Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Classic (page 1 of 2)

Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

I know you’re not meant to judge a book by its cover, but let the booklover who is without sin cast the first stone. This cover of Cold Comfort Farm looked really cute when I first pulled it from the shelf, but when I examined it closely… I didn’t get it ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ It seemed to be a series of in-joke caricatures that made no sense to me whatsoever. Then, the introduction kept calling Cold Comfort Farm a “comic” novel and it included all of these excerpts… but none of them were funny? Apparently, Gibbons sought to parody the “rural” genre, which I’ve never heard of, let alone read. None of this boded well.

Now, I’m going to assume that most of you have never heard of Cold Comfort Farm either. I certainly hadn’t before I pulled together The List. Stella Gibbons seems to be the poor cousin of early 20th century authors, ignored by academics and readers alike. Cold Comfort Farm was her first book, published in 1932, and she went on to write 23 additional novels in her lifetime but this is the only one that remains in print. Speaking of her first book, she once said:

“[Cold Comfort Farm is like] some unignorable old uncle, to whom you have to be grateful because he makes you a handsome allowance, but who is often an embarrassment and a bore; skipping about, and reminding you of the days when you were a bright young thing. To him, and his admirers, you have never grown up… The old monster has also overlain all my other books, and if I do happen to glance at him occasionally, I am filled by an incredulous wonder that I could have once been so light-hearted.”

So, yeah, she was pretty over it, like a would-be rockstar that only ever had one hit song and was forced to play it ad infinitim for the rest of his career. Most people who have heard of Stella Gibbons don’t even realise that she wrote anything else.

Even in her own time, she wasn’t all that popular with her contemporaries. Virginia Woolf once wrote to Elizabeth Bowen, after Gibbons won a literary prize:

“I was enraged to see they gave the £40 to Gibbons; still now you and Rosamond [Lehmann] can join in blaming her. Who is she? What is this book? And so you can’t buy your carpet.”

BURN! But the disdain was mutual: Gibbons refused to join literary circles and cliques, knowing full well that she wasn’t making any friends for herself when she satirised their work. She just didn’t give a fuck at all, tbh. As per the introduction:

“To satirise the sexual values of DH Lawrence at this time was to outlaw oneself deliberately from any intellectual elite. Intellectuals were enslaved to Lawrence – especially the men, of course, for whom his gospel of sexual freedom chimed very nicely with what they actually wanted to do.”

I think you can see what I’m working up to here: Stella Gibbons was a bad bitch who called ’em how she saw ’em, and she wrote Cold Comfort Farm with her tongue planted firmly in her cheek. Spoiler alert: it is actually funny! I’d say it lands somewhere between Jane Austen and Fawlty Towers. I really enjoyed it, in spite of myself (and its cover – maybe there is something to that whole “not-judging-a-book” business after all…).


To the story: it is set in some unspecified future time period, shortly after “the Anglo-Nicaraguan wars of 1946” (bear in mind that Gibbons was writing in the early 1930s, and had no idea what was coming world-war-wise). The book’s heroine, Flora Poste, finishes school only to find herself suddenly orphaned at the ripe old age of 19 years. She has no means of supporting herself, being as she says “possessed of every art and grace save that of earning her own living”. What’s a girl to do? Find a rich relative and mooch off them until she can secure a satisfactory husband, of course!

“No limits are set, either by society or one’s own conscience, to the amount one may impose on one’s relatives.” – Flora Poste (Cold Comfort Farm)

She turns down offers of bed and board from several well-to-do cousins, for one reason or another, and eventually settles on “visiting” her (very) distant relatives at the isolated Cold Comfort Farm (some way outside the fictional village Howling, Sussex). They agree to take her in so that they may atone for some unspecified wrong they wrought upon her father years ago. On the farm lives the matriarch, Aunt Ada Doom, the whole extended family of the Starkadders, and their stuff – and they are all BAT. SHIT. CRAZY.

Flora, not one to muck around, sets about civilising them all and teaching them about sponges and contraception and other modern conveniences that would make their farm less of a hell-hole (and them a little more… presentable). She’s basically Mary Poppins, bringing metropolitan values and comforts to the sticks.

It’s not a straightforward story to read, for a few reasons. The story goes in bursts and starts, takes weird turns, and never really provides a satisfactory ending. In fact, it’s kind of like someone telling you their dream at times (but a funny one, not one that bores the pants off you). You also have to translate some of the fake idioms and slang, which Gibbons used to parody the novelists that used phonics to portray accents and local dialects (looking at you, DH Lawrence!). An example: “mollocking” is Seth’s favourite activity, and Gibbons never tells you exactly what it is… except that it always seems to precede the pregnancy of a maid (HA!). But don’t let the threat of made-up vernacular put you off: it’s still infinitely more readable than the modernist novels published around the same time (*cough*Mrs Dalloway*cough*).


Gibbons tried to capitalise on what little momentum Cold Comfort Farm generated; she published a collection of short stories – Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm – in 1940, and then another – Conference at Cold Comfort Farm – in 1949, but neither of them made much of a ripple. Still, the original novel continued on its merry way, and it has been adapted for the screen several times (including twice by the BBC). It hasn’t shaken the world: I’d probably call it one of the best classics you’ve never heard of.

So, yes, I must concede, my initial impressions were totally inaccurate. Cold Comfort Farm is fucking hilarious. It’s clever and sarcastic and satirical, but I’m hesitant to provide you with many (any!) excerpts to back up my claims, because the introduction tried to do that and failed so spectacularly. Cold Comfort Farm’s humour is entirely contextual; the only way to really “get it” is to read the book in its entirety. I completely agree, however, with the handful of fans out there who say that it is criminally underrated (much like one of my other favourites), and my not having encountered it before now seems an absolute travesty. It’s definitely worth a look if you can find a copy – tell a friend!

My favourite Amazon reviews of Cold Comfort Farm:

  • “I just am not in the mood for so much drama” – Ursula Guevara
  • “Bored me to tears…too long and meaningless. A young girl with nothing to do with her life takes over others. There’s a secret in her family’s past that is not revealed by the end of the story” – Monica
  • “Not that great” – margaret murphy
  • “If you are a fan of Cold Comfort Farm, you will like this book.” – Ms Lauri Gillam
  • “Sadly, no explicit sex, but terrific humor” – Francis Assaf

Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift

If I was all hung up on being technically correct (pfft, you guys wouldn’t believe it was me), this post would be called “Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World by Lemuel Gulliver”. That was the title Jonathan Swift chose for this novel, published under a pseudonym in 1729. He chose to use a pen name because his work was full of political commentary and satire, and his real name was closely associated with the Tories (who had fallen into disrepute, imagine that). He said he wrote the world to “vex the world rather than divert it”. But as time went on, more and more people referred to it as simply Gulliver’s Travels, and here we are.

Gulliver’s Travels reads like the travel blog of a bloke who gallivanted around the world in the 1700s, when atlases were woefully incomplete. The story kicks off with his first voyage, which he dates as occurring in 1699. His ship is wrecked (oh, yeah, you need to know right from the outset that Gulliver is super unlucky), and he washes ashore in the strange land of Lilliput. It is inhabited by a race of tiny people, all less than six inches tall. At first, they’re totally cool with this random giant (Gulliver) showing up in their ‘hood, but they’re (understandably) fucking terrified of the power he wields over them with his size. He learns that they’re kind of loopy, on the whole, and they focus on trivial things. Prime example: they’ve long been engaged in out-and-out military warfare with a neighbouring society of equally-tiny people, because they crack open their eggs at the opposite end. All things considered, Gulliver doesn’t really fit in with the Lilliputians, and he gets the fuck out of Dodge.

