Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Classic (page 1 of 3)

9 Classic Books Worth Reading

Reading the classics can be tough, there’s no doubt about that. Many of them are written with old and unfamiliar language conventions, there’s all kinds of cultural references that have since fallen from collective memory, and the content isn’t always that relatable. I think, though, that most people are scared of classic books for a different reason. They worry that they’re not “smart enough” or “well read enough” to understand or enjoy them. I know that’s how I felt before I started the Keeping Up With The Penguins project. I was sure any classic book I tried to read would go right over my head. Now, having read a lot of the classics on my original reading list, I’ve changed my mind. I can guarantee that reading the classics won’t always be as difficult or as scary as you think. I posted earlier this year about how to read more classic books, but if you’re struggling to figure out where to start, here’s a list of nine classic books worth reading.

9 Classic Books Worth Reading - Text Overlaid on Darkened Image of Stack of Books - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Charlotte might have been the most duplicitous and judge-y of the Brontë sisters, but in my view she also wrote the most accessible books. Wuthering Heights, from her equally-revered sister Emily, was really quite complicated and dark and I struggled with it, but Jane Eyre was fantastic! There are no real language barriers to overcome, the characterisation was superb (in fact, Charlotte was once called “the first historian of the private consciousness”), and the story was quite straightforward. Of course, the leading man, Mr Rochester, is problematic AF and you do have to take off your feminist-ideals hat to enjoy the romance properly, but if you can manage that, you’ll find a lot to love in this classic book. Read my full review here.

The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Arthur Conan Doyle - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Arthur Conan Doyle is probably the only doctor in the history of the world who had to use writing as a side-hustle to earn some extra cash. That’s how he came to write The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, a series of extremely popular mysteries featuring the character now considered to be the world’s most famous fictional detective. I love recommending this collection to people who are a bit time-poor or find themselves easily distracted while reading; the stories are short, Doyle’s economy of language was masterful, and they’re non-chronological, meaning they can be read in any order. Most of all, they’re extremely enjoyable and highly satisfying. If you like the BBC’s Sherlock series, you must give the original a go. Read my full review here.

Pride And Prejudice – Jane Austen

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Long time Keeper-Upperers are probably shocked to see Pride And Prejudice on this list. I don’t blame them: I dragged my feet for so long on this book. But when I finally sat myself down, and rolled up my sleeves, and dove in to Austen’s best-loved work, I found myself pleasantly surprised. It’s a great Austen for beginners, because the dialogue and language don’t feel too stilted, and the romance will be familiar to anyone who has ever read a book or seen a movie. Lizzie and Darcy’s relationship has been adapted, interpreted, satirised, and re-written so many times, it’s basically an archetype at this point. Read my full review here.

David Copperfield – Charles Dickens

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I think a lot of people are put off David Copperfield by its sheer size; most editions run to 1000+ pages, and my own copy had to be published in two volumes because it was too long to hold together as a single book. It’s probably not a good one to pick up if you’re not in the mood to commit to one story for a good long while while. That said, Dickens called David Copperfield his “favourite child”, and I can see why. It’s a beautiful, clever, epic tale of a Victorian man’s life, styled as an autobiography, with something for everyone: action, adventure, mystery, romance, politics, and more. I said in my review that I “devoured the thing like a drunk woman eating a kebab”, and I think that sums up pretty well why I think it’s one of the best classic books worth reading. Read my full review here.

Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it is crucial – CRUCIAL! – that when you pick up a copy of Little Women for the very first time, you find an edition with a really good introduction that explains Louisa May Alcott’s life and politics for you before you begin. Her story of the four March sisters in Civil War-era New England is often written off as sentimental fluff, a “book for girls”, which is a damn shame. I think it’s largely because people don’t take the time to understand Alcott’s motivations for writing the book, the position she held in society and in her family, and the subtle ways in which she subverted the tropes of a “moral story for young women”. If an edition with a great introduction isn’t forthcoming, you can always start with my review, where I detail a lot of the aspects I found interesting. I highly recommend giving this one a go around Christmas time; the iconic opening scene will get you in the holiday spirit. Read my full review here.

The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Mark Twain - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I think most non-academic readers groan when they encounter a book written in dialect. When it’s done poorly, it makes reading the book a real chore. Luckily, Mark Twain’s The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn flows so naturally you won’t even notice the clever ways he manipulated language to depict the Southern drawl. Huck Finn is a confronting novel, at times, and certainly controversial, for many reasons: violence, racial epithets, white-saviour storylines, all of which have led to it being challenged and banned at various points in time. But it’s still a classic book worth reading! The characters of Huck and Jim jump off the page, and you won’t be able to pull yourself away from their adventures down the Mississippi River. Read my full review here.

