet but as the chapters pile up, I’ll work out ways to handle it.

Other than that, I shall post Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle posts every other month and try to post something every Wednesday. If I miss this schedule, it’ll be to try and get that first draft of Inanna done.

If all goes to plan, I should end the year with some genuine steps towards a full time writing life in some form or another. If the decade goes well, maybe I could achieve my dream of writing interesting stuff for a living and sometimes talking about it. I can only hope.




Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Top 10 Best Books of 2019 (Part Two)

Last week we had numbers 10-6, not sure if there were any surprises there, this top 5 includes books that I was not expecting to love as much as I did.

If you want to see what I read last year in total, check out my list-challenge here and see how many you have enjoyed.



5
Elizabeth and the German Garden by Elizabeth Von Arnim

I didn’t know it at the time but this was the book I was really after (having read the depressing ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’ and the baffling ‘The Dalkey Archive’). I knew I wanted something funny, life-affirming and above all refreshing and I found it all here.

A fictionalised account of a year in Elizabeth Von Arnim’s life, it deals with her relationship with her garden and her relationship with society in general. The relationship with nature is the one that gives her the most unconditional pleasure, other people can be a pain to be around.

Her wit shines throughout the text, she is pretty good at coming up with a memorable (and possibly even true) epigram. I was caught by the end of the first paragraph where she declares;
   “I shall not let myself get frightened by the sarcasm of owls.”

This is also an example of the extreme levels of anthropomorphism in the text. The animals and birds behave like people, like the rooks ‘fussing and flustering’ squabbling for their perches. The flowers in the garden also behave like people, some are hardy fighters while others are shy. One particular breed of Rose is described as haughty and demanding, spoilt and petulant. She feels the flowers sleep in the winter, sing in the spring and show-off in the summer. Even furniture and objects are anthropomorphised, she describes the dismay she would feel; “If my furniture ever annoyed me by wanting to be dusted.”

The only things not given human characteristics in this book are some humans. Her discussion with her husband about the immigrant Polish and Russian workers is full of animal imagery, her description of rich hausfraus also has an animal quality. Elizabeth is warm to the reader, witty and so encouraging in her great pleasure in small things but she also comes across as snob - and she’s bitchy too, delighted to note when her eldest daughter drew a moustache on with pencil so she could be like her governess.

I’ve read some rather heavy condemnation of ‘The Man of Wrath’, her nickname for her husband. I think it’s the nickname that is the cause for a lot of it, as he never seems to get angry. Sometimes he is perplexed by his wife’s unorthodox passion for eating little, socialising less and spending all weathers in the garden but it doesn’t make him angry. Theirs seems chiefly a relationship of teasing and there are a few hints (other than three consecutive children) that imply they have a physical and romantic relationship. I think his character is best summed up by the reaction he has to a fiery sermon being preached against him by a parson he has fired, he smiles.

‘The Man of Wrath’ also comes out very badly from the two, fairly lengthy, discussions about ‘a woman’s place’. In the first he declares that the Russian peasant’s reaction to marital strife, to hit his wife, is in many ways preferable to the constant negotiating the two of them have to do. In the second section, he tells a group of three women that womankind will never have political power because they aren’t interested in politics, are susceptible to any kind of flattery or lie and have the worldly wisdom of children. Though these might indeed have been his opinions, in the first case he is teasing Elizabeth with his praise of hitting a wife, just as she teases him throughout the book. In the second, I think it is more likely he is trying to irritate Minora, an unwanted houseguest who has irritated him.

The last third of the book is about the visit of two women over Christmas and New Year. The first is Irais, a good friend of Elizabeth, who is sprightly, flippant and extremely catty. One of her best qualities, according to Elizabeth is that she is never awake for breakfast as;
   “No friendship can stand the breakfast test.” The other woman Minora, a stranger who the family have invited as a favour to a friend. Minora is ‘unsnubable’, though Irais and Elizabeth do their best to snub her. She is inquisitive, slightly insensitive and feels she is an intellectual superior to the two of them as she is writing a travel book about Germany. As much as the two women create daft alliterative titles for her chapters, feed her nonsense to go in the book and offer her moral advice as; “It is much easier, and often more pleasant to be a warning than an example” - she remains a humourless, and annoying thorn in her side. 

