It was Burn’s Night, January 25. After celebrating at a drunken faculty party with a feast of the traditional haggis and several large glasses of whiskey, I felt the need to walk it all off.
The evening lent itself to an after dinner walk. It was cold but not damp, that short of crisp cold that can be envigorating. Standing at the top of some steps, I looked down the sinuous Union Canal that wove its intricate path through the capital. Edinborough seemed like a treasure trove of possibilities to a budding young doctor like me. I was the first in my family to attend university and that made me proud but at the same time the investment my parents were making in me weighed heavily on my shoulders. I tried to keep on the right track, but I would get easily led by my peers. Just one more skipped lecture, one more round in the pub. I stepped onto the canal path and almost simultaneously the street lights dimmed, the council was cutting back on spending and the measly light made me feel quite twitchy as it strew eery shadows.
Feeling queasy and fearing I would fall over, I grabbed onto the railings that ran along the canal and tried to steady myself by fixing my stare on the reflection of the street lamps shimmering yellow in the murky water. Lost in my thoughts of the night that I had passed my head swirled as I had previously swirled dancing. The ballroom which hosted the dance had been packed and the enormous old warped mirror that covered the whole west wall held a reflection that created the illusion of an even greater crowd. The band played the traditional Scottish music and as the music got louder and louder I swirled my partner around faster and faster. Who was she? Mary? Jane? I didn't remember but it was of little consequence. I tilted my head in drunken laughter and suddenly got a flash in the mirror of a slim young woman with striking red hair and flimsy orange and black polka dot dress, wholly inappropriate for such a cold night. Captivated, I turned to look for her on the crowded dance floor. Where was she? Where was the dress? Could I get a glimpse of her face?
I was very drunk I'll admit and I may not remember the name of the girl I was dancing with but I just knew I had seen that dress, flapping at me like a distress signal in the wind. I twisted my head back and forth several times first to the 'refection' in the mirror and then to the room, there it was and yet, then it wasn't. In the general confusion of the dance I could see in the glass the girl smiling, laughing, and throwing back her head in gay abandon as her partner twisted her around and kissed her. I had not seen her before at any other university gatherings, I would surely have noticed her. The brightness of her cheeks and dress in contrast to the more formal attire worn by the rest of our bunch, revealed it was not her usual habitat.
I turned to the dance floor but no girl, no dress, no red hair could be seen. How could it be?
Then I felt a hand grab my arm and pull me in the direction of the bar...time to sing the traditional Auld Lang Syne and more and more whisky.
I was awoken from my rêverie at the canal edge by the chiming of the church bells, two am. With the same stroke a freezing wind blew through the canal making me shiver and pull my scarf tighter around my neck. In doing so the direction of my gaze shifted slightly. Was the light of the street lamp changing to orange? No, it was the orange dress shimmering in the water as it had done on the dance floor. I gasped and turned around sharply. No dress, no girl. In the water the reflection seemed to be moving away with the current, hovering at first. I reached my hand out towards the water as if to touch it and suddenly, sharply, the shadow darted away down the canal like a nymph. Driven by some unexplainable force, I ran after it almost in a trance and not knowing where I was going. I didn't take my eyes off the reflection for fear of losing it, whatever it was, again.
A bridge with thick columns and a turn in the course of the canal stopped me in my tracks. I leant my hands on my thighs panting: a large dinner and a copious amount of alcohol were not the best way to prepare for a run. Contemplating my breath in the frosty air, I became aware of my surroundings once more. I had never been that far down the canal on my own before. I was not native to Edinburgh but even I knew it was best to avoid such places, especially at night, frequented only by the ill-intentioned and misguided youths looking for chemical highs.
The only sound was my heavy breath and the moaning of an unlit street lamp creaking in the wind. But wait, there were no street lamps this far down the canal. Could it be a cat? Or a voice? The sound of keys falling onto concrete. It came from my left. I jumped and arched my back like a cat and froze in fear. A flap of flighty orange material waved at the corner of eye. It was poking out from behind a column of the bridge. I was like a moth to the light, uncontrollably drawn. I crept forward and peered around. There she was, not a phantom but a real flesh and blood girl, slumped over the steps that led up to the bridge, all red hair and dress, blood seeping from a cut in her pasty forehead. 'Miss?' was all I could muster up.
Without moving her head she turned her eyes to look at me, her stare was so intense I wondered if she could speak. Her lips moved but no sound came out. I touched her lightly on the shoulder and she flinched but continued staring.
'Are you alright Miss?'
'I think I have been mugged' she replied in a thick Glaswegian accent.
'It's okay, I'll help you' I stumbled, shocked back into sobriety. 'I'm a doctor.'
Mein lieber Sohn,
I regret to say that I am writing this to you on my deathbed. The doctor tells me that I have only a few weeks left to live so I feel that at the end of my life I can cast aside convention and confess to you, my son, the strong sentiment I have always felt towards you and all of my children. You know that I have always had a somewhat emotional disposition, a weakness in my character, and I could not pass without leaving a last word for you my long-lost son. The more sensible of my entourage tell me that you are surely dead as you have been unheard of for years but I have always held close to my heart the hope that you are still out there somewhere and that you have found the peace you were looking for.