The Age Of Innocence – Edith Wharton

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Fine, I’ll concede: if you struggle with subtle stories, The Age Of Innocence might not be the one for you, but maybe you should give it a go anyway. I was constantly surprised reading Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel; it seemed to move so slowly, and yet she could find a way to make an important point or a pithy social critique while describing a house or a garden bed. Her female characters in particular are beautifully complex and flawed, and I fell in love with the way that Wharton used them to make ever-relevant comments about the role of women in society. Plus, it’s the story of a social scandal on the scale of Brangelina; you’ll come out of this book on either Team Countess Olenska, or Team May Welland, I guarantee it. Read my full review here.

The Grapes Of Wrath – John Steinbeck

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Speaking of social critiques, The Grapes Of Wrath is eerily current. Save for a few technological advances, I would completely have believed (had I not seen the date on the inside cover) that this was a contemporary novel set pretty much in the present day. Its perspectives on capitalism, automation, climate change, class warfare, and workers’ rights are scarily relevant in a post-Trump and post-Brexit world. Plus, the story – especially its end (which I won’t spoil here, but I do in my review, be warned!) – is hauntingly beautiful, and the matriarch Ma Joad is now my favourite character in all of American literature. Read my full review here.

Crime And Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

To say I approached Crime And Punishment with trepidation would be a gross understatement. I was fully convinced (with no true factual basis, mind you) that the Russian classics were dense and dull, and I would be in for a rough time with Dostoyevsky’s tale of a young man who tries to commit a moral murder. I was – I’ll say it loud and proud – absolutely wrong. This book had me cackling with laughter the whole way through, and finding myself (worryingly) relating to the anxious axe-murderer. Make sure you pick up the David McDuff translation, as I did – I can’t attest to any of the others, but he did a bang-up job! Read my full review here.


Of course, all books are worth reading in some measure, but I think these classic books have something special to offer, especially if you’re just wading into that part of the literary world for the first time. Have I skipped over your favourite classic? Got any other classic books worth reading to suggest? Drop them in the comments below (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

There are a handful of really chunky books on my original reading list, and this is one of them: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. It seems like an age since I tackled any book even close to this long (David Copperfield was probably the only one that came close). I made sure to allot plenty of time and brain space for these 982 pages (plus introductory essays and notes). And I’m glad I did; it felt really good to immerse myself properly in Cervantes’ world, and stick with the one story for a while.

Don Quixote (original title: “El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha”) was published in two parts, in 1605 and 1615, with the first English translations appearing in 1612 and 1620, respectively. That makes it one of the oldest books in the Keeping Up With The Penguins project, as well as one of the longest. It’s widely considered to be one of the most influential works of the literary canon, a foundational piece of modern Western literature. Don Quixote was officially deemed the Greatest Book Of All Time by the Nobel Institute, the various editions have sold in excess of 500 million copies worldwide, and this particular translation from John Rutherford won the 2002 Premio Valle Inclán Prize for Translation. Not bad, given that Cervantes was basically unknown before the first part was published, and spent much of his life on the run (he escaped prison – not once, not twice, but four times total).

The premise is this: a member of the lesser Spanish nobility (a “hidalgo”), Alonso Quixano, becomes unhealthily obsessed with chivalric romances. He takes it into his head to become a “knight-errant”, roaming the country performing acts of chivalry under the name of Don Quixote de la Mancha. He ropes in Sancho Panza, a simple farmer with champagne dreams and a beer budget, to work as his squire. The book forms an interesting bridge between the early medieval romances, which were episodic and strung together a series of adventures with the same characters, and later modern novels, which focused more on the psychological evolution of its characters and their internal worlds. In Don Quixote, Cervantes managed to do both.


It all feels surprisingly familiar. Even the chapter titles sound like episodes of Friends: “Chapter III which relates the amusing way in which Don Quixote had himself knighted”, and so on. Cervantes certainly didn’t have any designs on founding the Western literary canon or anything of the sort. He just wanted to write a fun story that would give people a laugh or two, which is probably why his story is still so widely accessible and enjoyable for today’s readers. Of course, our understanding of it has changed over time; at first, we read it as a comic novel, as Cervantes intended, but then we started to read it as a tragic statement on disillusionment in society after the French Revolution. Later, we came to appreciate Don Quixote as a critical social commentary, but now we’ve circled around to finding it funny again. That said, I must say I’m stuck in the 20th century as far as literary critique of this one goes; critics in that era came to view the story as a tragedy, where Don Quixote’s simple idealism is rendered useless by a harsh reality. Sure, there are plenty of quick quips and slapstick encounters, but really, the truth at the heart of the story is a real bummer.