It could be easy to dislike Elizabeth, she is sarcastic, privileged and comfortable in a life where she doesn’t have to work, cook, clean or do anything in particular. What makes her winning is that she knows and acknowledges these things and does her best to use her (relatively) safe position to create meaning where she can surrounded by her; “books, babies, birds and flowers”. 



4
They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple

I’ve learnt that anything in Persephone Books grey is worth checking out and ‘They Were Sisters’ is no exception. It’s the story of three sisters with different personalities, who marry three different men and whose lives turn out in three different ways. The key to its success is the attention to realistic psychological detail which pulls the reader in hard and fast.

Many books deal with courtship and find their climax in a marriage, this one knocks three out in the first chapter and takes it from there. The key question is, can a happy ending be possible? 

The middle sister marries first, she’s a trusting, loyal and shy woman who marries a rambunctious, fun-loving man with lots of confidence. There are immediate hints that all might not go well, he makes the wedding all about himself, leaving his wife in the shade. In response, the younger daughter, who is head-turningly attractive and fun loving, marries a solid, stable but slightly dull man. Now the eldest, who had abandoned her university career to help raise her sisters, can marry a loving if laconic man.

In the second chapter, the sisters have been married for ten years and are meeting up for the first time in two years. The careful negotiations of their past roles and their new selves are wonderfully evoked. It completely reminded me when my auntie and uncle come to visit my Mum with the complicated mixture of love and irritation that sum up family relations. It’s even accurate to the detail of the husband feeling that the two younger sisters rely on his wife too much but loving his wife too much to tell her.

The middle sister’s marriage to the over-confident man has obviously soured but we see how much in the next few chapters. His initial need to be the centre of attention has become a driving need to control. He doesn’t physically hurt anyway but he uses sarcasm, insults and the giving and taking of affection to drive his family to despair. When he is in a bad mood his children are frightened to eat noisy food like celery and apples but when he is in a good mood he wears a tea-cosy during breakfast. With the exception of the youngest daughter, each family member enjoy his company so much when he is loving that they excuse him when he’s an arsehole. It’s a beautifully subtle and realistic portrayal of abuse and it effects the different characters in different ways.

The younger sister is enjoying her marriage, she is the beautiful hub of the social set in a northern city. Her two daughters are raised by staff and her husband is dull but ignorable. Things go well for her until her mother-in-law (who’s been controlling the purse-strings) dies. This causes the husband to rethink his life, divorce his wife and lead her into reduced circumstances.

The oldest sister tries to hold the whole family together and often the only one thinking of the children. She has none herself but has a happy marriage and a happy life which she regards as being due to her ability to ‘take an absorbed interest in things’ and her faith. Whether that is enough to save the children, that’s up to the reader. 

It’s a beautifully observed, written and absorbing drama and I recommend it to anyone.


3
Samuel Johnson in Context edited by Jack Lynch

I went into more detail about this book here. What makes it brilliant is the way the book shines so many different lights on Samuel Johnson that it brings him and his world to life.


2
The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

I loved ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ but was pretty ambivalent to ‘The Bachelors’ so when I found a copy of ‘The Driver’s Seat’ in a charity shop I was in two minds - I’m so glad I did buy it because this little novel is excellent.

It starts in the present tense, with a very strange woman called Lise being absolutely devastated that a dress she is trying on is made from stain-proof fabric. The next paragraph is a flashback to the moment just before this, including a repeated telling of what we have already heard and then the book goes back into present tense. It’s a mindbogglingly controlled use of tense, catching us up to where we came in - and quickly alerts the reader that this will be a strange book, and a very precise one. No wonder the book is short, it pulls taut with all its might, any longer and it might snap.

Lise is a fascinating character (and this is a book up for a re-read). She lives in a flat filled with anonymous foldaway items, she buys the most obnoxiously colourful clothes she can find, she picks up all other odds and ends on the way (why a blender?) and she tries on personalities. She has the ability to speak four languages but she pretends to be all sorts of different people. The book tells of a holiday to an un-named (probably Mediterranean) country and it’s like she is using her anonymity to be anyone she pleases.

