Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Classic

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

 

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, drawn 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 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… stay tuned for the review next week!


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 ÂŁ450 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 BrontĂ«

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 BrontĂ«’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 BrontĂ« 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 BrontĂ« (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 BrontĂ« 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 BrontĂ« 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 BrontĂ« 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 BrontĂ«’s own younger sisters: Elizabeth and Maria BrontĂ« 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. BrontĂ« 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 BrontĂ«, 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 BrontĂ«’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 preposition 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 “doppelgĂ€nger 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 cocks up 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 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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Moby Dick – Herman Melville

I’ve ended up on a bit of an American classics kick. My next selection from The List came in the form of an excessively dog-eared Penguin Classic edition of Moby Dick, once belonging to my husband. (I can’t believe I married a heathen that defaces books in such a manner, forgive me.)

Moby Dick was published in 1851 and – like all of our favourite classics – it was a complete commercial failure, out of print by the time Melville died 40 years later. It wasn’t until the 20th century that it gained a reputation as The Greatest American Novel Of All Time. The story is based on Melville’s experience as a whaler in the 1840s, and appears to draw from the story of an actual boat that tragically sank (the Essex, in 1820), and an unrelated albino whale called Mocha Dick (which was killed in the late 1830s). So, the story practically wrote itself, by the sounds…

It kicks off with the narrator, Ishmael, meeting his exotic lover friend Queequeg in Nantucket, and they seek to go a-whaling together. (There’s a lot of veiled homoeroticism, but I think you’re supposed to ignore that.) They end up aboard the Pequod, with a mysterious one-legged Captain Ahab that you don’t see much for the first couple hundred pages. Once he appears, however, he has them all just sail around the world, bumping into other ships and asking them if they’ve seen Moby Dick, the infamous white whale that bit off his leg.

The book is over 600 pages long, and 235 pages go by before anyone actually sees a whale. So how does he fill in the time? Well, Melville takes it upon himself to teach us all about whales. The etymology of the word “whale”. The history of whales (starting with Genesis). An amateur taxonomy of whales (unfortunately for Melville, it doesn’t really hold up with the hundred and fifty years of scientific findings that followed). See, being that it was published in the middle of the 19th century, a reader couldn’t simply Google the terms with which they weren’t familiar, so Melville took it upon himself to write entire Wikipedia entries into the book itself.

He maybe takes it a bridge too far at times. I mean, he does a whole chapter on Things That Are Both Big and White. It doesn’t move the story along at all, it’s like he’s just sharing some fun facts.


When we get around to some actual narrative, Captain Ahab goes more and more nuts, pistol-whipping his employees and insisting that he can kill the unkillable white whale with a glorified sharp stick fashioned for him by a carpenter on board. To be honest, I almost preferred Melville’s tangential rambling chapters on whales to the actual narration of the story; action scenes bore me in movies, they do even less for me written down, and Melville writes so beautifully (when he feels like it) that I quite enjoyed his seemingly endless descriptions of all things big, white and whale-like.

Still, as Captain Ahab got increasingly pissed off, so did I. I got to the point where I had a couple hundred pages to go, and I started to wonder how much more there really was to say about whales. We’d already covered their shape, their skin, their spout, whether or not they can smell. We’d discussed whales in history, whales in religion, whales in art, whales in folklore. At that point, what stone possibly remains un-turned? What’s more (less than a hundred pages to go now), are they ever going to find this fucking Moby Dick creature? Maybe Melville was being super-meta, and his reader’s terminal wait for a resolution was meant to echo the experience of the whalers on board the Pequod waiting for Moby Dick to emerge. That’s clever, and all, but come onnnnnnnn.

Just as I decide I’m ready to throw the book across the room, there’s an absolute ripper of a storm, and the crew is ready to mutiny but Ahab gives them the old what-for and insists they press on (the guy is a study in the sunk-loss fallacy). Finally, finally, on page five hundred and ninety-fucking-five (only a couple dozen pages from the end), we actually lay eyes on Moby Dick!




 

Hold the champagne, though, because the boat promptly sinks and everyone dies. WTF, Melville?!