Not one to be put-off (oh, yeah, old mate Gulliver is also quite slow on the uptake), he sets out on another voyage in 1702. This time, his fellow sailors abandon him on a peninsula in North Africa. This is pretty much Opposite Land after Lilliput, because the farmer that finds him is 72ft tall and the grass seems as high as the trees back in England. Gulliver – now teeny-tiny, in relative terms – is treated as a side-show curiosity by the giants that take him in, and he is eventually sold as a pet to the Queen of their realm. After a few more adventures (including – and I’m not kidding, I swear – a fight with a gargantuan wasp and an escapade with a monkey), the box that Gulliver’s been living in is picked up by a seagull and dropped out to sea. There, he is rescued by some sailors, regular-sized ones, who return him safely to England once more.


Remember how I said Gulliver is slow on the uptake? Yeah, well, his travels don’t end there. In 1706, he sets off again, and this time his ship is attacked by pirates. This dude must’ve been cursed! He finds himself marooned on a rocky island near India, in a kingdom of people obsessed with music, mathematics, and astronomy… in theory. They’re all book-smart, he quickly finds, but not so good with the practical living. He helpfully points out to the reader that they taught him an important lesson about the blind pursuit of science and art without practical results (and, yes, this was Swift making one of those political points of his about bureaucracy, and the Royal Society’s controversial experiments), before making his way home…

… but not for long. Full of impractical wanderlust-bravado, Gulliver heads back out, this time as the captain of a ship, only to have his crew commit mutiny and abandon him on the first lump of sand they find. That’s where he finds a race of deformed savage human-esque creatures (the “Yahoos”), and he’s rescued by a race of talking horses (the “Houyhnhnms”). I don’t think I need to point out the metaphor here, because Swift hits you over the head with it repeatedly until the end of the book. It’s basically Planet of the Apes, but with horsies. Gulliver lives among the Houyhnhnms (even though they’re highly suspicious of him, with the resemblance he bears to their Yahoo mortal enemies, of course), and he hangs around for a long, long time. Eventually, they kick him out for being too Yahoo-y, and he gets home only to find that he is now repulsed by his own kind. He lives out the rest of his days in his stables, ignoring his wife and chit-chatting to the horses about life and philosophy and whatever. The end.

By now, a lot of the structural elements of Gulliver’s Travels have become stock-standard, but at the time they were downright revolutionary. There’s a clear downward spiral, as the causes of Gulliver’s “travels” become more and more malignant: shipwrecked, abandoned, boarded by pirates, mutinied by his own crew. As that plays out, Gulliver himself devolves from a cheery optimist to a pompous misanthrope. And each section of the novel forms the equal but opposite of the previous part: the Lilliputians are tiny, but then Gulliver finds himself in a society where he’s the tiny one, and so on and so forth.


I can’t say I liked Gulliver’s Travels, mostly because I got increasingly pissed off at the fact that Gulliver seems to completely forget all about his wife and family. Mrs Gulliver is the most sympathetic character in the whole story, no shit. Even though he comes home in the end, he’s spent too much time on Planet Of The Horses and he decides that she’s an “odious Yahoo”, and refuses to have anything to do with her. Sometimes, if he feels particularly benevolent, he’ll “permit” her to sit with him at dinner, as long as she stays at the opposite end of the table and he can stuff his nose with “rue, lavender, or tobacco leaves” to mask her human stench. Oh, and he commands her to answer any questions with the “utmost brevity”, so he doesn’t have to put up with her yammering on. What a guy!

I wondered why more of the book didn’t feel familiar, because I’d watched a film adaptation (on VHS! remember those?) about a hundred times when I was a kid. Then, I looked it up and worked out that it only covered two of the “several remote nations” to which Gulliver travelled. Apparently a lot of film adaptations do that, because the first couple of “travels” are the easiest to film and communicate on-screen; plus, they’re the most kid-friendly, and Gulliver’s Travels is widely regarded as a children’s book, even though there’s a lot of political commentary and allegory behind the childish imagery. I suppose that makes it an old-timey version of Shrek, really.

Don’t be fooled, though: Gulliver’s Travels has had a considerable impact on literature, and indeed the English language on the whole. In this book, we can find the origins of science fiction, and the structure of the modern novel. Even the term “yahoo” (meaning “a rude, noisy, or violent person” according to the Oxford English Dictionary) is drawn from Swift’s work – another English word that has its roots in classic literature! It’s just a shame I couldn’t enjoy it properly because the main character was such an unremitting arsehole.


My favourite part (not that I felt spoiled for choice) was where Gulliver meets a King, who moonlights as psychic medium John Edward. He can recall people from the dead, but only for 24 hours at a time, and only once every three months. Gulliver talks him into bringing back Aristotle, assorted Roman emperors, dead Kings, and so forth. There’s a really touching passage where he laments the fact that history is written by the victors, and all these dickheads (who he’d been taught all his life were “great men”) were basically the Donald Trumps of their day. All the people who’d stood up to them and fought the good fight had either been forgotten or had their names dragged through the mud. Gulliver declares that he’s fed up with fake news, and he’s calling bullshit on it all – surprisingly poignant, eh?

My tl;dr summary of Gulliver’s Travels: Gulliver leaves his wife and kids at home to gallivant around the world, four times over, even though he constantly meets with disaster and winds up a prisoner in some foreign land or another. He becomes such a twisted misanthrope that he gives up on humanity and lives out his days ankle-deep in horse shit. Sure, the academics will say that it’s an ever-relevant critique of corruption and religion and government… but I can’t get past the wife-abandonment. Gulliver pretty much got what he deserved, is what I’m saying, and his wife could have done so much better.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Gulliver’s Travels:

  • “This was the worst book I have ever read in my entire life. My whole family hates it too. Honestly, I could barley read it for 10 minutes without it putting me to sleep from Gulliver dragging on about garbage no one cares about. I would rather drink a gallon of mayonnaise then read this, actually I would BATHE in mayonnaise for a MONTh then read this book. And don’t even think about saying “oh I bet its not THAT bad,” because it IS THAT BAD! I wish I didn’t have to read this book for my class, but by the time i’m done, I might as well burn the book.” – AmazonShoper
  • “Useless as a book.” – Flordelis
  • “Sucked.” – Morgan
  • “Mostly good stories.” – John H. Long

The Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan

After I finished Little Women, I couldn’t help but pick up John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. It was Louisa May Alcott’s father’s favourite book; he would read it aloud to his children, and encourage them to act it out, so it’s no surprise that she referenced it a lot in her work. Plus, its influence is clear in literature more generally: most notably, William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is named for one of its settings. It also crops up in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Scarlet Letter, Jane Eyre, The Grapes of Wrath, and a bunch of others. The Pilgrim’s Progress is one of the most significant works of English literature, widely billed as being the first English novel. It has been translated into over 200 languages, and it has never been out of print. So, are you convinced? I am!

The book’s full name is The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, to That Which Is To Come. Bunyan began work on it while he was in the pokey; he was imprisoned for violating the Conventicle Act, which forbade people from gathering for religious services outside the Church of England in the 17th century. Bunyan, of course, did not give a shit, and he got busted preaching in a field. The first edition was published in 1678, while he was still locked up, and then the expanded edition came out after he was freed, in 1679. All up, there were twelve editions published in his lifetime, each with new revisions. This version, the Penguin English Library Edition, reproduces the original as closely as possible, with just a few slight tweaks to spelling and punctuation for the comfort of the contemporary reader.

It reads like a part-poem, part-play, part-story. The narrator recounts a dream that he had in jail about a pilgrim – Christian – who abandons his wife and children to hike to Heaven. Well, as best I can tell, he read the Bible and he freaked the fuck out (don’t all good pilgrimage stories start that way?). He’s weighed down by a “great burden” (the knowledge of his “sin”), and he convinces himself he’ll sink on down to Hell if he doesn’t get his shit together – so off he goes!