Everything is peculiar and disjointed. She’s looking for ‘her boyfriend’ but it’s clear she hasn’t got one. She latches onto various men, one who runs in fear (and we don’t know why), others who try to take advantage of her and one who is very boring on the subject of rice. The book describes her as like a panther, trying to smell out this man - though it might be that the man doesn’t exist. She also tags along with a homophobic old woman and had adventures in a shopping centre - neither of them properly talking to the other. Oh, and she bought a novel that she’s waving around like a secret signal to people - we never learn what the novel is, or what the signal might be, be I have some notions.

This would all seem like nonsense if the writing wasn’t so very clear and specific about what it is doing. We might not know what is happening, but the author certainly is. Occasionally we get little bursts of flash forward into the future tense, we know bad things will happen but we don’t really know why. What’s really wonderful is we get to the end, have our questions answered and yet they aren’t properly answered. 

This is a small book that packs a huge punch and I can’t recommend it enough.

1

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

I approached David Copperfield with caution, as you should any outsized beast. Now, I know that Dickens doesn’t bite and that he is a very enjoyable companion but there is something very intimidating about the length of the book. Of course he won me over by the preface, by the end of chapter 1, I was fully on board - who couldn’t be with the digression about his uneasy feelings of having his birth cawl auctioned off as a preventative against drowning to a widow who had never been to sea. Nor could I resist the strange yet compelling introduction of Miss Betsey Trotwood, peering in through the window.

It’s not like Bleak House, where the sheer weight of plots and subplots pile in to create its size, the focus of David Copperfield is rather narrow, a look at his life, the trials he goes through and the people he meets. If it has a grand overarching theme, it’s probably about how people are shaped by their upbringing and how they either overcome the weight of it or crumble under it. 

Each character has a backstory that shapes them and is shaped as the years go on. David Copperfield himself has a spoilt and happy childhood that is ruined but he rises above with the help of his aunt Betsey and his friend Agnes. Betsey herself also has a tragic backstory but through loving David she brings new forces of love and protection in her life. Characters like Uriah Heep and Steerforth are swallowed by their histories, one having nothing to challenge or focus his talents and energies, the other by the need to be ‘umble and his wish for revenge and power.

As always, Dickens is really good with details. There are little things like the hard Miss Murdstone’s purse that is tight like a prison, Littimer prising open his watch and viewing it like an ‘oracular oyster’. There are larger things, like Mrs Mowcher, modelled on Dicken’s own chiropodist who puts a brave, cheerful face on with plenty of jokes and gossip to cover the fact that she is different to other people and vulnerable. 

One of my favourite scenes which showed lots of brilliant eye for detail was rather pointless in terms of plot. In this scene, David Copperfield goes to an uptight dinner party. The guests fancy themselves as above other people and talk incessantly about the importance of ‘blood’ or breeding - in fact, they talk so much about blood that they ‘sound like a party of ogres’. At this same party there is a lady dismissively referred to as ‘Hamlet’s Aunt’, who shares the family trait of soliloquy. There is also a ‘young man with weak legs’ who keeps saying the phrase ‘you know’ in a very modern way.

A great strength of Dickens is his eye for detail and his ear for language. Many of the characters sounded like real people. A very minor character has the ‘peculiar habit of whispering the letter s so distinctly, that he seemed to use it oftener than any other man.” I hear women in trains like this all the time. The only accent that really grated was Mr Peggotty’s, particularly in the chapter he narrated.
The book brilliantly dramatises the act of memory, with it linked to certain moments, images, smells, sounds and objects. The childhood parts feel like a child’s eye perspective, the parts where David Copperfield is a naive young man keen to make a go of the world but not really sure how, is very accurate. 

Although Dickens’s world might seem a little sexless, there’s a lot going on under the surface. David and Steerforth have a clear more-than-friendship and one of the first things Steerforth says is how he wished that David had a sister just like him, "If you had had, I should think she would have been a pretty, timid, little bright-eyed sort of girl. I should have liked to know her." Perhaps his womanising is self denial.

Then there’s the fact that David falls in love with someone with the sweetness of his mother and quickly discovers that she is unsuitable to adult life. It is Dora who asks that David thinks of her as his ‘child-wife’, so that he doesn’t feel angry when she is unable to do adult things. Dora is very irritating as a character, especially with her bloody dog, Jip but I can dimly see the attraction.
As David has a child-wife, Mrs Strong refers to her husband as her father-husband. The age gap is large and the other characters reckon she must be playing away from home but she isn’t. Although she had a shock when she found out the man she regarded as another father wanted to marry her, she loves him and is dedicated. 