You know how deeply affected I was by your elder brother's tragic passing. After your second brother took solemn vows to the church it was not permitted to me to know his whereabouts or have any contact with him, consequently he also has been as good as dead to me for years now. How I would have wished to keep you closer, I could have helped to set you up in a comfortable position, however over time I have come to accept that you, like your brothers, wanted to choose your own way. Nevertheless, I would have appreciated just a simple sign from you that you are still alive. You should be my heir and foolish, sentimental me wanted to be able to pass down my estate to you as custom dictates.
I fear that you and I have many similarities in our character and temperament, although you certainly have a stronger spirit. It is this unfortunate legacy that has ultimately driven you away, despite my greatest efforts. Yes, alas, I was once the same ambitious and restless young man you were before you left. My hometown of Bremen being a hub of trade, and my father a merchant, the sight of the ships returning, laden with goods, from expeditions to far off places, excited me no end. Yes, I was the man of aspiring superior fortunes I spoke so badly of, he who sought to rise by enterprise. The richly-clothed and comfortably-off merchants I observed at the port, working alongside my father, appeared so cunning and quick and I longed for their wit and dexterity. I studied their behaviour and trade minutely as my father's apprentice. Times were hard due to the wars and I longed to sail off for foreign shores. It was not my destiny to venture afar however. My older and beloved brother died fighting in the war. Death is a part of life but was very difficult for my weak personality to accept: I had lost siblings in infancy but that, alas, is be expected. Loosing my brother after sharing life from childhood to adulthood meant that I have never been the same since. I had to put aside my ambitions as my father needed me to assist him in his work. I made it as far as England and found that I did quite well there, however I soon realised how difficult it was to integrate in a foreign society: despite changing my name to blend in I was always a foreigner. When I met your mother I was besotted by her and, just as in my youth, by the wealth and status of her family. I directed my ambitions to becoming the gentleman your mother deserved and her family expected. I lived a quiet life, never rocking the boat, satisfied with my lot. I put my hope in my offspring that they would become eduacted, English gentlemen, that they, as per tradition, would take up noble professions like the clergy and the law. Your brother, my first born, was the apple of my eye, very like my brother in appearance, but at the same time my English gentleman. How I emplored him not to fight! He had that far-off look in his eyes and he would be a soldier at all costs. It broke my heart when he was killed at battle. I had comfort from your mother and sisters but why the Lord saw fit to deprive me of my siblings, sons and heirs I know not. Perhaps I was too greedy and had to understand that the simple things in life are all that matters.
I pray with all of my heart that you, my son, have everything you need to be happy, depending on the great personal resources you have. If, as I fear, you too have passed, I look forward to spending eternity at your side when I am finally reunited with my father and brothers.
Your loving father.
Moby Dick is told by Ismael, a young man who gets a job on a whaling ship and soon after discovers that the Captain, Ahab, has an ulterior motive for the voyage that goes beyond whaling, he is on the tracks of Moby Dick, the giant, white whale that bit off his leg.
Melville writes beautifully but to be honest the level of the language is quite high, at times it's like reading poetry or the bible, so I can understand why some people, particularly learners, might find Moby Dick a bit hard-going. In this case, using an abridged version or graded reader may be a good idea. Alternatively you could focus on some key extracts, like this one where Captain Ahab confesses the folly of his obsession with the whale, revealing one of the book's key themes, revenge.
"Oh, Starbuck! it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky. On such a day- very much such a sweetness as this- I struck my first whale- a boy-harpooneer of eighteen! Forty- forty- forty years ago!- ago! Forty years of continual whaling! forty years of privation, and peril, and storm-time! forty years on the pitiless sea! for forty years has Ahab forsaken the peaceful land, for forty years to make war on the horrors of the deep! Aye and yes, Starbuck, out of those forty years I have not spent three ashore. When I think of this life I have led; the desolation of solitude it has been; the masoned, walled-town of a Captain’s exclusiveness, which admits but small entrance to any sympathy from the green country without- oh, weariness! heaviness! Guinea-coast slavery of solitary command!- when I think of all this; only half-suspected, not so keenly known to me before- and how for forty years I have fed upon dry salted fare- fit emblem of the dry nourishment of my soul!- when the poorest landsman has had fresh fruit to his daily hand, and broken the world’s fresh bread to my mouldy crusts- away, whole oceans away, from that young girl-wife I wedded past fifty, and sailed for Cape Horn the next day, leaving but one dent in my marriage pillow- wife? wife?- rather a widow with her husband alive? Aye, I widowed that poor girl when I married her, Starbuck; and then, the madness, the frenzy, the boiling blood and the smoking brow, with which, for a thousand lowerings old Ahab has furiously, foamingly chased his prey- more a demon than a man!- aye, aye! what a forty years’ fool- fool- old fool, has old Ahab been! Why this strife of the chase? why weary, and palsy the arm at the oar, and the iron, and the lance? how the richer or better is Ahab now? Behold. Oh, Starbuck! is it not hard, that with this weary load I bear, one poor leg should have been snatched from under me? Here, brush this old hair aside; it blinds me, that I seem to weep. Locks so grey did never grow but from out some ashes! But do I look very old, so very, very old, Starbuck? I feel deadly faint, bowed, and humped, as though I were Adam, staggering beneath the piled centuries since Paradise. God! God! God!- crack my heart!- stave my brain!- mockery! mockery! bitter, biting mockery of grey hairs, have I lived enough joy to wear ye; and seem and feel thus intolerably old? Close! stand close to me, Starbuck; let me look into a human eye; it is better than to gaze into sea or sky; better than to gaze upon God. By the green land; by the bright hearthstone! this is the magic glass, man; I see my wife and my child in thine eye. No, no; stay on board, on board!- lower not when I do; when branded Ahab gives chase to Moby Dick. That hazard shall not be thine. No, no! not with the far away home I see in that eye!”