The book was originally published without an epilogue, which completely changes the story. The epilogue, as it stands in all editions today, reveals that not quite everybody dies; Ishmael floated away on a coffin-turned-life-raft and got picked up by another ship. So, without that bit, the whole thing seems to have been narrated by a perished sailor. The readers back in the day got all mad at Melville for “breaking” the rules of fiction and narration. Wouldn’t they all absolutely shit if they could see the mess we’ve made of it all today?

Initially, I really liked Melville’s style of writing, his rhythm, but I quickly learned that you can’t get too comfortable. He experimented with style throughout, sometimes sounding like Shakespeare, sometimes sounding like a biology textbook, sometimes just making shit up on the fly. He did a lot of whacky things with narration and perspective. He writes for pages about an oil painting. He uses words like “abstreperously”. He shares some amazing pearls of wisdom, like “ignorance is the parent of fear”, and “better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunk Christian”. But the best moment, no question, was his actual unironic use of the world “whelmed”, which excited me (a dyed-in-the-wool child of the ’90s) no end.

Can You Ever Just Be Whelmed? 10 Things I Hate About You - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I liked that there was no one over-arching ThemeTM constantly smacking you over head (a la The Scarlet Letter – Melville was miles ahead of his buddy Nathaniel Hawthorne, in my opinion). Reading Moby Dick is more like panning for gold, sifting out slivers of wisdom and brilliance and insight. There are some chunks of “search for truth”, and “perception is deception”, but on the whole there’s a lot going on and you can take from it what you will.

One minor 21st century critique (I can’t help myself, I’m sorry): there were precisely two female characters. Both of them appeared in the first 120 pages, and after that, nada. Only one of them had any actual dialogue. Once the ship sailed, it sailed on any hope of gender balance. I had unconsciously half-expected the white whale itself to be female (thinking that’d be a nice little piece of gender commentary maybe, a ship full of men chasing after a mythical female beast), but we were denied that also. So, don’t bother with Moby Dick if that bothers you.

Sexist narratives and tangential writing aside, I was very pleasantly surprised. I’d expected Moby Dick to be heavy and impenetrable and sure, it’s wordy, but it’s engaging and funny and brilliant. I enjoyed it. I can’t put my finger on exactly why I enjoyed it, other than it was just fun. I stop short of putting Moby Dick on our Recommended list, because I’m not sure you can enjoy it without patience and a sense of humour. If you’ve got those, and you want to learn a fucktonne about whales, dive on in because Moby Dick is perfect for you.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Moby Dick:

  • “I enjoyed it, but it has hundreds of pages describing the whaling experience.” – John McDaniel
  • “It may be a classic, but it’s a boring classic.” – Cindy M. Downs
  • “The book is fantastic, but the page numbering is not correct.” – Brodi
  • “I was told this was about fishing. It’s not. Because a whale is a mammal.” – Joe Octane
  • “I SURE HOPE YOU ENJOY LEARNING ABOUT WHALES!!!! Listen I read this book hoping to get a pretty good story hoping to see some of the solidarity in man by reading about his voyages in water hoping to relate to some of the struggles from being solely focused on obtaining a certain goal etc. But honestly good Lord! I swear 85% of this book is various lessons on whaling the origin of whales, whale distinction, whale body parts, whale sperm, different color whales. Oh my goodness the book starts off quick with the appearance of Queepeg you think ok we might have something here but NO! this book drags on and on and on. Gets off topic ALL of the time. The majority of this book is about how Ismael feels and about whale parts. And when Moby Dick does show up AT THE END OF THE BOOK Captain Ahab vs Moby Dick was as big a mis-match since the Super Bowl between Denver and Seattle. IT was anticlimactic some people might get this book but please don’t put me down as one. SAVE YOURSELF THE TIME AND ENERGY READ THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA A MUCH BETTER BOOK” – Pen Name

 

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Wuthering Heights – Emily BrontĂ«

OK folks, let’s be real here: before you read this review, you should know that I’m not going to shake the Earth with it. It turns out, Wuthering Heights has been reviewed and critiqued approximately eighty billion times already. My copy (purchased for $10, once owned by but never borrowed from the library of Riverside Girls’ High, according to the stamp in the front) has a Preface, Chronology, Introduction, Further Reading List (pages!), a Note on the Text, a Genealogical Table, a Bibliographical Notice for the author, and an Editors Preface to the New [1850] Edition… not to mention that the text itself is followed by 13 pages of notes. How can I possibly add to an analysis that’s already longer than the book? I’ll give it a shot, but I’m not optimistic… 😉

(A hot tip for those of you yet to read Wuthering Heights: given how many characters Emily Brontë names for their parents, and how many of them marry their cousins, an edition with the aforementioned Genealogical Table in the front is really handy!)