As I read it, Don Quixote seemed to be suffering from a debilitating delusional disorder, and yet everyone in his world just humoured him as he lived out his imaginary life. He was a danger to himself and others, and in today’s world we’d almost certainly subject him to some kind of psychiatric hold and get him treatment. What’s worse, he pulled Sancho Panza down with him, in a heart-breaking foile à deux that sees them repeatedly beaten, half-starved, and living in itinerant poverty for most of the book. The humour, in my view, was particularly dark, given that this ageing man’s poor mental health was the butt of most of the jokes. I found it all horribly sad.


And, of course, it’s hopelessly and irretrievably sexist, a product of its time. Almost every bloke is chasing after some beautiful woman’s virginity, which he calls her “honour” or her “jewel”, treating it as some prize they earn for gross displays of machismo. And there’s a lot of Madonna/whore smack talk. Really, the only man who seems woke in any measure is Sancho Panza, believe it or not. He has no interest in oppressing women, he just wants to get rich and fat. I respect that. Sancho’s long-suffering wife was my favourite character in the whole book, too:

“‘… you do as you please, because that’s the burden we women were born with, obeying our husbands even if they are damn fools.'”

Teresa Cascajo (page 520)

I hope I’m not putting you off, though, because honestly Don Quixote wasn’t bad. I just feel compelled to share the alternative view, like I’m the lone port in a sea of “but it’s so funny!”.

I particularly enjoyed instances of Cervantes breaking the fourth wall; he was way ahead of his time in terms of being meta. His characters were aware that they were being written about, and he often made direct nods and call-outs to the reader. In Part One, he included many back-stories of minor characters, and then in Part Two, he outright apologised for his many digressions and promised the reader to focus on the matter at hand (while simultaneously whingeing that his “narrative muse” had been restrained – and never fear, he still managed to cram plenty of these hilarious digressions into the second party anyway). I heard that several abridged editions actually remove some or all of these extra tales, focusing exclusively on the central narrative. That’s a shame, because some of them are really good – so, if you’re going to read Don Quixote, make sure you go with the OG full-version.

Trying to summarise or explain the full plot of Don Quixote is a fool’s game, and I’m not going to try it here. Over the course of their travels, the dynamic duo meet innkeepers, sex workers, goat herders, soldiers, priests, escaped convicts, and spurned lovers, and Quixote manages to turn each and every encounter into a chivalric adventure of some kind. As much as he loves to intervene and prevent injustice, he’s also kind of an entitled prick and often refuses to pay his debts, which results in many near-scrapes and public humiliations (with poor Sancho often bearing the brunt). In the end, Quixote is strong-armed into returning home to live out the rest of his life as he really is, Alfonso Quixano, and he dies (essentially of depression) in the final chapter. I told you, it’s a real bummer!


There are a lot of fun facts and trivia in Don Quixote‘s history, particularly when it comes to language and translation. Firstly, its widespread popularity is the main reason modern Spanish exists in its current form, which is no small feat for one humble comic novel. Within the text itself, there are actually two types of Spanish spoken: a contemporary version spoken by most of the characters, which more or less matches today’s language, and Old Castillian, used by Don Quixote. It’s kind of like having the main character of a book speak Shakespearean English, while the rest of them speak like you and me; indeed, that’s how most contemporary English translations tell the story.

We also get a lot of proverbs and idioms from Quixote, like “tilting at windmills” (taken from one of his early adventures, where he attacks windmills believing them to be sentient giant enemies), and also from mis-translations of Quixote. The proverb “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” is widely attributed to Cervantes, but it didn’t actually appear in Don Quixote until a 1700 English translation. The original phrase was translated more literally to “you will see when the eggs are fried”, meaning something more like “time will tell”. Really, we’ve spent a couple hundred years mistranslating Quixote, and now we’re spending another couple hundred trying to correct all those mistakes. There have been five new English translations published since 2000. Obviously, I can’t speak to all of them, but I think John Rutherford did a cracking job with this one, so I’d highly recommend first-timers pick it up (and, as always, don’t skip the introduction – it’s full of interesting background and context that will help you understand and enjoy the story).