“Oh, my Captain! my Captain! noble soul! grand old heart, after all! why should any one give chase to that hated fish! Away with me! let us fly these deadly waters! let us home! Wife and child, too, are Starbuck’s- wife and child of his brotherly, sisterly, play-fellow youth; even as thine, sir, are the wife and child of thy loving, longing, paternal old age! Away! let us away!- this instant let me alter the course! How cheerily, how hilariously, O my Captain, would we bowl on our way to see old Nantucket again! I think, sir, they have some such mild blue days, even as this, in Nantucket.”
“They have, they have. I have seen them- some summer days in the morning. About this time- yes, it is his noon nap now- the boy vivaciously wakes; sits up in bed; and his mother tells him of me, of cannibal old me; how I am abroad upon the deep, but will yet come back to dance him again.”
”’Tis my Mary, my Mary herself! She promised that my boy, every morning, should be carried to the hill to catch the first glimpse of his father’s sail! Yes, yes! no more! it is done! we head for Nantucket! Come, my Captain, study out the course, and let us away! See, see! the boy’s face from the window! the boy’s hand on the hill!”
But Ahab’s glance was averted; like a blighted fruit tree he shook, and cast his last, cindered apple to the soil.
“What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I. By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike. And all the time, lo! that smiling sky, and this unsounded sea! Look! see yon Albicore! who put it into him to chase and fang that flying-fish? Where do murderers go, man! Who’s to doom, when the judge himself is dragged to the bar? But it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky; and the airs smells now, as if it blew from a far-away meadow; they have been making hay somewhere under the slopes of the Andes, Starbuck, and the mowers are sleeping among the new-mown hay. Sleeping? Aye, toil we how we may, we all sleep at last on the field. Sleep? Aye, and rust amid greenness; as last year’s scythes flung down, and left in the half-cut swarths- Starbuck!”
But blanched to a corpse’s hue with despair, the Mate had stolen away.
Ahab crossed the deck to gaze over on the other side; but started at two reflected, fixed eyes in the water there, Fedallah was motionlessly leaning over the same rail."
Reflecting on revenge, I came across this discussion question thanks to Lingoties.com - Why is retaliation enjoyable for some people?
As a usually calm person, it is hard for me to understand how someone can have such strong feelings against another. Saying that I have been fortunate in my life not to have experienced real unjustice. I am a people pleaser, of course during my life I have conflicted with certain individuals, that is inevitable, but on those rare occasions I have been able to appreciate my part in the guilt and see how my actions helped to bring about the circumstances that led to that situation. Instead to seek revenge you must be sure that you are right. It's a form of conviction. When Captain Ahab speaks to his crew of his quest it drums up a near religious fervour that infects everyone, including the narrator. I can see correlations between religion and revenge. Although unlike revenge, religion is usually associated with good, both give a person a purpose in life, something to live for. Revenge is a driving force and motivation for countless heroes in books and films. I saw a TV series last year called Revenge about a young woman who blamed a wealthy and influential family for her father's fasle arrest, imprisonment and ultimate death. Over the years she worked on an extremely elaborate plan to avenge her father but more often than not it caused her more pain than those she really sought to affect. This is similar to Moby Dick as in the end Ahab's thirst for revenge leads to his own death and that of (nearly) his entire crew. Moreover, in the TV series the main charcter begins to see her targets no longer as the object of her frustration, but as real people. In fact, Captain Ahab in the above quote admits that revenge has taken over his whole life and he wonders at all the time he lost. Captain Ahab, perhaps to make sense of his quest, admits that his revenge is longer about the whale but pushed forward by some kind of supernatural force.
The type of revenge that the woman in the TV series seeks could be considered more noble than Ahab's personal vendetta because it is for someone else. Seeking justice for wrongdoing done to others can be a good cause, think of the Black Lives Matter movement or campaigns for the recognition of war crimes. But like any movement where there is strength of feeling , it can be used as a vehice for personal aims that may not be truly connected to the cause. Feeling part of a group, having something to fight for, may be a source of enjoyment. Somebody raiding a shop in a riot might be taking advantage of the situation rather than attaching a strong symbolic meaning to it.
Holding onto strong negative feelings can be tiring and stressful for the carrier whilst the person those feelings are directed to may be blissfully unaware of the suffering they are causing and if aware of it, may not care. In Captain Ahab's case, as Starbuck points out, the whale who attacked Captian Ahab was a beast who attacked him was a beast acting out of instinct and it is ridiculous to think that it was acting to spite him.
In the title I have referred to a quote by US radio host, Bernard Meltzer, that reminds us that revenge keeps us tied to the past whilst forgiveness allows us to move on and look to the future. Instead of taking revenge it is better to create a future where a similar situation can be avoided or faced bravely armed with knowledge and insight.