So, it’s 1801, right. This moody guy, Heathcliff, lives with his daughter-in-law and her new husband (his own son having perished, at some point). The DIL is hot, but they’re all kind of rude and weird. Their kindly neighbour – who’s trying to narrate this mess – comes to have a sleepover, but they stick him in a really strange room and he has nutty dreams and sees a ghost. He bails quick smart. Then, presto, we kind of switch narrators, because that kindly neighbour – safe, back at his place – gets bored at dinner and makes his housemaid give him all the dirt on those whack-jobs up the road. So, it’s the narrator narrating the narration of his housemaid. Got it?

It turns out: that Heathcliff guy was once a ruffian street-kid, with a Cinderella-esque upbringing (once the dude who took him in died, the rest of the family started being really mean). Catherine (we’ll call her Cathy Senior for clarity – you’ll see why in a minute) was a saucy little minx, who flirtatiously tortured Heathcliff for years, but she ultimately decided to marry the snooty guy next door instead. It was a hella dramatic household – years of drunken rages and fights and marriage proposals and death. It’s great tea, but damn, I wanted to tell them all to just calm down for a minute.

Heathcliff went on a sulky walkabout after his true-love-slash-adopted-sister married the snooty guy. Cathy Senior is overjoyed when he eventually returns, which makes Mr Snooty super jealous. Then, Mr Snooty’s sister takes a fancy to Heathcliff, and Cathy Senior is so not jealous of them that she goes proper bonkers and locks herself in her room.

Heathcliff does actually take Mr Snooty’s sister for a wife (seemingly because they both just fancied a shag and this was the only way to get one back then), but being back living with the adopted family that hates him isn’t great for his mental health. Guys, this is just Volume I. Strap in!




I can see why Wuthering Heights has been picked apart so many times – there’s clearly layers of metaphor and hidden meaning, but (unlike Mrs Dalloway) that doesn’t mean that a surface reading isn’t perfectly enjoyable. Of course, you’ve got to keep track of all the love triangles dodecahedrons and set aside any qualms you have about incest…

In Volume II, Heathcliff decides he doesn’t give a damn who’s married whom, and sneaks in to see Cathy Senior while Mr Snooty is at church. They pash for a bit, but she’s still bonkers, and Mr Snooty ends up catching them at it. It turns out Cathy Senior was knocked up (though none of them have mentioned it up until now) – the shock of the whole situation sends her into pre-term labour, and she dies not long after the shorty drops.

This, in turn, makes Heathcliff even more mental (losing his true-love-slash-adopted-sister and all), so Mr Snooty’s sister leaves him… but it turns out she was knocked up as well (gasp!). She runs away to the country to have the kid and eat a lot of peaches… then the story jumps ahead 13 years, and she dies too. I’m serious! I’m not making this up, I swear.

Cathy Junior (yes, BrontĂ« named both characters Cathy, it’s crazy) is a mad little scamp; she thinks her cousins are living far, far away… but it turns out they’re living up the road with Heathcliff, and when she finds out she gets proper pissed off. She becomes secret pen pals with Heathcliff’s son and they trade notes via the milkman for a few days, until they decide they’ve fallen in love. (It kind of seems like deciding you want to marry the guy you’ve been messaging on Tinder for a few days… only that guy is your cousin and living with your mother’s ex-lover and it’s all really fucked up!)

He's Your Cousin - Mean Girls - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Heathcliff isn’t at all bothered by the incest, and approves of the match. He’s so determined that Cathy Junior should marry his son that he takes her hostage, knocks her around a bit, and tells her that he won’t release her to see her dying dad until she’s got a ring on it. The whole thing is a study in Stockholm syndrome and domestic violence, and by all rights I should have been shocked and confronted… but I was so confused and bored by their dramatics that it passed by me with barely an eyebrow raised.

