Wednesday, 30 September 2020

My Review: Pamela by Samuel Richardson


When I write up a Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle meeting, I try to capture the spirit and main conversations without colouring it too much with my own opinions. Usually, the general tone of the meeting sufficiently matches with my own feelings but sometimes it doesn’t. This is the case with Pamela.

In the meeting, when asked what I felt about the book, I said that I’d never been so bored and so fascinated. What fascinated me was how Pamela was constructed, written and marketed, with the whole hoopla and furore around it. What bored me was the book itself… at least it did, sort of.

For an epistolary novel, the book is extraordinarily monotone. There are three letters from her parents but everything else is written by Pamela herself. Because there is so much emphasis on the logistics of her obtaining writing equipment and hiding her writing, that it was hard not to wonder why she keeps writing to her parents when they’ll never receive them. Although I never got through Clarissa, it’s clear that Richardson learns in that second novel to create interest and vary the voices behind the letters.

The notes I wrote whilst reading Pamela make frequent reference to how repetitive I found the book. While many eighteenth-century novels are repetitive, many of those early novelists also wrote plays and they construct definite scenes and acts which repeat. The lack of narrator and Richardson’s inexperience with the novel form (it was his first) means that the repetition feels like a dog returning and gnawing a spent bone.

Richardson was inspired to write the book when he was writing a series of exempla letters designed to show newly literate people good examples of letter writing and hoped to sneak a little morality in. He wrote two letters, one from a servant girl to her parents saying her master was behaving inappropriately to her, and the second from the parents telling her to get out as soon as possible. He then took this element and decided to expand it. 

Something that I constantly wondered, was when he decided that the master character would be won round and legitimately marry the servant. It seemed to me that the first book must have come out, which led right up to the marriage and then Richardson must have taken onboard criticism he received and tried to address it in the second, where Pamela adjusts to her new position - but it turned out I was completely wrong, getting confused with the later sequel and that both parts came out at the same time. I found this fascinating, as that meant that when he was writing all the rapey scenes of Mr B abusing his power, he always intended him to become the romantic hero by the end.

I found such a disconnect between the two books of Pamela that it’s almost incomprehensible to me that they were ever intended to be one piece. In the first book Mr B is an all-powerful aggressor, who uses his wealth and influence to put Pamela in almost totally helpless positions and she only narrowly escapes his advances. Throughout, Mr B’s sister, Lady Davers is the distant but unreachable saviour who can end her misery. In the second part they are married, Lady Davers is the abusive harpy who tries to imprison Pamela and Mr B and the servants who formally were her persecutors are now her rescuers. All the characters around Pamela become their opposites and it’s incredibly topsy-turvey.

I hated the character of Mr B, and I think a lot of it was to do with this flip in his role in the book. Having read a good chunk of the amatory fiction that Pamela is a response to (and evolution of), I was expecting Mr B to try seducing her. Frequently in those early amatory fiction, the male sexual aggressor is all charm and flattery until he makes his final move, but Mr B never tried to seduce, he awkwardly groped and then whisked her away to the middle of nowhere to try and soften her resolve by locking her up. Lovelace in Clarissa is a far more fun antagonist (as far as I have read) because he is smarter and smoother than the bumbling Mr B.

There’s also the problem that Mr B has to become a love interest in the second half, so he has to be a really clumsy seducer so that Pamela can escape his whiles. Richardson also had to introduce the notion that, were they of an equal class, Pamela would very willingly marry him. This means that as Mr B is at his worst, we still get reminders that he is a wonderful, charming and generous man when he isn’t trying to rape his servants. Even after he has made Pamela desperate enough to seriously consider suicide, she has to tell her letters how she still can’t hate him, only his current actions.