There are some normal pairings though, Barkis and Peggotty are a good couple and his laconic courtship is one of the pleasures of the book. Tommy Traddles gains a wife who is his equal but must also put up with all her relatives (though he seems happy with that). David and Agnes are also a relationship of equals, though it takes a long time for David to realise it. Mr and Mrs Micawber are also well suited to each other, both are dramatic and childish, prone to massive mood swings - they manage to be warm and likeable but in a way that is tinted by annoyance.


Usually, when I’m reading a long book, even if it’s great and I’m enjoying it, I fancy a bit of a change. Bleak House was wonderful but it grew heavy on me as I read it - I could have happily lived in David Copperfield for longer, a very rare thing.


Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Top 10 Best Books of 2019 (Part One)

Happy New Year!

I always had a superstitious notion as a child that the 2020s were going to be my golden years, I have no idea why I decided this, I think I just liked the sound of the date. The 2000s and 2010s didn’t quite do it for me so I am hopeful for the next decade.

One thing 2019 did give me was a lot of good reading material. I read some great stuff this year, knocked a few big names off my internal ‘to-read’ list and discovered a few gems. In the next two posts, I shall be looking at my top ten favourites.

If you want to see what I read last year in total, check out my list-challenge here and see how many you have enjoyed.


10
When I Was Otherwise by Stephen Benatar 

One of my odd little pickups. I was attracted to it because of how it had been written, inspired by a small article in the Guardian newspaper, the story is a fictional answer to ‘how did that happen?’

The book starts with that article, police have broken into a house after fears of neglect to find the rotting remains of an old woman who had been dead for over a year, the recent remains of another old woman and a befuddled old man. They were related, the old man and the recently deceased woman were brother and sister, and the woman who had been dead longer was their sister-in-law.

The book then takes us to the day they moved in together and the party they had to celebrate that move. As the characters reminisce we are taken back to other times the characters had met up and then the book takes us away, drifting back and forward in time, telling parts of their story as we go. It’s like a web or a tapestry, most of it told through conversations and often over food and drink. In particular we follow Daisy, the sister-in-law and she is a fascinating character.

Through snippets scattered throughout the text we learn that she grew up in a family she hated for being too strait-laced, became a nurse at the front in WWI, married a man with TB who onlu lasted a couple of years, carried on nursing in Britain during the Blitz, moved into a friend’s house after hers was bombed, nursed the friend through her final years and was left the house, sold the house and moved into little bedsits before finally moving in with her husbands relatives. We find out that she hated her mother-in-law (and has a problem with authority and conformity generally) and that she was kept at a distance from much of the family.

As a person, she is both scathing and kind, manipulative and painfully honest, confident and secretly very insecure. This insecurity most often shows in her habit of pushing people away with rude jokes, her need to be on top and her painful, painful passive aggression. She is always running down her looks, apologising for being a burden and trying to prod people into giving her compliments. My favourite was this; “Will somebody tell me please if I’ve received a compliment? It doesn’t happen often and I’d like to know.”

Daisy also cadges drinks (coffee, tea, sherry, whisky - anything liquid), and carefully rationalises all her selfish acts with selfless reasoning. However, there is a glimpse of her good sides. She does care for those she loves, encouraging her husband to stand up to his tyrannical mother and nursing her best friend for years. She’s interesting because she is so contradictory but we get the feeling if a few more people accepted her, she may have turned out much better.

Daisy and the sister-in-law, Marsha, also have an interesting relationship. Scared by her forthrightness, the two hadn’t met up much but when Daisy comes to dinner they almost get on. What’s more Daisy gets on much better with Marsha’s husband, Andrew, than she does. Marsha and Andrew have been married a year or so and although he finds her sweet, he is irritated by her sheltered upbringing, her naïveté and her painfully obvious ways of being affectionate. More intrigued by the prickly Daisy, the two meet secretly behind Marsha’s back to have meals and joke about everyone else. The relationship never gets physical though and is later broken off.

When they are elderly and move in together, Marsha takes the role of nagging mum, Dan takes the role of easy-going father and Daisy as rebellious teen (even though she’s the oldest). It would seem the most likely to snap is Daisy but Marsha is not as in control as she seems… It is telling that she rates her greatest accomplishment as snipping the end of her husband’s condoms.
(The brother-in-law, Dan is nice, a bit dopey and doesn’t come into the story all that much.)