To skip ahead to the end (which I’m sure we’re all eager to do by this point): Heathcliff dies and the implication seems to be that he and Cathy Senior go on to have a rollicking good time in the afterlife, haunting the moors and so forth. Cathy Junior outlives her cousin-husband, and eventually falls in love with her other cousin (even though he’s really stupid). They… live happily ever after? I guess?


The thing is, while I was reading Wuthering Heights, I was having a pretty tough time personally – putting on pants in the morning was about all I could manage, let alone immersing myself in BrontĂ«’s madness. I’ll definitely read this book again, not because the first time was so good, but because I could not possibly have got everything out of Wuthering Heights that it has to offer, when so much of my brain space was occupied with other things. Ergo, at this point, I can really only recommend it to someone who’s got the emotional and mental stability to enjoy it properly.

Tl;dr? Wuthering Heights is a bad boy’s decade-long butthurt over getting friendzoned. If that appeals to you, and you don’t have any emotional turmoil of your own going on, go for it.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Wuthering Heights:

  • “This book wasn’t particularly good and it wasn’t particularly bad. I don’t really like this style but I’m reading the classics so that I can say that I did.” – the1cuttiepoo
  • “Classic Victorian plot of everyone being too proud to be happy.” – Jamie K Devine
  • “A serious and depressing masterpiece where Heathcliff is an evil jerk and everyone dies….” – David Allen Patterson

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David Copperfield – Charles Dickens

Who would have thought this day would come so soon? Here it is, folks: my first wholehearted unreservedly Recommended read on Keeping Up With The Penguins. It’s David Copperfield, from the master himself Charles Dickens.

Honestly, though, it was kind of a stacked deck: not just because Dickens is the Grand Poobah of English literature, but also because – for me – he’s inextricably linked to the memory of my late grandfather, who idolised Dickens and practically memorised every word he wrote. Clearly, I was genetically predisposed to enjoy his work. This gorgeous two-volume set was plucked from my grandparents’ collection, and I’m sure Granddad would have been damn proud that I finally got around to reading it.

David Copperfield appeared first in a twenty-month serial from 1849 to 1850, before being published as a novel (and, after the mess that was Vanity Fair, that was almost enough to put me off!). The Introduction didn’t inspire much optimism, either: it was written by J.B. Priestly who didn’t seem to be all that big a fan, to be honest. And he kindly pointed out that Dickens employed severe Victorian censorship on all sexual matters (booo!).

Priestly can suck it, though, because Dickens is a fucking God. I get it now. David Copperfield is a long book, don’t get me wrong, but I fucking devoured the thing like a drunk woman eating a kebab. Every word is purposeful, every character is a delectable caricature, every element of the story is consistent and compelling, and every emotion beautifully captured and rendered. Priestly hung a lot of shit on Dickens for what he called “supermarket” writing: novels were the primary source of family entertainment at the time (the Netflix of Victorian England, really), so Dickens had to write about politics for the fathers and adventures for the sons and romance for the mothers and daughters. Priestly didn’t like that, but I thought it’s precisely this”chuck-in-a-bit-of-everything” style that makes David Copperfield such an incredible book.




The story of David Copperfield begins with his birth to a rather mopey young widow, and his early years being raised by her and her housekeeper. His mother remarries early on, but his New Daddy is an abusive son of a bitch and Dave is promptly sent off to a prison disguised as a boarding school. The kid meets some good chaps there, but it all-around sucks, and even his exodus is a bit of a bummer as it comes on account of his mother’s untimely stress-related death. New Daddy fires the nice housekeeper and sends Dave off to work in a wine factory (I didn’t think that bit sounded so bad, but the kid really hated it). Things get increasingly shit for young Dave, with starvation and his landlord going to prison and everything, so he takes it into his head to run away and find his rich old aunt.

Then things start looking up: he finds Aunt Betsey, she takes him in and sets him up for life. She is undoubtedly the baddest bitch in this story, and I adored her. She has no hesitation in telling people to fuck right off when they stick their noses in, and she protects and cherishes this charming old guy Mr Dick (the bloke’s a few sandwiches short of a picnic, but Betsey makes damn sure no one is shipping him off to a home). Betsey sets Dave up in a school without daily beating or torture (fancy!), and sponsors his gap-year to travel and “find himself”.