The closest he comes to raping her, is the scene where he pretends to be a drunken maid asleep in a chair in Pamela’s bedroom and, in the night, sneaks onto the bed while his assistant Mrs Jewkes, holds her down. It reminded me of a part of The Reformed Coquette by Mary Davys, when a man spends a weekend with her dressed as a woman in order to be alone with her. However, the earlier work used the transvestite-rape-attempt in a way similar to an 80s gore horror film. The outlandish image is designed to shock and surprise but due to the slightly shonky nature of the gore effects, it also amuses. Pamela’s similar scene reminded me of a 00’s gore horror film, where the effects are too realistic to be fun and it merely comes across as deeply unpleasant. Or would have been, were it not for Mr B’s goofy pronouncement along the lines of “get ready for your dooooom!”, which broke the mood.

However, as much as I found Mr B a rather pathetic villain, it wasn’t until he married Pamela that I really started to hate him. He becomes such a didactic, puffed-up prat that I really had no patience whatsoever. He starts trying to teach Pamela how to be a good wife, playing the part of fair and benevolent lawgiver. If this wasn’t bad enough, given how he has behaved up to that point, his rules are so unreasonably focused on making his own life easier. One of the first ones is that Pamela must always seem happy, especially happy when his noisy friends come over unannounced and want to have a party. This is especially irritating given how much of the second book is taken up with Mr B being a sulky crybaby and portraying himself as an injured party when some of his servants obstructed his earlier schemes to rape Pamela. Although he makes occasional references to how sorry he is, he spends that second half of the book so smug and self-satisfied, I can’t stand him.

Before the Reading Circle, I would have said more negative things about Pamela herself. I found her instant acceptance of Mr B’s change of heat and marriage proposal to be sickeningly passive - she should have been like Sophia in Tom Jones and made him earn that happy ending. However, the discussion did help me open up to see how how writing was not only rebellion but an active part of winning Mr B around to accepting in her virtue and falling in love with her. Also, the discussion about her ironic asides gave me an appreciation that she was not merely a doormat.

She is, however, something of a Mary Sue. This is a term that has been politicised recently and I am a little wary about calling her one here. However, in its simplest use, a Mary Sue is a character who is good at everything and everyone loves her. Pamela can; sew, write, knows literature, play the spinet, sing, is infinitely virtuous, run faster than a man described as walking ‘ten leagues a pace’ and always wins at cards. She is also beautiful, charming, forgiving, generous and everyone who meets her eventually falls in love with her. 

I’ve heard Pamela being given praise for being the first of many things it was not. Although Richardson does revel (wallow?) in the psychological details of his story, he is drawing from a vast well of unread fiction, frequently written by women, such as Mary Davys and Eliza Haywood, who wrote her own response to Pamela. That it gets given the credit for introducing a servant class protagonist, or a rags to riches story - or many of the numerous other things I’ve heard credited to the book, has more to do with the unfair way the canon of literature formed. I think Pamela’s influence lies more in the creation of a respectable and authoritative authorial figure in Richardson and says more about the marketing of the novel than the novel itself.



Wednesday, 23 September 2020

Pamela at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle



Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle came back for its fifth year and achieved something that no-one else has yet achieved in these corona times, a productive and enjoyable Zoom meeting. 

Sixteen people from around the country (and one in Montreal) were singly ushered into the room, their name announced for those waiting as if announced by a footman. Our previous online meetings had been to read plays where it was clearly delineated when someone was to speak, this was a spirited discussion on a divisive text where everyone still managed to take turns and the conversation didn’t descend into chaos.

The text in question was Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson, an epistolary novel written in 1740 which became a publishing sensation and is generally regarded as an important step in the foundation of the English novel. Through a series of letters, Pamela first describes her efforts in thwarting the sexual advances of her employer, known only as Mr B. In the second half, he decides to marry her, rather than making her his mistress and they adjust to their new life as a couple.

Samuel Johnson was a friend of Richardson, who had bailed him from a debtor’s sponging house shortly after he wrote the dictionary and had compared the detail of Richardson’s characters favourably to Fielding’s. When his friend Erskine said that Richardson was a dreadfully dull writer, he had the following comment; 

“If you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself. But you must read him for the sentiment, and consider the story as only giving occasion to the sentiment.”