Then there’s a second part about his wife and children following him, which I thought was kind of nice. If only all authors had dedicated sequels to the forgotten wife!


Bunyan’s allegorical tale, the academics say, stands out above his predecessors because his language was simple and straightforward, making it easier for the every-man to understand. To put it more simply, it’s The Divine Comedy for dummies. Dante’s work, and the similarities between them, are so obvious it’s like a brick hitting you over the head. Bunyan’s prose is a lot simpler to be sure, but in my mind Inferno is still the clear winner – if nothing else, it’s a lot more exciting. Plus, The Pilgrim’s Progress just isn’t very funny! The only laughs I got were from things that probably weren’t meant to be funny, like:

“She is a bold and impudent slut; she will talk with any man.”

Talk! Imagine! What a strumpet!

There are no chapters in this edition (or any other, as far as I can tell), which is annoying – it’s just one big block of text. Normally, I use those pauses in the narrative to scribble down my notes, and think over what I’ve just read. Putting the book down to do all that, without a chapter break, feels like interrupting someone in the middle of a monologue. I suppose it’s forgivable, being that it was the first English language novel in history and no one had told Bunyan about chapters and all, but still… ugh.

At least it doesn’t require much background knowledge of religion. And all of the characters have helpfully-descriptive names like “Faithful” and “Talkative” – makes it pretty easy to keep them all straight. And Bunyan wasn’t entirely without humour in this regard; he was a Protestant, and not all that fussed with the Catholic Church, so he named the decrepit and harmless giant character “Pope”. Ha!


It’s impossible to deny Bunyan’s impact on English literature, and the respect afforded to him as a result of that. No one dares hanging any shit on him for using the “it was all a dream” trope – I mean, he’s probably the reason that trope exists to begin with! That said, I would only recommend The Pilgrim’s Progress to people who read the footnotes. You need to have a deep abiding curiosity about the tradition of literature, and/or God, to get much of it. If that doesn’t sound like you, give Dante’s Inferno a go instead, or skip the centuries-old religious allegories altogether.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Pilgrim’s Progress:

  • “Strange print style… great literature thouh. But the way it’s presented on paper is like a kids big coloring book. It’s like a picture book, but they forgot to add the pictures.” – orson orson
  • “The quality of the book exceeded my expectations.” Patricia M Nulf
  • “This book is about as far away from biblical salvation as you can be. The main character had to work for his salvation which is not what the bible teaches. John 6:47, Romans 4:5, Eph 2:8-9If you wish to confuse someone and see your friend or relative in hell, get them this book.” – Dave Nesbitt
  • “Tedious” – Amazon Customer9
  • “Like the names of the people.” – Amazon Customer
  • “this book has you lookin at your faith” – Debra Carroll
  • “This was a gift for my husband. I have not heard comments from him.” – SLC

Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

Listen up, folks, because I’m about to drop some knowledge: If you’re going to read Little Women for the very first time, you need to find an edition – like this one, from Penguin Classics – with a decent introduction to the text. I know not everyone reads the introduction first, but I do, and if I hadn’t in this case, I would have completely missed the point. I was already pretty familiar with the story, because I loved the Winona Ryder film adaptation as a kid, but as far as literary critique goes I would have been completely adrift without a better understanding of Louisa May Alcott’s background and her motivations behind writing Little Women. (Of course, if an edition with a decent introduction isn’t forthcoming, you could always just read this review before you get started…)

Little Women was first published in 1868, and has historically been dismissed as moralising, sentimental guff. It’s “for girls”, you know? It’s only recently that Alcott’s magnum opus has been considered a valued component of the American literary canon. To fully appreciate the genius of this book, you really need to understand Alcott’s politics and the context in which the book was published. And, in addition to finding a copy with an introduction that breaks it down for you, I would strongly recommend finding a copy of the original text; there was a later edition, published in 1880, that smoothed out a lot of the sharp edges and, in so doing, refined a lot of the language and character descriptions to make them seem more “genteel”. Virtually all readers nowadays pick up the 1880 edition without realising what they’re missing out on – don’t be one of them!

So, onto all this background knowledge I keep telling you that you need: Alcott wrote Little Women at the request of her publisher, who wanted a “moral” book for young girls, with “wide appeal”. The story she came up with follows the lives of the four March sisters – Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy – as they transition into womanhood. Alcott herself was the second of four daughters, and – believe it or not – the similarities between her and Jo March don’t end there, so it’s pretty clear where she drew her inspiration. In fact, the story was so autobiographical that fans would write letters addressed to “Miss March”, and Alcott – being the good sport she was – would respond without correcting them. The first book was such a huge commercial success that readers (and Alcott’s publishers) immediately began clamouring for a sequel, so Alcott pumped out the follow-up “Good Wives” (though, it must be said, she was not a fan of that title, it was chosen by the publishers and she had no say at all). The two volumes are now sold together as a single edition, bearing the name Little Women.

Now, even though she seems like a good little woman herself, giving the publishers exactly what they wanted, Alcott is on record as having said that she would have much preferred to keep working on her own collection of short stories, which was very different in nature to the book for which she is most famous. So, why didn’t she? Well… she was hard up for cash. She wrote Little Women “in record time, for money” she said, but she hated writing it and referred to the process as “plodding away”.

She sought to address three major themes – domesticity, work, and true love – through this story of a family living in genteel poverty during the American Civil War. Alcott also effectively created the archetype of the “all-American girl”, embodying its different aspects in each of the March sisters: there’s Meg the beauty, Jo the career woman, Beth the dutiful wallflower, and Amy the romantic. The publishers wanted a story about good girls being good, but Alcott’s true message underlying the story is a little different: she’s clearly saying that virtue should be valued over wealth, and that women can overcome the constraints upon their gender through hard work and piety.

Yep, that’s right: Alcott was a feminist, and Little Women – despite its prima facie old-school values, and its controversial ending – is a deeply feminist novel. At the time of its publication, there were almost no models of non-traditional womanhood in popular media for young girls. So, Alcott took it upon herself to pitch many ideas of social change and progressive politics against the familiar backdrop of domestic life. Little Women paints a very familiar picture of the lives of girls in 19th century America, but it also legitimises their aspirations to grow beyond what is “expected” of them. So, three cheers for Alcott – way the fuck ahead of her time!

She gave the March sisters adventurous plots and storylines that had traditionally been coded as male. She wanted to normalise the ambition of women, and showcase alternatives to existing gender roles (which, at the time, were more restrictive than a damn corset). In particular, she addressed the idea that spinsters were “fringe” members of society, without power or influence. If you look closely, you’ll see that the spinsters and unmarried women are actually strong, multi-dimensional characters, the true power brokers of the New England world that she created. Alcott shat all over the idea that you needed a husband and a family to be a “good” woman, and she did so from a great fucking height.


Now, everyone who’s read the book is currently screaming at me: “But Alcott ‘saved’ Jo in the end by marrying her off! That’s not feminist!”. To that, I say that the way in which Alcott did it was so clever and subversive, I don’t blame you for missing it on the first take. Alcott did, indeed, “marry off” her heroine… but not to the dashing, Prince Charming (Laurie), who had begged for her hand time and time again. Nope! Jo instead marries the much older (and poorer!) Professor Friederich Bhaer, a far less romantic ending and one that subverted the expectations of all the young readers who had, until then, never read a love story that didn’t involve a fairytale ending. Fuck yes, Alcott – fuck yes! People who criticise this ending don’t seem to understand the precarious position in which the author found herself. She was straddling the demands of her moneybags publishers – not to mention her very pious and conservative father – as well as her own determination to write a story that upheld her own feminist values. You can’t put a 20th century feminist head on a 19th century working woman’s shoulders, and I say she did a damn good job with what she had.