This month I have read Great Expectations that tells the story of Pip a poor orphan boy living with his sister and her husband Joe. Pip is able to raise his ambitions and improve his lot in life thanks to a secret benefactor. But what does it mean to be a gentleman and will his new life live up to his expectations?
Sitting in the park this morning with my pencil and paper coming up with ideas for my new review I chuckled at the curious juxtaposition of new and old in what I do - talking about classic novels in social media! This month I set myself the task of finding in Great Expectations the answer to Charles Dickens' question on the back of my copy of the novel - How do men know who they are? Faced with this question today what would the author do? Google it I guess! So that's what I did. In this review I will use WikiHow's guide - 'How to know who you are' and compare some of the ideas in the article with what I can gleen are Dickens' opinions in the novel. The WikiHow article is divided into 3 main areas - taking a closer look at yourself, asking yourself important questions and examining how you interact with others. I will look at Dickens' possible interpretations of these points based on quotes I found while reading and then add some extra points.
1. Taking a closer look at yourself
This first section of WikiHow asks the reader to figure out what he likes and doesn't like, ask himself whether these preferences are too rigid or not, examine his strengths and weaknesses, what brings him comfort and how he would describe himself to others. This is all about who you believe you are, your name, your family, your background. On the very first page of the first chapter of Great Expectations, Pip defines himself through first his name, then by introducing his parents and siblings and the marshes where he lives. As a young boy, this is his world. Even though his parents and siblings are dead and buried in the cemetry, his place in the world is represented by a tombstone in a graveyard. Pip is a diminuitive of Philip Pirrip, pip literally meaning a small seed in a piece of fruit. The fact that his benefactor puts a proviso on his bequeath precising that Pip must be always known by his nickname seems at first a means of keeping him inferior, then turns out to be a way of forever remembering Pip as a young boy and finally it may also be an indication of the benefcator's ignorance that Pip could be a suitable name for a gentleman. Biddy, a distant relative of Pip's and later Joe's second wife also has an unfortunate name, biddy usually refering to an old unatrractive or talkative woman. In fact Pip's attention to explaining his name in first chapter is echoed in the life story of Magwitch an escaped convict that Pip helps.. Magwitch's first memories of himself are in hearing his name. Without a family of his own it is all he has to hang to, all that identifies him.
Pip is content with his lot as long as he remains in his limited context. Your origin does not necessarily define who you are: Joe's childhood is more difficuly than Pip's, he has a violent, alcoholic father and has no education but nevertheless he is kind and loving to his wife's brother, raising him as a son. On the other hand he does remain strictly in his comfort zone, defining himself by home and work. When Joe goes to visit Pip in London, he is obviously out of place, confirming the lawyer Jagger's theory that 'No varnish can hide the grain of the wood.'
2. Asking yourself important questions
The questions here are: What are you core values? What makes you proud? What are you passionate about? What would you do if money were not an issue? Blinded by his ambitions to be a gentleman Pip first refuses and then comes back to the core values of his early life. WikiHow suggests looking at the traits of two people you admire. We can imagine that for Pip two people with good core values could be Biddy and Joe as Pip describes Joe as 'zealous and honourable' and Biddy as 'pleasant and wholesome and sweet-tempered'. Surely it is from Joe that Pip learns the generosity and empathy to help the escaped convict and at the same time has the conscience to regret having to hide it from Joe. Later after leaving the forge where he grew up, Pip himself admits 'It is the most miserable thing to feel ashamed of home'. I can forgive him for this because people who move away from home are often critical of the place they have left. I don't think it is necessarily meant as an insult but rather perhaps it is done as a way of justifying a difficult decision and reassuring yourself that you have made the right one. The question 'Are you living a life you are proud of' is difficult for Pip. With his fortune he has everything he dreamed of, living as a gentleman, but he does not always behave in a gentlemanly way. At a certain point in his life Pip looks up to people who have only status without core values, like the rich Miss Havisham who invites him into her house when he is just a boy. As a result of this encounter, Pip becomes passionate about 'improving' himself without really understanding what that will be like.
3. Examine how you connect with others
Decide what kind of friend you are, evaluate those around you. Pip is content with his life until he compares himself with others. When the opportunity of Pip spending soem time with Miss Havisham comes up, Pip's sister and Joe's 'Uncle Pumblechook' are delighted at the prospect of Pip's being 'raised up', perhaps as a way of them achieving their ambitions of grandeur through him. Only when he meets Miss Havisham's adopted daughter Estella does Pip become aware….
'that I was a common labouring-boy; that my hands were coarse; that my boots were thick; that I had fallen into a despicable habit of calling knaves Jacks; that I was much more ignorant than I had considered myself last night, and generally that I was in a low-lived bad way.'
The idea that someone is 'made' by others, is very prevalent in this novel. Pip's sister insists that she 'brought him up by hand' and so deserves all the merit for how he turns out. Uncle Pumblechook, believing Miss Havisham to be Pip's secret benefactor, takes all the credit for Pip's fortune as he was the one who introduced Pip to Miss Havisham in the first place. Pip believes he is to be made into a gentleman by Miss Havisham, in order to become a suitable match for Estella, who is herself being shaped to be hard and avoid the heartbreak that her mother experienced. Pip feels dependent as his whole life seems to depend on one person. Meanwhile Magwitch is putting money aside in the New World to 'make a gentleman' as if money alone were enough. Perhaps Pip's ambitions to be a gentleman do depend on one person, but maybe that person is Estella, he wants to be a gentleman for her.