There were some who found the book to be a terrible slog, the pacing is odd to a modern reader and the use of Pamela’s letters means that the book frequently returns to the same ideas as Pamela herself returns to them, mulls them over, reaffirms them and discusses them. It’s a realistic way to portray how people digest their thoughts and problems but later authors have developed those techniques more fully in ways that also keep the story moving.

One of the elements that most interested the group was how the book portrays sexual, gender and class relationships, providing detailed insights into how women and their place were viewed at the time. Mr B is a member of the Squirearchy, where it is readily assumed that women in the servant classes are available to them sexually, either for a casual grope or, if properly enumerated, for a long-term sexual relationship. He doesn’t consider that women in the servant class have a name, family or reputation to protect. It’s not until reading her private thoughts that Mr B can fully accept that Pamela is not merely holding out for a better deal but genuinely treasures her virtue (and virginity) for its own sake. It would be nice to think this attitude has disappeared as time has passed, but the Me Too movement, the Epstein case and numerous other news stories have made it clear that men in power still have many of these assumptions.

As Peter Sabor said, Pamela is a book that changes resonances depending on the time it’s read and changes multiple times on re-reading, something he know about, having edited the Penguin edition.

Part of the discussion was about the agency of Pamela herself. She’s in an extremely precarious position, the man who wants to rape her is not only her employer, not only has a small army of servants who are expected to carry out his orders but is also the Justice of the Peace in the county where she is abducted to. It’s made clear that he is a well liked and respected member of the local establishment and will always be believed over her. It seems that she has no power whatsoever.

Yet, Pamela does have paper, pen and ink. It is through her writing that Pamela not only expresses herself but shapes the events in the novel. At first she writes to get advice from her parents, then as she is imprisoned in Mr B’s Lincolnshire estate she uses it to try and get help. The details of how she hides the letters, sewing them in her clothes or using a sunflower as a spy-style dead drop show her ingenuity. 

However, it’s when her letters are found that they really start to have an impact on her situation. It’s through reading them that Mr B begins to believe that Pamela is genuine and indeed may love him in spite of her ordeals. If anything, though he lusted after the Pamela he knows, it’s the Pamela in the letters who he falls in love with and marries. It’s also the letters that smooth the gentry around her when she is married to Mr B, acting as evidence of her purity and goodness. 

There’s an interesting tension between how the letters are intended to be the ‘to the moment’ depiction of how Pamela thinks and feels at any given moment but also how they are a polished text presented to the reader. Through her letters, she selects ones that are to be summarised and ones that are to be shown in full, even including summaries of events that have happened so far. This means that in text the letters are genuine, heartfelt, outpourings of emotion but to the reader they are a crafted narrative.

Although the first half contains most of big drama (with the exception of Lady Davers’s histrionic reaction to the marriage) the second half possibly provided the most discussion.  There’s a part where the Mr B gives Pamela a lecture on the downfalls of most marriages which she then turns into a set of rules. While it is highly questionable if someone who has behaved as Mr B had any authority for proclaiming on what makes a good marriage, these rules are not merely accepted. As Pamela writes them up, she adds her own comments in italics. These are often little ironic comments and in later editions (we were reading the earlier one) were expanded to become even more so, at times sounding a little condescending to Mr B and his overwrought emotions. It’s almost as if Pamela is developing strategies to manage Mr B, though that would seem alien to her character as presented through the rest of the book.

It’s also in the second half that we hear the story of Sally Godfrey, Mr B’s youthful fling who he had impregnated. Despite a journey to get her back, she emigrates to Jamaica and lives a happy life, leaving her daughter to be raised believing that Mr B is her uncle. Pamela instantly falls in love the child, longing to take her home, raise her and spoil her with treats, in marked contrast to her father, who would have cut all ties with Pamela if she had given birth to a similar illegitimate child. It’s an interesting hint in how she may be developing her own views on virtue that are more liberal than those she was brought up with.

Pamela may not be the book best read for a crisp and entertaining story but it did give rise to many sentiments and ideas with probably one of the densest discussions in the Reading Circle so far - and all mediated through video conferencing.