“For some feminist critics, Alcott’s lifelong effort to tailor her turbulent imagination to suit the moralism of her father, the commercialism of her publishers, and the puritanism of “gray Concord”, kept her from fulfilling her literary promise. For others, Little Women itself stands as one of the best studies we have of the literary daughter’s dilemma: the tension between female obligation and artistic freedom.”

The book is full of sneaky little feminist asides. Of course, there are plenty of characters that represent the social status-quo, in keeping with the morals of the time, but the fact that Alcott managed to include her own agenda at all feels rebellious and awesome. In real life, Alcott was an active participant in the women’s suffrage movement (yay!), and also the temperance movement (boo!), so she practiced what she preached, no matter what her Daddy said. If you need any more proof that she was fighting the good fight, the wonderful introduction to my Penguin Classics edition cites her influence on some of the founding mothers of feminism as we know it today: Simone de Beauvoir, Gertrude Stein, Joyce Carol Oates, and others.


So, all told, I’m really glad I read the introduction and learned all of this before I started reading the book – otherwise, I could well have fallen into the trap of disregarding Little Women as fluff. As it was, I knew exactly what to look for in the story, and I found it really interesting and enjoyable. Little Women is basically the original YA novel – sure, it can be a bit saccharine and trite at times, but no more so than any other work published around the same time, and when you look closely there are some really valuable lessons hidden away there.

That said, even though I’m calling this a Recommended read(!), I wouldn’t recommend it to teenagers. It’s much better suited to older readers, who have more developed critical thinking skills and can truly appreciate the masterful way that this simple story, about a very loving tight-knit group of sisters, makes some very important points about the role of women in society… points that we could do well to re-visit often.

Tl;dr? Make sure you look beneath the surface of Little Women, because that’s where you’ll find Alcott’s fighting feminist spirit. Onwards, ladies!

My favourite Amazon reviews of Little Women:

  • “PLEASE NOTE THAT I DID NOT ORDER THIS ITEM” – SUE
  • “I would have given it five stars if the last few chapters hadn’t been some what disappointing. The majority of the book brought me immense pleasure and pain. Enjoy. It is worthwhile. Especially if you love Jesus.” – Blodwyn
  • “It was dumb. The women acted like 5 year olds more than half of the time and the mother who stressed the importance of resources, decided to give away food. Genius.” – Matthew
  • “If you are looking for a 400+ page children’s book narrated bu an unenthusiastic female robot… LOOK NO FURTHER… YOU HAVE FOUND IT!!!!” – Amazon Customer

Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

There’s nothing better than reading winners back-to-back! Last week, I fell in love with Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, and this week I had the pleasure of getting swept away by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I didn’t have high hopes: I mean, Russian literature is supposed to be super long and heavy and hard to read… plus, my copy was, well, a little worse for wear (another “pre-loved” edition lifted from my husband’s collection).

The introduction didn’t help matters, either. It was a little hard to follow, not having read Crime and Punishment (or, indeed, any of Dostoyevsky’s other works) before. Some parts were pretty salient, though:

“Few works of fiction have attracted so many widely diverging interpretations as Crime and Punishment. It has been seen as a detective novel, an attack on radical youth, a study in ‘alienation’ and criminal psychopathology, a work of prophecy (the attempt on the life of Tsar Alexander II by the nihilist student Dmitry Karakozov took place while the book was at the printer’s, and some even saw the Tsar’s murder in 1881 as a fulfilment of Dostoyevsky’s warning), an indictment of urban social conditions in nineteenth-century Russia, a religious epic and a proto-Nietzchean analysis of the ‘will to power’. It is, of course, all of these things – but it is more.”

Introduction (Crime And Punishment)

The fact is Crime and Punishment has been super-popular ever since the first installments were published in The Russian Messenger in 1866. No one seems to doubt its significance – but academics argue themselves hoarse about what Dostoyevsky was actually getting at. It’s a reasonable basis for my concerns, but I shouldn’t have been worried – I was hooked from the very first page. It just goes to show, not only should you not judge a book by its cover (especially when that cover is falling apart), but you also shouldn’t pay much mind to its reputation. The book you worry is going to be really dense and boring to read actually turns out to be… well, fan-fucking-tastic!

Let’s start with the premise, because it is wild: Crime and Punishment follows the story of ex-student Rodin Raskolnikov, living on a shoestring in St Petersburg. He formulates a plan to stop his sister marrying a rich man (whom she does not love) in order to support the family – he sees that as a kind of prostitution, so how to prevent such a crime? Well, kill a crotchety old pawn-broker and steal her cash, obviously!


Yes, it’s a super-flawed plan, and that makes for fantastic reading. Dostoyevsky employed a really revolutionary narrative technique (for the time), writing from a third-person perspective but focusing almost exclusively on the internal monologue of the protagonist. Raskolnikov is a bundle of nerves and anxiety, which makes him – and I know I shouldn’t say this, given that he is a literal axe murderer, but I don’t care – totally relatable! Crime and Punishment follows his moral dilemmas leading up to the murder(s), and his complete psychological denouement afterwards. It’s compelling stuff! Most of it is told through Raskolnikov talking to himself, but it still seems fast-paced and action-packed. That takes real talent, eh?

“Talking nonsense is the sole privilege mankind possesses over other organisms.”

p. 242

Apparently, Dostoyevsky wrote his original drafts with a focus on “the present question of drunkness… all its ramifications, especially the picture of a family and the bringing up of children in these circumstances”, and the original title was The Drunkards (well, he is Russian). But as he started to develop the character of Raskolnikov, and fleshed out the nature of his crime, the story took a turn. Dostoyevsky’s masterful narrative technique only emerged in the final draft, where he switched to third-person narration, and basically re-wrote the whole thing. I can only imagine what a slow and laborious process that must have been in the days before word processors… but all his hard work damn sure paid off.

Crime and Punishment is written in six parts, and it’s around Part Three that Dostoyevsky starts getting philosophical, sharing with us (through his characters) his thoughts on… well, crime and punishment, funnily enough. He picks apart all of the disastrous consequences of Raskolnikov’s “moral” murder. You could spend a lifetime analysing the philosophical questions raised by Crime and Punishment, but I think I’ll leave that up to the professors – KUWTP is hardly the place to dissect Dostoyevsky’s position on nihilism 😉


Even without the philosophical analysis, it’s impossible to write a simple plot summary that is both succinct and complete, because the novel is so deeply complex. But don’t let that fool you! That does not make it heavy, boring, or hard-to-follow (I’m now kicking myself for letting all those pre-conceived ideas put me off reading it for so long). The only valid forewarning I feel I need to give you is that this book is really 600 pages of “crime”, and only an epilogue or so of “punishment”. Whatever the title might have you believe, Dostoyevsky didn’t so much write about formal punishment of crime (in terms of the justice system and so forth), but rather the internal “punishment” stemming from Raskolnikov’s own conscience.

But enough heavy stuff! What I really want to impress upon you is how much fun this book is! It’s not at all what you’d expect.

“The companion who was the object of these reproaches was sitting on a chair and had the look of a man who badly wanted to sneeze, but could not for the life of him do so.”

p. 601

Crime and Punishment is officially a Recommended read here at Keeping Up With The Penguins. If you’re looking to delve deeper into Russian literature as some kind of project, you might want to start with Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat (as Dostoyevsky said himself, “We all came out from Gogol’s Overcoat”), but if you’re simply curious and not put off by its bad reputation, pick it up today! As beat-up as this copy looks, I strongly recommend trying to get your hands on this edition, the David McDuff translation published by Penguin Classics. There have been at least a dozen other translations but I can’t vouch for any of those, because the art of translation can make or break your enjoyment of a book. On top of that, the footnotes in this edition are great – helpful without going over the top. All in all, I’m so glad I bit the bullet and gave Crime and Punishment a go – and I’m sure you will be too!