Cutting off all ties with others is not the solution either as Dickens criticizes Miss Havisham's isolating herself because mixing with others is essential for a healthy life and mind, saying that it is against what God, the ultimate 'maker' wants. Pip refers to Estella and himself as 'mere puppets'. However even God allows for free will, is it possible to be 'made' if you don't really want it somehow deep down?
What about education? fate? society?
Well thanks WikiHow but for Dickens it's also about education. Although Pip's education is only very basic, Joe admires Pip's learning to read and Pip asks himself if 'he pondered over the question whether he might have been a better man.' Education is closely linked to class. When Pip comes into his fortune he is sent to London to be educated for his destiny, to be able to 'hold (his) own'. Fate also plays its part. Pip feels unable to escape the life that is set out for him, a 'poor, dazed, village lad' fearing that it is impossible to 'bend the past out of its eternal shape'. This 'eternal shape' could also refer to a society that has certain expectations from different categories of people.
While all these things are true, what or who you are is not set in stone but rather evolves over time. The quote
'Life is made of ever so many partings welded together'
really resonates with me as I feel I can define clear seperate stages in my life, related to where I was or what was important to at that time. So even if Pip makes mistakes in the novel there is always the opportunity for him and us to redeem ourselves. I love bildungsromans because they help us to believe that whatever path we choose in life we can get better everyday. I haven't written a review for six months but here I am getting up, brushing myself off and getting back up on my feet. See you next month!
In pre-civil war Louisianna, Desirée, as a baby is abandoned outside the Valmonde’s house. The Valmondes take her in and raise her. There is much speculation regarding Desirée’s origins but she grows up to be a beautiful young woman and attracts the attention of rich and respected Armand Aubigny who falls madly in love with her and marries her despite the fact that she is nameless. When their first baby is born, its appearance comes as a shock to everyone: it is obviously mixed race. Armand comes to the realization that his child is part black, his attitude towards his wife changes and when Desirée confronts him he sends her and the baby away, never to be seen again. A few weeks after Desirée’s disappearance Armand makes a shocking discovery: a letter from his mother to his father thanking him from keeping her African ancestry secret.
This story is very short but really packs a punch in its few pages. Perhaps because it is so short Kate Chopin can’t mince words and uses some powerful metaphors.
‘… fell in love as if struck by a pistol shot.’
‘The passion … swept along like an avalanche, or like a prairie fire.’
‘…he stabbed thus into his wife’s soul.’
Some of the references to Armand’s slaves are quite shocking to modern sensitivities. Despite being short, the story offers plenty of food for thought. ‘Desirée’ means ‘desired’ or ‘wanted’ and yet she is often unwanted, first by her birth family and then by her husband for her supposed ancestry despite living her life as ‘beautiful and gentle, affectionate and sincere’. It does seem that Armand is getting the better deal marrying Desirée: his house is ‘a sad looking place’ and his ‘rule was strict’. We do find out that since his marriage he has become more lenient and ‘softened (his) imperious and exacting nature greatly’ but all this change is reversed immediately with the cruel treatment that makes you wonder how genuine his love was in the first place. At the end of the story he seems to want to cancel all traces of his marriage. The scene with him sitting watching the bonfire burning his wedding presents and letters from his wife is particularly powerful. At that time he already knows the truth that he is the one with African ancestry and so his wife and child are ‘innocent’, but he hasn’t tried to go after them or look for them. He is completely insensitive to his mother’s love expressed in her letters to his father, going so far as to burn her letters too. The moral of the story is undefined but for me it could be about the power of a mother’s love. Her mother’s love is Desirées fortune too. Unable to have children Madame Valmonde believes that Desirée has been sent to her by God and idolizes her. Desirée consults her mother about what to do and without hesitation Madame Valmonde tells her to come back home with her child. Desirée cannot abandon her child herself and walks away from everything to save her child from scandal. Armand’s mother’s priority is that her son does not find out about her origins. It is a shame that despite his outward showing of power, Armand lacks the strength of character his father obviously had.
Desirées Baby has been a great introduction to Kate Choplin and I am looking forward to read more of her work.
In December, to get into the Christmas spirit, I will be reading Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Follow me on Facebook and Instagram for some key quotes.
Dracula is a rich Count living in Transylvania. John Harker, a young lawyer, is charged with going to visit the Count in order to arrange the purchase of some property in England. He immediately finds the Count to be a curious and somewhat menacing character but can't possibly imagine how dramatically this strange relationship will affect his friends, colleagues and loved ones following him to England and back to Transylvania again.
Maybe I wanted to enjoy a good story after my disappointment of reading 'The Moonstone' by Wilkie Collins last month but I found Dracula gripping and exciting. I usually read a book slowly over a month, I devoured this one in just 10 days. I have said before that a book really has to grab my attention and this was defintely the case here. It contains all the characteristics of and deterrents for vampires that have now become nearly clichés. This is something that Dracula has in common with 'The Moonstone' which was one of the first novels to put together the essential elements for a mystery or detective story. I probably just find the horror or vampire genre more appealing than detective stories. In fact I have just bought two volumes including collections of horror and vampire novels by Beckford, Stevenson, Hodgson, and Munn among others. .I found it really exciting to be able to recognize that Dracula was a vampire before the contemporary readers. Early on in the novel, Harker is intrigued when Dracula appears to have no reflection in his mirror. Later on, John notices that his fiancée Mina is looking pale. As John hadn't seen Mina's friend Lucy in this state he is unaware of the significance of this fact and you want to shout out at him.