Dave finally settles down into a respectable profession, and promptly falls in love with his boss’ daughter. She’s extremely basic, but Dave doesn’t seem to notice, and he finally gets to marry her after her father croaks – only, she’s not that great at wifeing, and she dies pretty soon after, too. Dave’s mates get into all sorts of trouble with money and politics and love, and there’s some unpleasant business with women falling from grace and turning to lives of prostitution and such – all of the characters weave in and out of Dave’s life, and yet are described so richly and have such entertaining development that you never once lose track of who they are or what they’re about.


In the end, a bunch of his mates ship off to Australia to start over, another bunch of them die (that’s how you can tell the story’s wrapping up – a device I’m noticing is rather common in 19th century literature), and Dave marries the girl who’s secretly pined after him all his life. He becomes a successful writer and spawns a bunch of kids, the good guys live happily ever after, and the bad guys go to prison. Isn’t that fucking great?!

My favourite thing about Dickens, though, is that I never once felt like I was missing the point – which is the feeling I get with basically every classic book or poem I read. Dickens was never condescending, and yet his writing never went over my head (despite the 150-year time lapse). I didn’t even roll my eyes that much at the privileged white guy writing about privileged white guys: there was a whole lot less sexism than I expected, and most of the female characters were strong and sassy and ran circles around a lot of the ones written today (hats off to Aunt Betsey!). Of course, there’s a whole stack of issues with lack of representation in this kind of literature, and I’m not blind to that… but it didn’t stop me really loving this book.

Dickens said that David Copperfield was his “favourite child” and I can see why. This has been the best outcome of The List so far, and even if I were to stop right here (which I won’t), I’d be coming out ahead. I strongly recommend David Copperfield to anyone who likes… books. (And, even if you don’t, I hear the audio-book version is excellent, so give that a crack.)

My favourite Amazon reviews of David Copperfield:

  • “Smartly written trash, no doubt – but trash nonetheless. About 1 million words of it!” – Alex Kane
  • “Charles Dickinson is a timeless writer” – thimble19
  • “Charles Dickens won’t read this so it doesn’t matter what I say…” – Katie Barnes

 

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Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray

My third undertaking for Keeping Up With The Penguins took the longest so far, and by a long way: trust me when I say that Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray is one hell of a trudge.

Vanity Fair is “a novel without a hero”, set during the Napoleonic wars. It was originally published as a 19-volume serial, from 1847 to 1848 – and boy, does it show. The title is a reference to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress: a never-ending fair in a town called Vanity, representing man’s sinful attachment to worldly things (see: old-timey Instagram). The blurb on the back promised a “scandalous tale of murder, wealth and social climbing”, which was a relief after the giant whingeing bummer that was The Scarlet Letter… at first.

See, here’s the thing: the first couple hundred pages were amazing. I was laughing out loud, interrupting my husband cooking dinner to read him passages, delighting in the strong, sassy women holding their own among the vain, sooky fuck-boys of the 19th century. Things started to get a bit bleak once the Battle of Waterloo kicked off (I mean, I get bored during fight scenes in movies, let alone reading about military events) – but at least, 400 pages in, things were still happening…

But by the 600th page, things had become frightfully dull. There were endless character sketches of folks beyond even the periphery of the plot. Thackeray treated us to lengthy (and I mean lengthy) descriptions of people’s living quarters. It’s abundantly clear, by that point, that Vanity Fair wasn’t written as a novel, and Thackeray just wanted to keep getting paid for his serial, even after all the action had passed. Indeed, I found out later that he had only written the first three volumes in advance – the rest he came up with on the fly. It’s like reading an essay where the student has made their point and just needs to pad out the word count.

When you just need to hit that word count - Very Young Small Early Peas - Vanity Fair - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Let me save you a bit of time. Vanity Fair opens in some kind of finishing school for girls, and – having lived in an all-girl dormitory at boarding school myself – I can attest that not much is different from present day. The story centers on two female characters: Rebecca Sharp and Amelia Sedley. Becky was my favourite from the outset: she had “no soft maternal heart”, all of the bitches were jealous of her, and she basically ran around the whole book sorting her husband’s shit out, teasing the fellas and ignoring her kid. She flirts her way into high society, and cons sugar-daddies into paying her debts without ever taking her clothes off. That’s the kind of anti-hero I can get behind!