Don Quixote is a great book to read bit-by-bit; you want to sip it like wine, not chug it like beer. I’m really glad I set a lot of time aside to enjoy it properly. I think binge-reading it would make the episodes feel really repetitive, or ridiculous, or both. Plus, through the magic of incremental effort, the 982 pages fly by, and you’ll feel silly for ever having been intimidated by this doorstop book. Give it a go, and hustle back here to reassure me that this tale of an ageing poor man’s mental illness is at least equally as tragic as it is comic (it can’t just be me!).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Don Quixote:

  • “I never read it and thought it was about time. Now I know and I’m of the believe that Mr Quixote and President Trump are kissing cousins” – Amazon Customer
  • “IS TO BIG” – Amazon Customer
  • “it is too long and too old. i got into the parts where he was fighting but everything else was a bore” – jeff rack
  • “5 star book, 1 star kindle version. Book stops approximately half way through, like, in mid-sentence. Had to go to the paperback to finish.

    Like the movie “Saving Private Ryan” ending (spoiler alert) just before they actually find Private Ryan.

    Like the movie “The Martian” ending with the dude still on Mars.

    You get the idea.

    Lame.” – Fake Geddy Lee
  • “It is supposedly a great Spanish classic but it is as bad as Shakespear. I got very little out of it.” – George Fox
  • “What an awful book. An old madman cruising the countryside and dragging his poor servant with him. Just an awful book.” – Bruce E. Paris



Pride And Prejudice – Jane Austen

Here we are, Keeper-Upperers: face-to-face with my reading challenge white whale. Anyone who’s been following Keeping Up With The Penguins for a while knows the story of how I’ve started and abandoned Pride And Prejudice no fewer than six times. Never again! I finally sat down with Austen’s romantic novel, one of the most popular books in English literature, and I’m pleased to say we’ve worked out our issues and reconciled. Woohoo!

Pride And Prejudice (original working title First Impressions) was first published on 28 January 1813. Since then, it’s sold over 20 million copies, and saturated our public consciousness to the point that it’s now considered the origin story for many common archetypes that we still see in fiction today. In 2003, nearly two centuries after its release, the BBC conducted a poll to determine the UK’s “best-loved book”, and Pride And Prejudice came in second (it lost out to Lord Of The Rings). More locally, a poll of over 15,000 Australian readers in 2008 saw them vote it into first place on a list of the 101 best books ever written. So, yeah, it’s still got some currency.

The introduction to this edition is long – over 40 pages! I considered skipping it, but I persevered. Some of it was interesting, some of it wasn’t, so I guess it all comes out in the wash. The highlights for me were learning that Charlotte Brontë wasn’t a fan of Austen’s work (good trivia!), and this little gem of a summary:

“It is indeed possible to call its relevance to the society of the time into question, for during a decade in which Napoleon was effectively engaging, if not transforming, Europe, Jane Austen composed a novel in which the most important events are the fact that a man changes his manners and a young lady changes her mind.”

Introduction, Pride And Prejudice (page 7)

Also, I might be coming around to the idea of ignoring the footnotes. It pains me to admit it (because my husband is a strong advocate for skipping them, and I hate it when he’s right), but here we are. There are basically none in this edition of Pride And Prejudice, so I tried reading it without them and I felt like I didn’t miss anything I couldn’t pick up from context clues. Plus, the reading is all the more enjoyable for not having to flick back and forth all the time. Gosh, if only I’d come around to this way of thinking before now, maybe one of those earlier attempts might have worked out…



So, Pride And Prejudice begins with fuss-pot matriarch Mrs Bennet trying to persuade her husband to visit Mr Bingley, a rich and eligible bachelor who has just moved in up the road. Thus, the famous opening line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”. After a bit of to-and-fro, Mr Bennet makes the visit, and it’s followed by an invitation for the family to attend a ball.

This family, one of the most famous in literature, consists of Mr & Mrs Bennet and their five daughters: Jane (the beauty), Lizzie (the smarty-pants), Mary (the plain loner), Kitty (the impressionable one), and Lydia (the… worldly one). They all trot off to this ball, as expected, and Mr Bingley is every bit as wonderful as they’d imagined. He takes a special interest in Jane, which sends everyone aflutter, and they start planning the wedding (that’s not as much of an exaggeration as you might think).

Mr Bingley’s wingman, Mr Darcy, is a whole other story. He’s twice as rich, but not half as nice. He negs Lizzie at this party, and then at another, and then again at another. Pride And Prejudice is basically the story of how a pick-up artist meets a feminist and falls in love. In fact, I think it might be the origin of the reformed-bad-boy trope, and by rights I should be rolling my eyes in disgust… but, like with Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester, the hidden sappy side of me took over for a minute and I let myself enjoy it.

(Also, spoiler alert: Darcy is the “proud” one, and Lizzie is the “prejudiced” one, but really neither of them are perfect in either regard.)