The first really terrifying moment is when Dracula leaves his castle by a window and climbs down its walls like a lizard. This scene reminds me that imagination is more powerful than anything you may see in a film. It always amazes me where these ideas come from. I read that Bram Stoker was sick as a child and spent long periods of time in bed, just like Robert Louis Stevenson. There must be something in that. My version of Dracula, Penguin Classics, includes a story told to Bram by his mother Charlotte about a cholera outbreak in Sligo, Ireland. If that is the kind of story she told her son, it's no wonder his imagination ran wild!
I enjoyed the side story of Renfield, a patient in Dr Seward's aslyum. Under the influence of Dracula, who has promised him immortality, he swallows insects and small animals hoping to consume their life force. He does have a moment of clarity when the doctor and other men are surprised to hear him speaking coherently and reasonably. I find the question of the definition of madness fascinating. The truth behind Rochester's wife's 'madness' was one of the most interesting questions of 'Jane Eyre' by Charlotte Bronte.
I found the last part of the novel, when the friends follow Dracula to Transylvania, a little slow but the aspect of the novel that I enjoyed least was how women are portrayed. First the two main female characters, Lucy and Mina, seem to be idolised and all the men are in love with them as if there were no other women in the world. Mina is kept from many details of the men's vampire hunt, because she is a woman and can't handle it. I suppose that these ideas are of their time but they did grate with me a little.
Dracula is a good novel for speakers of other languages because the language is quite modern. The style in which it is written, using diary extracts and letters, makes it easy to read the book in small parts - if you can put it down! Van Helsing is Dutch and makes mistakes in his English so if you are looking for language to copy and rely on for better grammar, choose one the other characters.
An awesome book to read at Halloween or at any time of the year!
If you read my post last month you will remember that I was really looking forward to reading 'The Moonstone' by Wilkie Collins. I had read his 'The Woman in White' before and I absolutely loved it so I was excited to rediscover the same vibe. After having read it have I changed my mind? I think I can say that I am not over the moon about 'The Moonstone'. 'The Woman in White' and 'The Moonstone' are both quite long stories. I have read reviews of 'The Woman in White' and that too is criticized for being verbose and long-winded but in 'The Woman in White' I found a haunting atmosphere that was very gripping and intense and that was missing in 'The Moonstone'.
Maybe it's like when a new film is hyped up and you have really high expectations and then you realise than all the best bits were in the trailer and the actual film is not so great. "Probably the best detective tale in the world" (G. K. Chesterton), "probably the very finest detective story ever written" (Dorothy L. Sayers): these are fine accolades indeed. T. S. Eliot called it "the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels." I agree with the 'longest' bit.
In the late 18th century a British soldier steals a large yellow diamond from a Hindu statute in India and consequently falls under a curse. The curse follows him to England where he is shunned by his family for his bad behaviour and character. To take revenge on his family on his death he bequeaths the jewel to his neice, thereby passing the curse on to her. What's more three Indian men who have been following the owners of the Moonstone for years are determined to steal it back.
The diamond is given to Rachel for her 18th birthday by Franklin Blake who falls in love with her. The day after the stone is found missing. Was it taken by one of the guests, or the servants or the Indians? Renowned detective, Sergeant Cuff, is called in to investigate and the story in told by different characters from their point of view.
Perhaps September is not the ideal month to read such a complex novel, that requires full concentration. In September school and other activities start and I am preoccupied thinking about how this new academic year is going to pan out. At these times a book has to really grab me. When I could concentrate, I did enjoy it but most of the time I found it a bit slow, especially in the middle. I liked the use of different narrators and I particularly enjoyed the humour in Betteridge (and old servant)'s account, but in the end this device did make the story quite complicated. It distracted me and I wondered why some of the narrators were included as they clearly had no idea what was going on. The mystery of the Moonstone takes two years to resolve, with a wealth of supporting characters, points of view, side stories and lots of twists and turns. This means that the characters are very well developed, in fact they take over so that the book becomes less about the mystery and more about them. And about love and romance.
I have come to the conclusion that detective novels are not for me. Since I started Lost in Classics I have read 'The Body in the Library' by Agatha Christie and 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' by Arthur Conan Doyle. What I really loved about Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple was the old fashioned Britishness of the characters and the settings. I enjoyed both for the style of writing, I particularly loved Agatha Christie's realistic dialogues and Agatha Christie herself is a very interesting person. But the actual detecting bit doesn't impress me. I guess I have seen too many Miss Marples, CSIs and even Criminal Minds. 'The Moonstone' was perhaps the first novel to feature what has now become an overused format for a mystery - an English country house with a long list of suspects, a crew of bumbling local policemen, a detective genius, clues and “red herrings”, reenactment at the scene of the crime, and the pursuit of a disguised criminal through the streets of the city. The mystery has to really grab me to keep me going. Wilkie Collins does continue, or prehaps pre-empts focus on character but perhaps less detail could have resulted in a faster pace and a more exciting story. I read that 'The Moonstone', like many other stories at the time would have been published in weekly episodes in a magazine or newspaper. I think reading it in instalments may have been a better way to read it as it would give you a chance to breathe and to reflect on each part over time.