For anyone needing to continue their Pamela fix, there’s also a sequel, Pamela in her Exalted Condition which I’ve personally retitled Pamela’s European Vacation after finding out she goes on the Grand Tour. In this book, Pamela is a settled member of the upper classes, giving her opinions on art, history and criticising Locke’s theories of education.

For those looking for a modern take on Pamela, there was loose adaptation on at the National Theatre last year written by Martin Crimp and called When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other.



Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Review: The Life of Robert Coates’ by John and Hunter Robinson (and a little about Banvard's Folly by Paul Collins)


One of my favourite non-fiction books that has had a lot of influence on me was Barnvard’s Folly by Paul Collins. Each chapter is the biography of one of history’s failures, it was through this book that I first discovered Psalmanazar, the pretend Formosan; Martin Tucker who was one of the bestselling poets of the Victorian era but is forgotten now - and of Robert ‘Romeo’ Coates.

in Barnvard’s Folly, he is introduced as a privately wealthy heir, who used his money to bully his way onto the stage where he failed utterly. He rewrote Romeo and Juliet to improve it, giving himself a far longer death scene which included Robert Coates, in a diamond spangled silk concoction of his own design, dusting the stage with a little brush before dying neatly. He strutted, whispered, grimaced and groaned. When he was in his terrible throes of love-acting, wags in the audience called for him to ‘die already’. Once, his trousers were too tight and split on stage, ending the performance early. At another point, the game began to be throwing things onto the stage - the funniest moment being when Mercutio was hit in the nose with an orange. In response, future Coates performances included a significant reward for information leading to the conviction of anyone caught throwing things. Coates also fought back against rough audiences by stopping his performances and shouting at them, and by following performances with sarcastic monologues.

Coates was not only ridiculed for his acting though, he was also laughed at for his elaborate clothing, which he designed himself. He also designed his carriage, it was shaped like a shell, covered in golden cockerels and the slogan, ‘while I live, I’ll crow’. For this reason, he was often greeted (and heckled with cockerel crows).

The ‘Further Reading’ part of Barnvard’s Folly described only one biography of Robert ‘Romeo’ Coates, describing it as essential but impossible to find outside of a library, so I was extremely glad when I discovered a copy of  ‘The Life of Robert Coates’ by John and Hunter Robinson for sale.



From the start, this biography is a far kinder to Robert Coates than any other treatment of him. His silliness is excused and the book tries hard to redeem Coates’s acting. This should suck a lot of the fun out of the book but it doesn’t as many of the side characters are extremely entertaining themselves. 

There’s Baron de Geramb, a man with an ‘enormous hirsute appendage’ in the form of a moustache, saved a man from drowning, influenced the British Hussar uniform, was forcibly removed from the UK (threatening to blow his house up in the process) and later  become a Trappist monk in Italy. 

Another character is Miss Tyley Long, a rich, beautiful and funny heiress who Robert Coates tried to woo, and was featured in a caricature with a great many other people. Unfortunately for her, she married a man who spent the fortune and then died, leaving her in heavily reduced circumstances.

Another character mentioned is William Kitchiner, a thrower of eccentric dinner parties, whose own son may have poisoned him with mushroom ketchup. Kitchener is also the subject of Dr William Kitchiner, Regency Eccentric, Author of ‘The Cook’s Oracle a book I’ve described in my notes as ‘almost illiterate’.

There’s even a Johnson link, (when isn’t there?) as Euphemia Boswell, James’s daughter turns up to ask Coates for charity. She had a reputation for being a little mad, and Coates’s refusal to lend aid started a very tiny paper war between them.

As for Coates’s own eccentricities, they are acknowledged but rather explained away. He had lots of money and wasn’t encouraged into a trade and so found acting. That he loved it, and also enjoyed designing elaborate, kitschy (camp?) costumes for himself, as well as his scallop-shaped carriage, are all examples of his fun-loving, exuberant personality.