Amelia, on the other hand, is the polar opposite: a whiney goody-two-shoes who really could have done with a copy of He’s Just Not That Into You. She gets hung up on a dude who condescends to marry her even though her Dad’s poor (what a guy!). Then he trots off and gets himself killed in battle, so it’s back to square one. Amelia mopes around after him for years, keeping his best mate Captain Dobbin shackled to the wall of the “Friend Zone”. Eventually, Dobbin sacks up and tells her off for pining over the ghost of a guy (who had shagged her best friend anyway). She capitulates and marries Dobbin in the end, and they go on to live a life of boredom.


The end of Becky’s narrative arc was far more fun. Her husband abandons her; he tried to have her and her chief sugar-daddy merked, but the sugar daddy came through with a plum job for him on a far-away island, so hubby figures that’s just as good and gets the fuck outta Dodge before Becky can cock up anything else. Becky falls into a life of prostitution and gambling, eventually snagging Amelia’s brother for Husband No. 2, only to top him and run away with the life insurance money. She lives far more happily ever after than the rest of them.

So, with all that, the story does perk up a bit towards the end, but it was well past the point where I was desperate for some murder or adultery to stay awake. At least crappy TV shows have the decency to cram in weddings ruined by car crashes and unplanned teen pregnancies to keep us entertained once they’ve jumped the shark. By the time Vanity Fair got interesting again, my brain had leaked out of my ears reading all those passages about home furnishings, and I no longer cared what happened. If you can bear with Thackeray through the endless dull passages about people you’ve never heard of and houses you’ve never seen, he does have some delightful asides and insights that are still startlingly relevant over 150 years later (e.g., “What’s the good of being in parliament, he said, if you must pay your debts?”). Modernise the language, and Vanity Fair would read like a 21st century blog.




 The big “plot twist” is more of a cute little narrative device: it’s only on page 796 that Thackeray reveals the whole story has actually been written in the first person. The narrator is an actual character, recounting the entire tale as second- and third-hand gossip. The whole time, I’d thought it was just a charming, conversational, Woody Allen-esque omniscient figure, recounting a story designed to make girls scared of getting hung-up on fuck-boys and living lives of excess.

Ultimately, I’m not going to read Vanity Fair again, and I’d recommend that you don’t, either. Just Google a list of Thackeray’s best quotes, and watch a film version (where they’re forced, in the interests of time, to cut out the boring bits).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Vanity Fair:

  • “Great book. Becky is unique I hope.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Ugh, give yourself some time and alcohol; it’s a long one.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I wasn’t smart enough to stay with it – and I read a lot. Good luck.” – julie castleberry

 

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The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne

I got my toe wet with The Hunger Games, and now I’m diving into the pool with a proper classic. The Scarlet Letter was published in 1850 – an instant best-seller, though in its first fourteen years, Nathaniel Hawthorne made only $1,500 from its release. It was one of the first mass-produced books in America.

Reading the introductions to the classics is very important: the good ones really do provide some excellent context (and make you feel less stupid, because you know what you’re in for ahead of time). In this case, I learned that Hawthorne’s maternal ancestors were tried in New England on the charge of incest; among other things, they were sentenced to appear at the village church on the following lecture day with signs bearing the word “INCEST” pinned to their caps. So, it’s hard to imagine where he drew his inspiration…

The Scarlet Letter: A Romance” proclaimed the first page. This sounded promising (I’m a sucker for books with dirty bits). Alas, save for a couple of references to clandestine trysts and being held against a bosom, I was left wanting.

So, we kick off with a 60-page character sketch of all the fellows that ran the Customs House. The narrator bitches them out pretty hard (calling the other blokes “wearisome old souls, who had gathered nothing worth preservation from their varied experience of life” – burn!), and I heard it caused issues for Hawthorne upon publication – but he said fuck-the-haters and published it anyway, good on him. It takes a while to link this chapter to the story itself: 60 pages (of pissing and moaning) in, the narrator finally finds a piece of red cloth with an A stitched into it, and we’re off to the races!