My favourite Amazon reviews of Crime and Punishment:

  • “If this book doesn’t drive you to drink nothing will. I haven’t encountered this many melodramatic people in my entire life. Really, truly, one after another is dropping dead of guilt or shooting himself or going insane, or hating and loathing his friends and family and sweethearts, or,
    When all is copacetic, just drinking himself stupid. Let me do you a favour and save you a few hours: Man kills 2 women and then proceeds to feel guilty for 600 pages. If I could have killed him myself I would have!” – Geezer & Wife
  • “Can’t eat a classic” – Keith B Cruise
  • “This book was P to the double O P don’t waste your hard earned money on this piece of total and complete crap.” – Cecily
  • “This book manifest a many-eyed demon in your soul, who will proceed to tear the blindfold off your inner child’s face, exposing him to the blinding light of truth as he falls headlong into the abyss while madly clawing at the smoking pits that were one his pure, innocent eyes.” – Amazon Customer
  • I was determined to finish it because it is a classic. My question for the author would be “Were you determined to bore us to tears by constantly using 500 words when 100 would have sufficed?” Get thee to a gulag!” – Amazon Customer

The Golden Bowl – Henry James

Here it is, folks: the only time that I will review two books from The List by the same author, back-to-back. I had high hopes for The Golden Bowl, as it came very highly recommended by a friend. These hopes were tempered somewhat by The Turn of The Screw last week, but not completely lost. After all, Graham Greene once said that The Golden Bowl was one of James’s “three poetic masterpieces”, so it couldn’t be that bad, right? Well, I only found out later that my friend was a fan of Henry James in general but had never actually read The Golden Bowl in particular, and thus began my nightmare…

This edition of The Golden Bowl came with an author’s preface written by James himself. By the end of the first page, I could tell that James liked to use 20 words (and as many commas) to say something that could be said in five… turns out, it wasn’t just a quirk of his storytelling exclusive to The Turn of the Screw. Red flag number one! Reading the preface was such torture that I ended up skipping half of it altogether, and jumped straight into the story (which I never do!). I’d hoped the story would be an improvement but (spoiler alert) NOPE! I literally came to dread even picking up The Golden Bowl before I’d reached the end of the first chapter.

If I’m being honest, plot-wise, it wasn’t that bad. It kicks off with an impoverished Italian prince (Amerigo) all set to marry Maggie Verver (the daughter of a wealthy American). On the eve of the wedding, his former lover (Charlotte) shows up out of the blue. He never married Charlotte because they were both too poor, but she was in effect “the one who got away”. He goes ahead and marries Maggie, but Charlotte just kind of hangs around.


A couple years later, Maggie becomes increasingly worried about her lonely old dad. She convinces him to marry her friend Charlotte (of all people), figuring it would get them both out of her hair. Papa Verver and Charlotte sure enough it it off and get hitched, but he and Maggie remain very close – often leaving Charlotte and the Prince to their own devices…

… so no prizes for guessing what happens next 😉 While Maggie and Mr Verver are off having special father-daughter time, Charlotte and the Prince start getting it on. Apparently, James was a visionary who recognised the market for stepmother-in-law porn way back in 1904.

Relationships in The Golden Bowl - Henry James - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This is where the symbol/plot device of “the golden bowl” comes in. See, the Prince had gone shopping with Charlotte prior to his wedding, looking for a wedding gift for Maggie. They came up with bupkis, but while they were looking they shared A Moment over a golden bowl in a random shop in the city. Years later, Maggie enters that very same shop and buys that very same golden bowl (which doesn’t say much for their stock turnover). The shopkeeper follows her home, claiming that he “accidentally overcharged” her for it and wants to give her the change (this is laughably contrived, but it’s not even the most unbelievable part). While he’s in Maggie’s house, he spots a photo of Charlotte and the Prince. He miraculously remembers that he saw them together in his store years ago, and suggests to Maggie that they’re having an affair, before he disappears into the night. That’s how Maggie twigs what’s going on. Yeah, right!

Anyway, setting that stretch of logic aside, Maggie goes and confronts her husband (and he breaks down, confessing straight away, what a cuck!). She is mortified by the affair, and insists that no one should know that she knows. She deftly arranges a pretense under which her father and Charlotte are to return to America together, leaving Maggie and the Prince to salvage the smouldering remains of their dumpster-fire marriage. Sure enough, as soon as Charlotte is out of sight, the Prince goes back to whispering sweet nothings in Maggie’s ear, and promising her that he only has eyes for her. Pffft!

Just like in The Turn of the Screw (James found a formula that worked and stuck to it!), it seems like a simple enough plot. It’s certainly not as complex as some of the others I’ve encountered in Keeping Up With The Penguins. But, damn! It took me for-fucking-ever to read The Golden Bowl. James seems to be the master of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.


I ended up having to look up chapter summaries online, to recap what I had just read and make sure I was following what was happening. In fact, I had to use almost every trick in my how-to-finish-a-book-you-hate arsenal. Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand the allure of a unique and complex style, but James’s was literally an impediment to my reading. I didn’t think I could possibly find a book more difficult to read than Mrs Dalloway, but here we are.

To say that James’s writing is dense would be the understatement of the century. His supporters argue that the writing is “beautiful”, that James captures the stresses of modern marriage and the “circuitous methods” one employs to overcome them (fancy language for fucking around, it seems)… but it’s all a long-winded way of saying that James wrote a bloated thesis on how to stand by your man. I mean, I get that he was trying to pit the adulterers (the Prince and Charlotte) against the self-involved narcissists (Maggie and Mr Verver), but should it really be that hard to communicate the notion that it takes two to tango?

The Golden Bowl ended up on The List because it was ranked by The Guardian as one of the top 100 greatest books written in English. I say: boo to that! It bored and frustrated me in previously unimaginable ways. I think that James and I need to take some time apart… forever sounds good to me. I recommend reading The Golden Bowl if you’re participating in a competition to find the book with the most commas and/or run-on sentences. That’s about all it has to offer, as far as I can see.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Golden Bowl:

  • “The worst novel I’ve tried to read is Hideaway, by Dean Koontz. The Golden Bowl is the worst novel I ever finished. It seems to take place on another planet, one where there is nothing to do but think about who is doing what to whom. The writing is beyond bad. Spare yourself.” – Larry the Lawyer
  • “…. Henry James is not my cup of tea. Tea being an appropriate metaphor, as Mr James could no doubt write fifty pages about how a woman holds her cup of tea with her pinkie finger extended just so, therefore indicating to the rest of the group her inner turmoils, her family history, and what she fed the dog for dinner….” – Elmore Hammes
  • “The language in this “novel” is so pretentious and convoluted as to be largely unreadable by the average reader. It seems that James has never met a comma he didn’t like, and uses them to imbed all sorts of modifiers and asides. Although the graduate students may attach some deeper meaning to this, I suspect he really didn’t have a clear idea of anything he wanted to say so he simply rambled on. At least with Faulkner there is a payoff….” – Stan Eissinger
  • “I found the lives of people who had nothing better to do but visit each other and gossip, woefully uninteresting.” – Ms Katharine L. Kane

Learn from my mistake: book recommendations from friends aren’t always the gold you’d hope they’d be! Check out the five mistakes you probably make when you’re picking your next read here.

The Turn Of The Screw – Henry James

Henry James could never be accused of being concise. The Turn Of The Screw is what he called a “tale” – a fictional story with a single plot, too long to be a “short story” (today we call them novellas). In addition to these “tales”, he wrote plays, criticisms, autobiography, travel stories, and some twenty novels (including The Golden Bowl, also on The List). Wordy bastard.