In October, I will read Bram Stoker's Dracula. Even knows the character Dracula but how well do you know the actual book? If you would like to join me you will find the book in different formats and versions in the BOOKS! section of this site. Check out my Instagram and Facebook throughout October for significant quotes from the novel. I will be back for another review at the end of the month.
August is the period when I am freest to travel and consequently for this month I chose to read 'A Room with a View' by E.M. Forster. Set at the beginning of the 20th century this is the love story between young, middle class Lucy Honeychurch and the unconventional George Emerson and the battle against personal, societal and familial prejudices and preconceptions.
I have a personal connection with this story as E.M. Forster went to school in Tonbridge, a neighbouring town to Tunbridge Wells, where I grew up. Tonbridge boarding school has a theatre dedicated to the author. Charlotte Bartlett, cousin and chaperone to Lucy on her trip to Florence, lives in Tunbrdige Wells that is described as a 'narrow world' and every time Charlotte referred to her town slightly apologetically, the generalization made me smile. Growing up in Tunbridge Wells I was familiar with the phrase 'Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells'. Tunbridge Wells is an affluent town in the region of Kent (the 'Garden of England'), previously a popular tourist destination for wealthy Londoners coming to drink its therapeutic waters. In fact the town was once so popular that Queen Victoria herself gave it the prefix 'Royal', an honour reserved for only very few towns. So Tunbridge Wells is a place where you can live a sheltered life and its inhabitants do not have a lot to complain about but they do love complaining if something does not live up to their standards or how things 'should' be. Being British and wanting to avoid direct confrontation at all costs, a resident might write to the local newspaper or even in extreme cases to The Times., signing off as 'Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells.'
I have lived in Italy for 15 years now so the stereotypes and comments on Italy and the Italians also amused me. There are the typical Italian charicatures like the womanizers, romantics and fools but Italy is also referred to as a free and fluid environment without rigid class structure. It is true that being abroad away from the usual constraints and rules of your community can make you feel liberated. No one knows you or expects anything from you so you can be and do what you want. It is not that social conventions do not exist it's just that they are harder for an outsider to perceive. Social status in Italy is very much attached to your appearance and what you have. In England we generally do not attach so much importance to our clothes and more to education, career, language, accent and comportment.
'A Room with a View' is all about prejudice, misconception and the changing societies. Lucy enjoys the company of the Emersons in Florence despite her first impression of them as being unconventional or down-market. I think we could refer to them as 'nouveau-riche'. When George Emerson makes a move on Lucy, Charlotte is shocked because that is not the way a young man should behave and the cousins even feel compelled to leave town. In Rome Lucy meets Cecil who is wealthy, highly-educated, cultured and well-travelled: on paper everything Lucy should want in a husband. Lucy's family consent to their engagement: the only problem is no one likes him! Lucy believes she has everything under control until the Emersons move to her area of England and two worlds collide. When Lucy breaks off her engagement, even the stalwart Charlotte has a change of heart and avoids opposing Lucy getter closer to George. The decision the couple takes at the end of the novel is unconventional but there is a hint that also Lucy's other family members will come round.
The theme of a room with a view is repeated throughout the novel. At the beginning of the story Charlotte complains loudly about the lack of view in her and Lucy's rooms in the pension and the Emersons (who do have a view) offer to change rooms with the ladies. The significance of George offering Lucy a room with a view becomes clear later when Lucy admits that she always pictures Cecil in a room with no view. For me 'no view' means no future, no perspectives with Cecil and in contrast with George Lucy has opened up her horizons and sees an alternative ahead.
For me the novel's main message is that even the best laid plans go wrong. We may like to think we can control every aspect of our lives but then life happens.
'Everything is fate. We are flung together by Fate, drawn apart by Fate - flung together, drawn apart. The twelve winds blow us . we settle nothing - .'
In September I will be reading The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. I chose to read this novel this month because this time last year I read Sherlock Holmes so I decided to read a crime novel again this year. I love crime novels and Wilkie Collins' 'The Woman in White' is one of my favourite novels. I will be posting some quotes as I read on Instagram and Fcaebook so please follow me and read along!