By “off to the races”, I do – of course – mean “let’s see how many ways Hawthorne can show and tell us that he hates the Puritans”. I was expecting this novel to be some kind of statement on the oppression of female sexuality, or at the very least a “romance” as the cover page styled it. In reality, it’s a 300-page rant about how much the Puritans suck. I’m really not sure what Hawthorne was thinking about his target market. I mean, anyone who reads this and feels vindicated already agrees that the Puritans need to get in the bin. And it’s not like Lyle Shelton’s going to pick this up and think “By golly, good point!”.

(And holy crap, Batman – long sentences abound! I’m a fan of the generous use of the comma and semi-colon, but old mate Hawthorne needs to learn to finish a thought. 14 lines without a full stop? I can barely get through that even after six coffees.)

The protagonist, Hester Prynne, is a bad bitch who had the audacity to get herself knocked up while her husband was lost at sea, and she does not give a fuck that this is all the tea for the girls in town for years. She refuses to give up the name of the baby-daddy, even with a bunch of idle ladies-who-lunch standing around talking about how their husbands should have executed her. She was pretty much the first ride-or-die chick. And she is ready to dismantle the patriarchy and smack the Stockholm syndrome right out of all the women who are slave to it:

“As a first step, the whole system of society is to be torn down, and built up anew… woman cannot take advantage of these preliminary reforms, until she herself have undergone a still mightier change.”

– Hester Prynne (Bad Bitch)

We find out pretty quickly that the town’s minister is the one who got her into this mess, and I don’t mind saying it’s not exactly a shocking Vader-esque paternity reveal. Even if I hadn’t encountered the spoilers in the introduction: (a) he’s the only male character to be examined thoroughly since we left those old-timers back at the Customs House, and (b) it just fits so neatly into Hawthorne’s vendetta against the Puritanical church. Of course there’s a sordid underbelly! Hell, the foundation of the Church was a woman’s fib about the paternity of a kid born in a barn. In its original context, yes, The Scarlet Letter’s plot “twist” might have been shocking, and the symbolic fuck-you to conservative religion might have seemed a little more subtle, but in this millennium I’m not sure it would even warrant a spoiler warning.

There’s a lot of hand-wringing and chest-clutching from Hester and Minister Baby-Daddy, especially once Hester’s long-lost husband returns from sea and starts doctor-ing under an assumed name. Their dramatics seemed kind of quaint, Hubby really doesn’t pose much of a threat: he just sort of hangs around for seven years, and shows no balls at all. No stabbings. No ratting them out. And yet Hester’s wailing about how “herbs would turn to poison in his hands”. Smh…



Hester and Minister Baby-Daddy hatch a cunning secret plan to sail away together, but Long-Lost Hubby thwarts them by getting himself passage on the very same boat. Not to be outdone in dramatics, Minister Baby-Daddy gives the town one final (excellent) sermon, concluding with a confession of his great sin to the entire town, and then he dies (very dramatically) in Hester’s arms. Well, fuck, says Long-Lost Hubby: according to the conclusion, he brooded over being upstaged for about a year or so, before topping himself and leaving a considerable fortune to that little shit Pearl.

(Oh, yeah, the kid! “Pearl”. A nosy pain in the arse from the beginning. She wouldn’t stop asking questions and running amok, the absolute worst. Do not want.)

The themes of The Scarlet Letter are pretty common and timeless; it’s not hard to see why it’s been adapted for the stage and screen a few million times. It’s a good one to talk about at parties, but the way in which it’s written isn’t all that engaging (God, Hawthorne needed an editor to add a few full stops). I probably won’t read it again, but you should give it a go if you’re into an old-timey Gilmore Girls.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Scarlet Letter:

  • “Did this for school. It was awful. Luckily, I got it for free since it’s so old. But now that means I can’t burn it. That being said, I did like it as a digital download, and that really helped with reading since looking up words is so easy.” – Kyle
  • “I find Hawthorne descriptive to the point of tedious. I believe writers got paid by the word in his day, and it certainly seemed so in the beginning of the book…” – Cynthia D. Feeney
  • “Shipped on time and reads like a book” – Claude Womack

 

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