James got ample validation in his time: magazine publishers went gaga for tales towards the end of the 19th century. They were the perfect length to publish in serialised form – not so long that readers would lose interest, but long enough that you could guarantee that sales of the magazine would peak for at least a few weeks (cha-ching!). The Turn Of The Screw was one such story; it appeared in Collier’s Weekly magazine between January and April 1898. It was later published as a stand-alone book, and then eventually revised for what is now called the New York edition (where James made substantial changes, including the ages of central characters). As much as James could really drone on, The Turn Of The Screw is (ironically) the shortest work on the list (the next shortest is Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) – it’s so short that it’s usually published now in combination with another of his works, The Aspen Papers (as is my edition).

James loved ghost stories – and he wrote quite a few – but he was bored by the tropes of the genre. He preferred stories that, as he put it, “embroidered the strange and sinister onto the very type of the normal and easy”. Or, to put it in words that an actual human would use, he liked it better when the “ghosts” could easily be tricks of the mind, or something equally normal in day-to-day life, but the reader is left wondering… what if?

He certainly stuck to that formula with The Turn Of The Screw. It’s kind of a story-within-a-story – an unnamed narrator listens to a friend read a manuscript, apparently written by some long-dead former governess. The governess was hired to look after two young orphans, their surviving uncle having no interest in raising them himself. The eldest, a boy, had been expelled from boarding school, and the governess is scared to ask why – so she sets about taking care of the children and educating them without seeking any additional information, while the uncle goes off cavorting and demands he be kept out of it.


The governess worries that she’s going crazy, because she starts seeing mysterious figures (a man and a woman) that no one else can see – never a good sign, eh? They come and go, in a way that seems – to the governess – very ghosty. She then learns that the previous governess and her secret lover are both dead, and deduces that they are now (obviously) haunting the children.

What is it about young children that makes any story instantly more creepy? The kids seem to know the ghosts, but they won’t give the governess a straight answer when she asks about them. The youngest (a girl) gets so upset by the governess’ incessant questioning that she demands to be taken away and never see the governess again. It seems like a bit of an overreaction to me, but kids aren’t known to be reasonable. Then, later that night, the governess discovers the reason for the young boy’s expulsion – he was “saying things” (old-timey schools were very harsh, it would seem). As they’re having a heart-to-heart about it, the male ghost appears, and the governess tries to shield the young boy… only to look down and find that the kid has died! When she looks up, the ghost has gone. WTAF?!


It’s a simple enough story (there’s no sub-plots, nothing else going on, it’s all very straight-forward), but James’s meandering prose makes it seem a lot more complicated. Even though it’s short, it’s a really dense read, and it took me forever to get through it. At first, I thought I was struggling because I’d picked it up in the midst of a really intense wine hangover, but the more I read the more confident I became that the fault lay with James and his inability to coherently articulate a thought.

“I could only get on at all… by treating my monstrous ordeal as a push in a direction usual, of course, and unpleasant, but demanding, after all, for a fair front, only another turn of the screw of ordinary human virtue.”

One of James’s more readable passages, from Chapter 22

As far as literary critique goes, the central question seems to be: are the ghosts real, or is the governess just bonkers? On the one hand, the story alludes to Jane Eyre and the governess can be likened to both the character of Jane and the character of Bertha (the mad wife that Rochester locked in the attic). This would seem to indicate that she is, in fact, nuts. On the other hand, nothing that James writes actually confirms this, and what fun is a ghost story if it was all a delusion in the end? In the end, all critics pretty much fall into one of three camps:

1) The governess was crazy;

2) The governess was not crazy, and ghosts are real; or

3) Trying to work it all out is stupid, it defeats the purpose and ignores the masterful way that James created ambiguity in his storytelling.

Which camp am I in? Well, to be honest, I’m not sure I really care enough to pitch a tent in any of them. Perhaps I lean towards the third camp, because I think that anyone who claims to have “the answer” is full of themselves, but I also think that the idea of a “crazy” governess makes for a much more interesting story. More than anything, I think that James would be grossly pleased with himself if he knew that we were all still arguing the point, well over a century after publication. The only way to really “figure it out” is to read it for yourself and decide on your own.

My tl;dr summary of The Turn Of The Screw would be this: a governess goes bonkers and starts seeing ghosts (that may or may not be real), kind of like an old-timey Sixth Sense, but told in the wordiest-possible way.

P.S. I figured, while I was at it, I’d go ahead and read The Golden Bowl next… and my review is up now!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Turn Of The Screw:

  • “This book was supposed to be a horror/mystery/thriller type story and I saw nothing scary about it. What I did see was two maids who couldn’t keep from gossiping and making up tales with absolutely nothing to give them credence.” – Paula
  • “There are no more commas left in the world for anyone else because Henry James USED THEM ALL.” – BarbMama
  • “It is SO boring. Takes pages and pages to get to the point which is about some woman with an overactive imagination. Had to stop reading it (very rare for me).” – Meandering
  • “…. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who liked WUTHERING HEIGHTS, which belongs in the same genre and in the same rubbish bin….” – Richard Niichel

Emma – Jane Austen

Chris Kyle filled up my tolerance bucket to overflowing. By the time I was done with American Sniper, I was desperate to get back to literature that didn’t offend every moral fiber of my being. In my hour of need, I turned to one of the most recognisable female writers of the English language. My sum total experience of Austen beforehand was six aborted attempts to read Pride and Prejudice, and falling asleep during the Keira Knightley film adaptation. I know I’ll have to get around to reading that particular masterpiece eventually (it’s also on The List), but baby steps are the name of the game. So, I decided to start with Emma.

Emma was the last of Austen’s six novels to be completed, after the publication of Pride and Prejudice. A London publisher offered her £450 for the manuscript, and asked for the copyright for Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility thrown into the bargain. She told him to get stuffed, and in 1815 published two thousand copies at her own expense. She retained all of the copyright, and (more importantly) all of the bragging rights. Slay, Austen, slay!

Before she began writing Emma, Austen wrote to a friend: “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”. From what I can tell, later critics didn’t dislike Emma as much as they simply acknowledged that she was a flawed character (the horror!). The book isn’t even really about her, per se; Emma is actually a satirical novel about manners, hubris, and the perils of misconstrued romance, exploring the lives of genteel women in the early 19th century and issues of marriage, gender, age, and social status. But all I knew about it before I started reading was that it was the basis of the movie Clueless.

Clueless - You're a virgin who can't drive - Emma - Jane Austen - Keeping Up With The Penguins

So, the central character, Emma Woodhouse (“handsome, clever, and rich”), fancies herself to be quite the matchmaker in her small English village. She’s wealthy enough to get by without a husband of her own, but she takes great pleasure in meddling with other people’s love lives. What else was a girl to do before Tinder? Her pet project is Harriet Smith, an unsophisticated, illegitimate seventeen-year-old girl whose only prospect for social advancement is a good matrimonial match. Now, you can look past this pretty weak and flimsy plot to read Emma as a searing class commentary on the right of the elite to dominate society… but, if that’s not your thing, you should know right now: Emma is basically The Book Where Nothing Happens.

I mean it: nothing really happens. Every scene is a visit or a party where bored rich men and women gossip about who will marry whom. Emma tries to set Harriet up with everyone, but they all fall in love with Emma (or her dowry) instead – boohoo. There’s a lot of whining about rich white-girl problems. Now and then, there’s a dramatic declaration of love or a rejected proposal to keep the wheel turning, but otherwise it’s all pretty bland. Most of the story is told through the gossip of the town of Highbury, kind of like the original Gossip Girl.