What the authors stress, time and time again, is that the promise of Robert Coates on a playbill put bums on seats, and many of them were not just there to laugh. He consistently packed theatres beyond any of his professional peers, packing out Drury Lane as nobody has before Garrick. Being a gentleman, he didn’t request a wage for his performances and did it purely for love of the craft, filling auditoriums on benefit nights and helping many actors through times of hardship. Yes, things got rowdy - audiences would chat “why won’t you die’, Mercutio had an orange in his nose and walked off,  he put rewards out to arrest anyone who threw items during a performance and  he heckled the audience back - but he was never boring, he always performed to aid someone else financially, and he always had a full house.



There’s even a suggestion, that when he forswore the stage and gave only private performances, he could be quite good. Some men getting him to do a monologue some years after his heyday, couldn’t understand why he had been heckled so.

Coates’s downfall was as the result of something good - namely, the abolition of the slave trade. Not only did he have plantations back in the West Indies that relied on slaves, he also had other financial stakes in the Caribbean which became uncertain. As a result, he had to scale back his operations, married and moved to France for a while. He wasn’t so poor that he couldn’t live in the fanciest suite of rooms in Boulogne-sur-Mer though, and gave a heart welcome to Louis Philippe, the last King of France.

With his finances settled, he moved back to London where he was greeted outside Whites’ Club, with his nickname of ‘Romeo’ Coates. He politely said that he’d retired that nickname and was to be known as Robert. He’d entertain in private but his days of ‘the Celebrated Amateur of the Stage’ was over. It was on his way back from the theatre that he was struck by a horse-drawn Hansom Cab, dying a few days later from his wounds.

Robert Coates is often linked to other people self-deluded about there own talent, like William McGonagall or Amanda McKitterick-Ros but this biography argues that instead, he should be celebrated as a man who did what he loved and brought joy to many. I do wish the book had enjoyed itself more with his reputation as a ham but he emerged as a kind man with a childlike excitability and I’ve grown a rather soft spot for him.

In October (covid-willing), I've booked a ticket to see Robert 'Romeo' Coates Presents Romeo & Juliet, performed by a company called the Heretical Historians. I don’t think they’ll be so kind….



Wednesday, 9 September 2020

Under the Glass: All the Montaignes



I collected so many fun quotes whilst reading the Essays of Michel de Montaigne. I have a weird relationship with quotes as I feel that wrenched out of the text they change their meaning - even more so when listed as they are here. All I can say is that the quotes I choose almost certainly reflect more about me than about Montaigne or the book itself. I may even go back and write a little more about what some of them mean to me at a later date.

“I was me and he was he.”

“Life is but a school of enquiry.”

“What do I know?”

“I will prevent my death from saying anything not first said by my life.”

“I am better at friendship than at anything else.”

“It is only our words that bind us together and make us human.”

“One of my tailors is a good enough fellow, but I’ve never heard his speak the truth, even if it would help him.”

“The mad curiosity of our nature which wastes time trying to seize hold of the future as though it were not enough to have to deal with the present.”

“Men are tormented, not by things themselves but by what they think about them.” - Epictetus via Montaigne

Pleasure is “fleeting, fluid and perishable.”

“I am the sworn enemy of binding obligations, continuous toil and perseverance.”

“He ought to have brought back a fuller soul, he brings back a swollen one.”

“Teachers are forever bawling into our ears, as though pouring knowledge down a funnel.”

(About quotes) “Spewing up food exactly as you would have swallowed it is evidence of a failure to digest and assimilate it.”

“We are all cramped and confined inside ourselves.”

(About his laziness) “The risk was not that I should do wrong but do nothing. Nobody forecast that I would turn out bad, only useless.”

“I do not think there is as much wretchedness in us as vanity; we are not so wicked as daft; we are not so much full of evil as inanity.”

“Am I playing with my cat, or my cat with me?”

“The natural distemper of man is presumption.”

“Man, totally and thoroughly, is but patches and many-coloured oddments.”

“What does it matter if our arms flail about if our thoughts do not?”