I love the way the book is written. The conversations are well-observed and the characters are full and interesting. I also loved how the structure, of little snippets back and forth, lets the reader accumulate detail - I bet it’d be a completely different book on reread. Finally, I really enjoyed how the main characters of the plot are old people - proper old people like the ones that were around when I was little. They eat painfully unappetising food, have a pot of tea at the ready, reminisce about handsome old film stars and constantly break into old songs. Like the old people I remember, they have war stories and stick to their old ways, not adopting new technologies and styles. It’s a funny book, a grim book and a well told one. I really liked it.

9
Silas Marner by George Eliot

I have never met a person who has enjoyed this book. There were friends of mine forced to read in at GCSE level, others at A-level, even more at university and they all said it was incredibly boring. Even the ten-year-olds reading a child-friendly rewrite said this was an intolerably dull book. I have to say I was intrigued though, the central notion of a strange, outcast man learning to be part of humanity for his love of a little orphan child touched something in me and I was keen to read it.

Now I have, I can only just understand where the claims of boring came from. There is not much intrigue in the book, the mysteries are scant and the characters are generally quite low-key. I can see a younger version of me thinking that this was a book in which very little happened and took quite a long time to do it. As I am now, I found this book to be full of incident and I found it moving and very engaging.

Silas Marner is first introduced as this strange, alien figure, coming into Raveloe from the mysterious and unaccountable world outside. He is ugly, alone and works at a necessary but othering profession which conducts the alchemy of turning yarn into cloth. What’s more, he doesn’t take part in any of the social activities that bind the community together. As a reader we are let into a little more information, we see that he was an enthusiastic, if unthinking member of a dissenting chapel who previously lived a life of faith (even if his understanding of the Anglican expression of it is minimal). We also learn that he was disappointed in life, that his best friend betrayed him, framed him for robbery and stole his affianced. More than this, when he went to the elders of the church for help, they called on God by drawing lots at that ultimately condemned him. Feeling spurned by God and man, his only joy is to sit, weave and count the money he accrues.

There’s also a whole bunch about the squire’s son Godfrey, his love of a girl called Nancy, his secret marriage and his disreputable brother. I have to admit to enjoying when I got to the end of this bits as Godfrey and his brother seemed more for plot purposes and I could never get on with Nancy, she seemed both so stupid and so sure of herself.

I really wanted to get back to Silas, whose life is empty of anything worth having but full enough to keep going. I was drawn in by his relationship to his gold and worried for him when that gold was stolen. This crisis draws him into the local pub where the men’s pipes ‘twitched like antennae’. The description of the local men made them seem ignorant, unable to change but also homely and having Silas have to deal with this society for the first time was a good comedy of awkwardness but also nail-gnawingly embarrassing.

A little later he finds the little girl he names Eppie sitting at his hearth. The toddler was described in ways I think could have been mawkish but I found sweet. I liked the notion of her bounding around under a mop of hair, exploring ladybirds and emerging from a punishment of being closed in a coal cellar with a great joy in the experience. I loved how the book teased Silas out of himself as he has to present more of the world to the little girl. I completely believed in how the growing of the girl encouraged the growing of the man.

I also found the discussions between Silas and Mrs Winthrop developed. Introduced as a busybody at first, she and he gradually meet as equals and discuss notions of child rearing, religion and the way the world is constructed. Neither of them are educated to any real degree, neither have a solid understanding of their religion or a very clear notion of how the world works but they battle it out together to make something that works for them. It reminded me of Crusoe and Friday’s relationship a little and was a very clear account of a growing friendship.

in the much shorter second section, after fifteen years have passed since the first. the various mysterious are resolved and the characters are sorted into their various end-points. The scene between Godfrey (Eppie’s actual father) and Silas was the sort of confrontation which is frequently underwhelming in novels but frequently momentous in real life and it felt the way such a scene really does. Some of the characters overcame their weaknesses and others succumbed to them, each ending up where they should with a satisfying narrative tidiness.

This book celebrates the things that should be celebrated; renewal, community and love. Sometimes it’s good to read something that does that.
I also found the style frequently inventive with a number of subtle and comic touches with a description of a smile that almost matches Irma Prunesqualor’s in ‘Gormenghast’;
   “(Mrs Crakenthorpe) blinked and nodded, amiably intending to smile, but the intention lost itself in small twitchings and noises.” 