 

The most interesting and likeable character in Emma was the uncouth Mrs Elton. Mrs Elton has fat stacks of cash, but lacks the manners and social graces that are expected of her in “polite society”. She commits social suicide almost immediately, calling people by their first names (gasp!) and boasting about her family’s wealth (can you imagine?). Emma describes her as “self-important, presuming, familiar, ignorant, and ill-bred”, but I liked her. She was a whole lot more fun than the rest of them put together. Picture an old-timey Kath & Kim character mixing with the upper crust: hilarious! It is Mrs Elton’s lack of social grace that reveals the hypocrisy and the ridiculousness of the gentility. Good on her, I say!

Things start to heat up a bit plot-wise towards the end (in relative terms, anyway): people get sick, peripheral characters die, there’s arguments between friends, and the very-predictable love triangle comes to a head. There’s a happy ending (i.e., everyone gets married), which pretty much makes it a 19th century beach read.


Emma isn’t a horrible book, and I didn’t hate it. Indeed, it’s quite clever and charming, in its own way. There’s some really funny bits, there’s some interesting class and gender commentary… but the pacing is positively glacial, and (as I said before) nothing happens. In terms of this particular edition, the introduction was fine, but the footnotes were absolutely taking the piss. No kidding, there is a footnote providing the definition of “carriage”, but nothing for the word “valetudinarian” (I had to Google it, it means “a person who is unduly anxious about their health”, just so you know). I gave up on the notes a few chapters in, they just weren’t adding much to my reading experience.

My tl;dr summary of Emma would be this: if you get your jollies dissecting the idiosyncrasies of high society in early 19th century England, and don’t mind falling asleep now and then while you’re reading, Emma will make your day. If you’re chasing action and intrigue and shock-twist endings, you might want to give this one a miss. Fingers crossed Pride and Prejudice will give me a bit more to chew on…

My favourite Amazon reviews of Emma:

  • “Boring, BORING, B O R I N G!” – Cliffgypsy
  • “too many similarities between this book and the much better Alicia Silverstone movie Clueless for me to recommend it to everyone but all in all if you like your teen comedies set in Victorian england and not LA, go for it. Grab it before Hollywood discovers the similarities and gets it yanked off the shelf with a court order. Maybe Austen can write her next one based on the plot of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Set it in South Africa during the Boar war or something” – Walter Rice
  • “Tedious and slow. Too much angst and upstanding-ness.” – Iaswa
  • “Normally, “women’s fiction,” focusing on relationships and family, doesn’t interest me much, but Austen writes so well I was able to read all the way through. That emma, what an interfering know-it-all, but the harm is not irreparable.” – Marie Brack

 

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë

There was no possibility of picking up another treatise on how tough it is to be a white man that day… (without driving myself completely bonkers). That’s how I came to read Jane Eyre.

Charlotte Brontë’s masterpiece was originally published in 1847 under the title Jane Eyre: An Autobiography and “edited” under the pen name Currer Bell. All of the Brontë sisters took on gender-ambiguous nom de plumes, assuming (quite rightly, it turned out) that literature written by women wouldn’t get a fair shake. Charlotte was once told by Robert Southey that “literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life: and it ought not to be”. Firstly, fuck that guy. Secondly, I’m glad Charlotte didn’t listen to him, because her shit is brilliant.

Charlotte was, as you’ve probably guessed, the older sister to Emily Brontë (I reviewed Wuthering Heights a little while back). Emily gets all of the love and accolades, but it was Charlotte that truly revolutionised the art of first-person fiction (i.e., she was the first to really write about what was going on in people’s heads). She has been called “the first historian of private consciousness”, and her influence can be seen in the work of dudes like Proust and Joyce. She internalised the action the way that no one before her could, and was one of the first to explore classism, sexuality, religion, and feminism in the way we do today. So, when it comes to the Brontë sibling rivalry, I’m going in to bat for Charlotte.

By the way, if I sound at all like I know what I’m talking about, it’s because the introduction to this edition is off the chain. It’s insightful, helpful, and intelligent – without going over your head. Plus, I just fucking loved Jane Eyre. I absorbed the book like a brand-new sponge baptised in bathwater.




Right from the outset, Jane Eyre is pretty gripping. Jane – the main character, duh – is ten years old, her parents are dead, and she has been sent to live with her nice, rich uncle… but he dies too, so she’s raised by her evil stepmother, alongside her three bratty cousins. Life’s pretty terrible for Jane, but it is beautifully written. I tend to feel pretty disconnected from literature of this period (as most would-be bookworms do); I don’t understand the language, the imagery, the style, and the metaphor. All of it seems anchored in a context that I don’t know enough about to fully comprehend… but not so with Jane! I was immediately immersed in her world. She feels everything so keenly, and passion drips from every word – I mean, she’s a very intense girl, but Charlotte Brontë is artful enough to keep it from sliding into melodramatics. It’s everything that My Brilliant Career should have been.

Jane winds up in a boarding school, and the drama doesn’t stop: she’s pretty mercilessly bullied for a while, the girls are all kinds of weird, and her first best friend Helen Burns dies of tuberculosis. This is where we first see Brontë really draw from her own life (I should do a shot every time an author in this project “writes what they know”). Helen’s death eerily mirrors the deaths of Brontë’s own younger sisters: Elizabeth and Maria Brontë both died of tuberculosis in childhood, as a result of the conditions at their school. So this whole section of the plot is basically Charlotte saying a big ol’ “fuck you” to so-called charitable institutions.

When Jane is done with school, she is transferred to the Thornfield mansion, and introduced to her new master Mr Rochester. Now, here’s what you’ve got to understand: I didn’t really like Rochester much, mostly because he constantly talks over and down to Jane, and he’s basically just a pompous, self-absorbed fuckboy of the highest order… but I found the initial flirtations between he and Jane very romantic. I really wanted to be a keener, more critical feminist, but this shit had me all aflutter. I’m pretty confident that every strong, independent woman who has had the misfortune of falling in love with a man can relate.


The saving grace is that Jane Eyre is a blatant proto-feminist call to arms. Brontë doesn’t even try to hide it in layers of metaphor, like so many other writers of the time. She literally tells us, through Jane, that she thinks women are equal to men and it is absolute bullshit that they aren’t treated as such. She was so woke for her time that it confused the hell out of critics. One Ms Elizabeth Rigby wrote, in her “scathing” review, that “no woman trusses game and garnishes dessert dishes with the same hands, or talks of doing so in the same breath” and as such Jane Eyre must have been written by a man… or, at least, by a woman “so depraved as to have long forfeited the society of her own sex”. Fuck yes, Charlotte Brontë, fuck yes! Troll reviews like that are how you know you’re on the right track.

It’s true that – panty-dropping for Rochester aside – Jane is a bad bitch. She fawns over him privately, sure, but in his company she makes every show of having no time for his bullshit. On the eve of their engagement, she says:

“Here I heard myself apostrophized as a ‘hard little thing’; and it was added ‘any other woman would have been melted to marrow hearing such stanzas crooned in her praise.’

I assured him that I was naturally hard – very flinty, and that he would often find me so; and that, moreover, I was determined to show him divers[e] rugged points in my character before the ensuing four weeks [engagement] elapsed: he should know fully what sort of bargain he had made, while there was yet time to rescind it.”

… and she proceeds to torture him mercilessly every damn day. Jane Eyre was the Beyonce’s Lemonade of its time.

If you’re tempted to roll your eyes right now, stop and think about it: this was a really scathing commentary on class and gender roles back in the day. Of course it wasn’t perfect – Jane doesn’t exactly call Rochester out on his treatment of his “savage Creole” wife that he hid in the attic, and there’s a few moments of superiority and white-saviourism – but it’s hardly fair to put a 21st century head on Charlotte Brontë’s shoulders. As it stands, in her own context, she was a true radical.