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
I chose to read The Scarlett Letter to mark American Independence Day, the fourth of July, but despite thefact that it was written in 1850, Hawthorne’s novel is actually set in the 17th century, when America was not yet America but rather a settlement for British pilgrims. The description of the British settlers at the beginning of the novel is far from flattering and rather humourous at times, as the townswomen are gathered in the square to lay judgement on a woman found guilty of adultery and giving birth to a bastard child. The punishments they propose as far more barbaric and medieval than the actual sentencing: the woman must stand carrying a baby in front of the baying crowd for three hours to face her shame and thereafter wear the letter ‘A’ embroidered onto her clothes as a constant reminder of her sin and warning to others. She will not say who the father is. In the crowd lurks her husband, thought missing at see, who has been living with the native Indians and fatefully returns that very day. Roger Chillingworth, the husband, visits his estranged wife in prison demanding to know who the father is. She refuses to reveal the father’s identity and he vows to find out and makes her promise that she will not tell anyone that he is in fact her husband. The mother and child live on the edge of society. Hester Pyrnne, the mother, is a beautiful woman and her daughter, Pearl, is unruly and confident. The child is seen as the embodiment of the mother’s sin, to the point that it is thought she might be a demon child, something that even her mother comes to fear. The church elders suggest that Pearl would be better off being taken care by someone else but one young minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, persuades the others to let Pearl stay in her mother’s care. Hester bears her punishment with humility and quietly continues about her life, working as a dressmaker even for the most respected members of the society. Meanwhile Hester’s husband, Roger Chillingworth establishes himself as the town surgeon. Arthur Dimmesdale, the minister grows gradually sicker and sicker suffering from some unknown malady. As both men live alone, the townspeople decide it would be a good idea for the two to move in together and become friends so that the minister will have a doctor naerby should he need one. Roger Chillingworth has no intention of making friends but is more interested in undercovering the Arthur as the father to his wife’s baby. Understanding her husband’s intentions, Hester warns Arthur and the two decide to go away as a family with Pearl to start a new life. However, the guilt that has been building up in the minister becomes too much and he climbs onto the scaffold where Hester stood years ago and admits his guilt, before dying in Hester’s arms. Roger dies only days after forgivingly leaving an inheritance to Pearl which she uses to move back to England with her mother. Years later Hester returns to the town and goes back to her old life, even taking up wearing the letter A on her chest as before. She is buried next to the minister in a patch marked ‘A’.
The style of writing could be considered a little bit heavy at times but the reader must remember that although the book was written in 1850 it was set two hundred before, so Hawthorne uses slightly old or archaic language and style to give the story an old world feel. There are some passages where Hawthorne goes off the main story and these are a little bit boring so I skipped through those to make the story more dynamic. I enjoyed the occasional elements of humour and I did like the way the narrator includes the reader, pointing out some details: I found it quite charming. There is a lot of imagery and I particularly enjoyed the implication that Pearl is some sort of devil child. There is one scene when Hester and Arthur meet in the forest. While Pearl is playing by a brook her reflection in the water seems to take on a life of its own. I know that Hawthorne was a great admirer of Edgar Allan Poe and as I am too, this idea appeals to me greatly.
'Just where she had paused the brook chanced to form a pool, so smooth and quiet that it reflected a perfect image of her little figure, with all the brilliant picturesqueness of her beauty, in its adornment of flowers and wreathed foliage, but more refined and spiritualized than the reality. This image, so nearly identical with the living Pearl, seemed to communicate somewhat of its own shadowy and intangible quality to the child herself. It was strange, the way in which Pearl stood, looking so steadfastly at them through the dim medium of the forest-gloom; herself, meanwhile, all glorified with a ray of sunshine, that was attracted thitherward as by a certain sympathy. In the brook beneath stood another child,--another and the same,--with likewise its ray of golden light. Hester felt herself, in some indistinct and tantalizing manner, estranged from Pearl; as if the child, in her lonely ramble through the forest, had strayed out of the sphere in which she and her mother dwelt together, and was now vainly seeking to return to it.'
There are some really interesting issues to think about and the first of them is the townspeople’s apparent lack of interest in uncovering the father. It’s the original sin all over again, it’s always the woman’s fault. In a way the actual scarlet letter is unnecessary as the child Pearl is the scarlet letter, a constant reminder of what happened. We don’t have details of the encounter that lead to Pearl’s conception but it was certainly consensual. Hester faces her guilt admirably if not apologetically but Dimmingsdale is a coward, he keeps his silence for years. His guilt eats away at his conscience and actually makes him physically sick. His ‘confession’ doesn’t redeem him either as Hawthorne admits that even those who witnessed it were unclear about the real meaning. Dimmingsdale never actually says ‘I am the father’ he talks cryptically about sharing guilt. Some say he actually has a sign A on his chest, as if he had branded himself, and some say there was nothing there. So even in the end he can’t be clear. Strangely it is ‘baddy’ Chillingworth who makes good in the end, making Pearl his heir and thus acknowledging her innocence in the whole situation. Perhaps his gesture indicates that his intentions were basically good, to avenge the man who wronged his wife. After all the upset Hester finally decides to return to the site of her crime, like a reoffending criminal who finds comfort and structure inside the prison walls. Times heals all wounds as Hester’s good conduct causes the townspeople to completely change their minds about her and the letter A she wears comes to have positive connotations. Finally Hester is buried near the minister but the reasons for this are not clear: are they both recognized as good people? Has their relationship been accepted or forgotten?
So I recommend The Scarlet Letter for the great idea on which it is based. Although the language can be a bit heavy at times, and Hawthorne does go on a bit sometimes it is worth sticking with as there are some really thought provoking quotes like this one
'If truth were everywhere to be shown, a scarlet letter would blaze forth on many a bosom.'
What is your scarlet letter?
What is this?
When I started lostinclassics I looked for language lessons in the books I was reading, such as for example the use of phrasal verbs or inversion in conditionals and I explained them through examples found in the text. I also did reviews of the books I read and tried to give some advice on how to read classics using the various resources I know of. Then I switched to just reviews and lately I have been doing a bit of creative writing inspired by my reading. Who knows what I will come up with next!