8
Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

I must admit to being rather ignorant of Elizabeth Gaskell and of ‘Cranford’. I knew they made a couple of TV series of it starring Judie Dench and that it looked a little like their ‘Lark Rise to Candleford’ TV series and that one of the jokes in ‘Psychoville’ was about an actor being in Cranford and unable to get a phone signal. I didn’t even remember where or why I picked up my copy, only that it’s a slim hardback with an intriguing first page.

We are informed that there are no gentlemen in Cranford. That all the house owners are women, that they have a perfectly ordered social life and would find men more trouble than they’re worth. The next chapters are about one of these rare male visitors to the town, Captain Brown. He causes a stir in the little place, openly admitting his own poverty (while the women gently skirt over theirs) and disagreeing with the principal arbiter of taste, Miss Jenkyns, the former clergyman’s daughter.

This disagreement was a particular interest of mine as it was about a writer I whole-heartedly adore and one I’m learning to love, Johnson vs Dickens. (Incidentally, ‘Cranford’ was originally published in Dickens’s magazine). Miss Jenkyns is a keen devotee of Johnson, getting children to read her ‘Rambler’ essays even though they don’t often understand them, quoting “many a rolling, three-piled sentence” and insisting that ‘Rasselas’ is a perfect example of “light and agreeable fiction.” 

Personally, I have argued a number of times that ‘Rasselas’ is a lot funnier than it’s reputation suggests and I have often laughed out-loud at a ‘Rambler’ or two, but I am prepared to admit that Dickens (especially in his ‘Pickwick Papers’ guise) must have been a far more accessible work. It’s also interesting that Dickens was a big Johnson fan, an even bigger Goldsmith fan and signed his early work ‘Boz’ in reference to Boswell. Poor old Captain Brown though, in saving a small girl from a railway accident, he is killed and Cranford is all female again.

I was fond of the fierce Miss Jenkyns and I was unsure, when the reader was informed of her death in chapter three, where the book would go next as she seemed to be the main character. This is a good time to look at the structure of the book, a loose assemblage of short stories with a light narrative flow-through - and also a good time to look at the tone. This book is intensely gossipy. The narrator is a former resident and frequent visitor who writes to the reader as a confidant, relaying the stories of our mutual friends. There is frequent use of ‘we’ and as a result, we are quickly drawn into the world.

For a start, it’s clear that ‘Cranford’ isn’t exactly about the people of Cranford. It’s a small town, there are of course men and more than the six or so ladies (ladies, not women) we meet but those ladies believe that they are Cranford and so what is important to them is what is important to the town. They remind me of a school clique (pronounced ‘cleek’ not ‘click’) and I wouldn’t be surprised if they wear pink on Wednesdays. The ladies live lives of pleasant boredom, read little, sew much and have secret fears of watching eyes, people under the bed and ghosts. There are big tragedies, Captain Brown getting run over by a train, the madness in the eye of a mother who has lost multiple children, sickness and death but the tragedies that most affect these ladies are those of social order and respectability.

I did wonder where the book was going to go next now the main character had died but as the book progressed it slowly revealed that the whole thing was about Miss Jenkyns’s timid sister, known as Miss Matty. She’s an unprepossessing hero, indecisive, timid and used to living life in her sister’s shadow but when genuine calamity comes her way she shows a nobility, a strength and a determination that show her true self. When things get bad, her “unselfishness and simple sense of justice, called out the same good qualities in others”. What felt like a lightly pleasant laugh at some slightly out-of-touch old biddies became a hymn to the real strength of a decent person.

- And at the end, our narrator was gifted a large bound volume of Johnson’s work.


7
The World in Thirty-Eight Chapters or Dr Johnson’s Guide to Life by Henry Hitchings

I described this book as perfect, the kind of book that I would have written if I had the chance, so why is it relatively low in this list? I simply found the book too well catered to my taste and feelings to engage with it as fully as I could. It’s still one of the best books of the year for me though.


6
The Rapture by Claire McGlasson

Another book I reviewed on this site. While I question some of the history, the novelising is great, it’s a tense book with rich characters and a fascinating situation. I voted this as the best book that came out this year on Goodreads and I stand by it.