And lest this talk of radical feminism scare you off, you should know that Jane Eyre is still fucking hilarious. You wouldn’t call it a “comedy” per se, but I literally laughed out loud countless times. Jane is so witty and dry and clever – maybe a touch too earnest and self-deprecating at times, but it’s endearing. Shit like this had me in hysterics:

“‘No sight so sad as that of a naughty child,’ he began, ‘especially a naughty little girl. Do you know where the wicked go after death?’

‘They go to hell,’ was my ready and orthodox answer.

‘And what is hell? Can you tell me that?’

‘A pit full of fire.’

‘And should you like to fall into that pit, and to be burning there for ever?’

‘No, sir.’

‘What must you do to avoid it?’

I deliberated a moment: my answer, when it did come, was objectionable: ‘I must keep in good health, and not die.'”

Jane Eyre is an amazing exposition of the patriarchal and class constraints experienced by a clever, funny woman over the course of a decade in the 19th century. The hot romance will make you feel like a bad feminist, but just go with it. Jane Eyre is absolutely teeming with redeeming qualities, and highly recommended by Keeping Up With The Penguins (and, as we all know, there is no higher praise than that!).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Jane Eyre:

  • “This version is “illustrated” with reproductions of paintings that have nothing whatsoever to do with the text. For example, in the middle of a description of Sundays at the Lowood school, when the girls had to walk two miles to church services in the snow, there is a picture of a Native American spearing a buffalo.” – J. W. Shields
  • “I could have read Dostoyevsky, Proust, Tolstoy, or O’Connor. I could have read Don Quixote a second time or sailed again with Captain Ahab on his philosophical quest. Instead, I wasted a few weeks reading this glorified soap opera with what is perhaps one of the most unintentional comic endings in all of literature. Onward, Sancho, onward!” – Nemo
  • “Gee, this is a classic. But I was shocked by the unremitting sadism in it and soon stopped reading it.” – U. S. ‘nAye
  • “The floral print came off and not noticing this, it transferred to my leg while wearing shorts. Other than that the book is great…” – Nancy Host
  • “I read this against my will.” – Erik

 

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Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson

I’m on a bit of a roll now, with books that have been turned into films, and – as it turns out – novellas written by dead white guys. This week, it’s Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was published in 1886 (and, yes, the original publication intentionally and infuriatingly left out the definite article that would have made the title grammatically correct, ugh). Stevenson wrote the first draft in under three days, but then – the story goes – his wife told him it was shit, so he burned it and started again. He was (allegedly) coked up during the re-write, which probably wasn’t such a wise idea for a guy with a history of hemorrhages. In sum, Stevenson conceptualised and completed the work in less than ten weeks; it sold 250k copies in the U.S. by 1901, and achieved far greater commercial and critical success than the novel he spent five years perfecting, which just goes to show. Stevenson’s popularity declined hard after his death – his wife and son apparently went around publishing every half-finished scrap of work that they could find to keep the money coming in, which put a bit of a dent in his literary reputation – but that doesn’t seem to have deterred today’s fanboys and fangirls at all.

The fact that he pumped it out so quickly is not quite as impressive once you figure out that it’s only 66 pages long – closer to a short story than a novella. It’s the shortest undertaking on Keeping Up With The Penguins so far, and I’m pretty sure it’s the shortest book on The List. I’m clearly a bit thick, because – even knowing how short it was – I was surprised that it was over so quickly!

That said, Stevenson managed to cram a lot into those 66 pages, and literary types continue to analyse Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to death. The introduction to this edition (which is almost longer than the book itself) goes deep into a critical analysis. Apparently, a psychoanalytic reading of the text reveals that Stevenson had Daddy Issues. My eyes kind of glazed over once it started talking about his handling of metaphysical confusion… but then it turned to queer theory and the reading of Jekyll as a closet homosexual, and I was back on board! (Incidentally, I also learned that Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is the prototype of a sub-genre called “doppelgänger lit”, which is just so niche, I laugh every time I think of it).

So, the story: London lawyer Gabriel John Utterson hears a story about a creep named Hyde, who beat up a kid and paid the family off with a cheque drawn in the name of his mate Dr Jekyll. Utterson is a bit freaked out by that, because he knows that Jekyll recently rewrote his will to name Hyde the sole beneficiary. He figures Hyde is blackmailing Jekyll for reasons unknown; he asks a few nosy questions around town, but he doesn’t actually do all that much about it.

“‘If he be Mr Hyde,’ he had thought, ‘I shall be Mr Seek.'”

Hyde continues to stomp around London having a grand old time doing awful things, until he takes it too far and murders an actual member of parliament. Everyone is understandably upset. Utterson tries to get Jekyll to snitch on Hyde, but Jekyll tells him to fuck off. One of Jekyll’s doctor mates tells Utterson that he knows what Jekyll’s been up to, but it’s so bad that the poor prick literally dies of shock before he can spill the beans.

Jekyll starts acting really weird, and his servants freak out when they don’t see him for a few days; he’s apparently holed up in his mysterious laboratory, but they get it into their heads that Jekyll’s actually been murdered and an imposter is living there in his place. Utterson breaks in to Jekyll’s secret room… only to find Hyde dead on the floor, wearing Jekyll’s clothes. This seems strange, so Utterson finally gets around to reading the letter left behind by their dead doctor friend, and a letter-slash-suicide-note from Jekyll himself. Turns out, Jekyll had gone full mad scientist and found a way to temporarily transform himself into a degenerate alter ego so that he could indulge all of his sicko fantasies without besmirching his own good name… only he lost control, and couldn’t stop the transformations happening, so he offs himself in order to kill the monster. The End.


Unless you spent the 20th century (and then some) living under a rock, that “twist” ending won’t come as a shock to you. Still, I’d imagine at the time of publication it caused quite a stir. The biggest problem with a contemporary reading is that it’s really hard to enjoy organically when the “twist” has been part of the cultural zeitgeist for over a century. There have been at least 120 film and stage adaptations – I have seen exactly none of them, and yet I’ve still used “Jekyll and Hyde” as shorthand in conversation. Like Vader being Luke’s father, or Bruce Willis being a ghost, you end up reading this one as an academic exercise, picking apart the layers and metaphor rather than letting yourself get lost in the story.

That doesn’t mean there’s no fun to be had! I quite the queer reading of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – there’s lots of fodder in the imagery of Hyde standing over Jekyll’s bed, Jekyll having to atone for unspeakable sin, etc. When you look at it that way, you can see Hyde as a vehicle for the closet-homo Jekyll to indulge his vices without getting busted. (This was the end of the repressed Victorian era, after all.) Eventually, of course, Jekyll loses all control and his gay sex urge runs rampant – I love it!

Much like Wuthering Heights, there are so many layers to this story that the debate about Stevenson’s “true” meaning will probably rage on for another century yet. As I said, my preference is the queer reading, but I certainly wouldn’t begrudge anyone their own interpretation – there’s plenty to go around! I hear some folks read it as a commentary on Scottish nationalism versus union with Britain…

What I would say is this: if you assume you’re familiar with the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and you don’t need to read the original, you’re really missing out. I’ll definitely read it again; I’m not sure it rises to the ranks of “recommended” here at Keeping Up With The Penguins, but it’s short and accessible and familiar enough to be enjoyed by almost anyone.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde:

  • “Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. This is the best place” – mary gagliardo
  • “Not what I was hoping for. I was expecting less ‘Old English’ and more human struggle. Dr. Jekyll is trying to achieve something, but there’s no description of why. Mr Hyde was described as complete evil. Other than bumping into a kid and killing a man, what else has he done? I’m disappointed.” – Kevin Palmer
  • “Ending was abrupt, liked the musical more. Wish there was more detail in the murders and perhaps a love interest….” – Chanebradshaw
  • “Although it is fantasy, I couldn’t accept the physical change in size between Jekyll and Hyde, regardless of the symbolic intent.” – R. L. Riemer

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