“There is nothing useless in nature, not even uselessness.”

“We wrongly adduce the honour and beauty of actions from their usefulness.”

“I would rather let down my negotiations than let down myself”

(On his frank, honest nature) “That is what makes me stride forward, head erect, open-faced and open-hearted.”

(When being asked for a favour) “Frankly state your boundaries.”

“I am not teaching, I am relating.”

“Life is a rough, irregular progress with a multitude of forms.”

“If anybody says the Muses are mere playthings and pastimes is to debase them, then he does not know as I do the value of plaything or pastime. I could say that any other end is laughable.” 

“Books have plenty of pleasant qualities for those who know how to select them.”

“What enriches a language is its being handled and exploited by beautiful minds.”

“Those who want to fight usage with grammar are silly.”

“There are folk on whom fine clothes sit down and cry.”

“I have a soul so lazy that I do not measure my fortune by its height but by its plesantness.”

“The kind of friendship rejoices in sharp, vigorous exchanges. Just as love rejoiced in bites and scratched which draw blood.” (Montaigne as masochist?)

“There is, in truth, no greater silliness than to be provoked and enraged by the silliness of this world.”

“Every abridgement of a good book is a daft one.”

“I anger when so many behave wickedly, it is praiseworthy to be merely useless.”

“Loving affection has arms long enough to stretch from one end of the world to the other.”

“The names of my chapters do not all encompass the subject matter.”

“I have not seen anywhere in the world a prodigy more miraculous as I am.”

“Life is its own objective.”

“Scratching is one of the most delightful of nature’s bounties.” (He has particularly itchy ears.)

“I who boast that I so sedulously and so individually welcome the pleasures of this life find virtually nothing but wind in them when I examine them in detail. But then we too are nothing but wind. And the wind (more wise than we are) delights in its rustling and blowing, and it is content with its own role without yearning for qualities which are nothing to do with it such as immovability  or density.”

“When I dance, I dance. When I sleep, I sleep; and when I am strolling alone through a beautiful orchard, although part of the time my thoughts are occupied by other things, for part of the time too I bring them back to the walk, to the orchard, to the delight in being alone there, and to me.”

“What great fools we are! ‘He has spent his life in idleness,’ we say. ‘I haven’t done much today.’ - ‘Why! Have you not lived? That is not only the basic of your employments, it is the most glorious.’"

“Upon the highest throne on the earth we are still seated on our arse.”


Wednesday, 2 September 2020

Review: The Complete Essays of Michel de Montaigne



Every year, I try and tackle at least one big beast. Last year was Ulysses and before that was Don Quixote and this year I went for The Complete Essays of Michel de Montaigne

I started reading in late February, reading a few essays interspersed with the short novels in Popular Fiction by Women 1660 - 1730 but as coronavirus took over the world and lockdown was enforced, I (like many others) found it harder to concentrate and the two together were too dense and difficult to read, so having read the first of the three books I took up children’s books and shorter fiction. However, by August, things were returning to something like normality and I took myself off to my parents’ house out of London, I got back down to Montaigne and read the next two books. I probably would not normally have mentioned this factor in my reading of Montaigne were the conditions not exceptional and if it wasn’t something Montaigne would probably have mentioned himself if he were in a similar position. 

Montaigne said that to read his essays was very much like meeting him, that there was very little difference in personality between the two and if he was accurate about this, I would very much like to have met him. They are drawn from two major areas, his life experiences and his reading though he probably would have said that his reading was a life experience. There’s also a progression through the essays, with early ones being shorter and more based on his reading, whereas the later were longer and drew more from his life. 

Typically an essay starts with a reference to something Montaigne has recently read and then follows the thought process that he takes from that. He pulls in all sorts of other texts, life experience and increasingly peculiar little anecdotes. We learn about a man who killed himself by deep-throating a sponge on a stick to wipe arses with, about the man who had his arm grilled in torture and looks on calmly, of the children who convinced their whole village that a ghost was abroad.

In some ways the book reminded of one of my first challenge reads, The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton. There is the same fondness for peculiar stories, the same overstuffing of detail, the same fondness for a detour or a rant. Samuel Johnson (in a quote I kind find right now) said that Burton was best when he lets his own voice take over, and so does Montaigne. 

We find out a lot about Montaigne in The Essays, that he was raised to speak Latin and still regards it as his first language. That he was a flashy dresser and a bit of a lady’s man in his youth, that he once slept with a lame prostitute because he was told they were the best kind- though he’s unsure if that lies in his imagination, his (poor) memory or because it is actually true. He even uses this folk belief to show how rational argument can lead a good user anywhere, making several plausible(ish) arguments for why this might be the case.

We learn a great deal about his body parts and his health. Previously, when I had just dipped into The Essays, I was struck by how often he mentioned his penis so on this read through I kept a tally. If my tally is correct, he mentioned it 56 times throughout the course of the book. He also mentions the scabs on his arse, the pain of kidney stones, the time he was knocked out in a riding accident and how the pain his ingrowing toenails made him see the world less positively then when he didn’t have them.

We learn about him socially, that he’s not very good with small talk, that he refuses to lie, even the truth may hurt someone else’s feelings - even a time when telling the truth risked his life. There are numerous mentions of his friend √Čtienne de La Bo√©tie, the relationship he valued most in his life and the cause of the most wonderful sentences about friendship;
   “If someone were to ask me why I loved him, I feel that it could not be expressed, except by answering ‘Because it was him; because it was me.’”

Another important figure in Montaigne’s life was his father, whom he obviously respected and admired a great deal. I get the sense that Montaigne was someone who laboured under great expectations to which he didn’t live up. He regards himself as essentially lazy and not particularly clever,  “Nobody forecast that I would turn out bad, only useless.”

The turning point in the book, between the shorter, more literary based essays and the longer, personal ones seems to be The Apology for Raymond Sebond, an essay that is, in itself, over 150 pages long. In defending a book about man being able to learn about God by looking at nature, it severely questions man’s ability to learn at all. Turning to Pyrrhonic scepticism, the call is constantly, “What do I know?” I’m glad I’d read book about ancient scepticism before (Ancient Scepticism by Harald Thorsrud), as it helped me unpack what is a very dense essay.  I was not surprised to find it influenced the writing as Descartes, though he uses scepticism as a tool more than a point itself. (Very rare my philosophy degree ever comes in handy).


Montaigne constantly wrote and rewrote the essays until shortly before his death. As such, the book as I have it, seems almost patchwork at times, with frequent interpolations of texts A, B and C, not including modern footnotes. The translation by MA Screech balances a sense of the age of the text (started 1572) and a sense of a frank and colloquial language which allows the text to be readable without seeming too modern or hip.

I would encourage any reader to experience of reading the whole text through if possible. As Montaigne said, “Every abridgement of a good book is a daft one.” Not only that, it’s only by reading it through that the ebb and flow of the book can be properly appreciated. Montaigne is not the same man at the end of it as he is at the beginning and even though he rewrote earlier sections, there is something fascinating about watching a man change as the pages turn. While An Apology for Raymond Sebond is the essay that Penguin choose for their mini black spine classics and although On Conversation is the essay most included in compilations, if you are to read only one essay, I recommend the last essay, On Experience

For a start, On Experience sums up what it’s like to read the essays as a whole. It includes all his main ideas; the fallibility of human knowledge, his wonder and warmth for humanity he finds through examining himself, his fondness for quote and anecdote and his shifting focus from philosophy as a means of learning how to die well to his acceptance on what a wonderful thing it can be to live well. The essay ends with a triumphant fanfare to, not only a life well lived but a life lived as all. “Life is it’s own objective.”

“What great fools we are! ‘He has spent his life in idleness,’ we say. ‘I haven’t done much today.’ - ‘Why! Have you not lived? That is not only the basic of your employments, it is the most glorious.’”

And on that glorious note the essay, the book, Montaigne’s life work ends (except for a little arse joke of course.)