Anyway, some time later, Jane goes to visit Mr Bingley’s sister, under the guise of making new friends. In reality, she just wants to get a glimpse of her new man, pulling the old “Oh, I didn’t even know you’d be here!” trick. By her mother’s design, she gets caught in the rain and develops a rotten cold (why did all Victorian ladies have such terrible immune systems?), forcing her to stay a few days. At the Bingley’s, a whole lotta drama plays out: Lizzie visits, Darcy gets a boner, Miss Bingley gets jealous, and Jane drags out this convenient cold as long as she can to stay closer to the object of her affections.

Then Mr Collins (heir to the estate on which the Bennets live) pays a visit. The property is “entailed”, which I took to mean none of the Bennet girls could inherit unless one of them married this dude. And he’s well aware of their desperation (gross). He figures he can take his pick of the young ladies, and they won’t have a choice if they want to keep the family home (super-gross). He crosses Jane off the list, even though she’s the hot one, because he doesn’t want to cut Mr Bingley’s grass (yes, a man’s supposed ownership of a woman is to be respected more than her own autonomy, HELLO PATRIARCHY MY OLD FRIEND). Mr Collins sets his sights on Lizzie, and she (quite rightly) tells him to fuck off. He gets super butt-hurt, and runs away to marry someone else, which means as soon as Mr Bennet dies he can dump them all out on the street and take the house for himself. What a guy!

Anyway, while all this is going on, Lizzie makes a new friend in Mr Wickham. He’s dashing, and charming, but kind of a hound dog. He has a big ol’ cry about how Mr Darcy has caused him “hardship”, and Lizzie just falls for it hook, line, and sinker (yes, for the “smart one”, she can be surprisingly dumb). His pick-up-artistry be damned, she decides she doesn’t want a bar of Darcy anymore.



Then, out of the blue, the Bingleys skip town and Jane is devo. She tries following them to London, thinking she could reignite the spark and lure her lover back (bitch-don’t-chase-a-man!) but his sister snubs her and she’s cut off from them entirely. When Lizzie visits Mr Collins and his new wife, they shed some light on the situation: apparently, Mr Darcy convinced Mr Bingley not to marry Jane because her family was poor (and kind of bogan, or whatever the old-timey equivalent of bogan is). And, in another case of terrible timing, Mr Darcy picks this very moment to show up and declare his love for Lizzie. Of course, she tells him to fuck right off.

You’d think that’s a pretty irreparably damaged relationship right there, but Mr Darcy writes a letter with a Very Good Explanation for everything, and Lizzie’s all “Oh, okay then!”. The next time they meet, she’s all set to open her heart to love… but she’s promptly distracted by her younger sister, Lydia, running off with Mr Wickham, that dastardly hound-dog, and (wait for it) they’re not married! Clutch my pearls! There’s a lot of hand-wringing at the prospect of Lydia losing her virginity out of wedlock; Mr Collins literally said she’d be better off dead, which I thought was a bit much. But this piece of “terrible” news actually gave rise to my favourite line in all of Pride And Prejudice:

“On his quitting the room, she sat down, unable to support herself, and looking so miserably ill, that it was impossible for Darcy to leave her, or to refrain from saying, in a tone of gentleness and commiseration, ‘Let me call your maid. Is there nothing you could take, to give you present relief? – A glass of wine; – shall I get you one? – You are very ill!”

Pride And Prejudice (page 294)

I mean, bringing me a glass of wine is definitely the way to win me over, so I can see why Lizzie went for him.

Anyway, Lizzie figures that Lydia’s supposed-disgrace means she’ll never see Mr Darcy again. I mean, if having a poor family was enough to put him off the idea of a marriage, having a harlot for a little sister has got to be some kind of romance death knell. But, to everyone’s surprise, Darcy steps the fuck up! He convinces Wickham to marry Lydia, “saving” her reputation, and pays off all his outstanding debts. Consider the day saved!



Bingley and Darcy come back to the ‘hood. Bingley’s seen the light, he proposes to Jane, and there is much rejoicing. Then, Darcy’s rich aunt starts sticking her nose in, worried that her favourite nephew is going to do something silly like marry a poor girl as well. Lizzie – as is her habit, by now – tells her to fuck off. Darcy proposes, she accepts, and everyone’s married and rich by the end. Happily ever after!

So, what did I think? Well, many things. Based on her reputation, I’d kind of expected Lizzie Bennet to be a bit more like Emma: disinterested in boys and marriage, bookish, strong-willed, self-determining. She is all of those things, I suppose, or almost, but not to the degree that I’d expected. I think my favourite Bennet was actually Lydia: the young, loud-mouthed, boy-crazy one. I feel like she would have been a dynamite sex-positive feminist on Twitter these days.

I’m also coming to think that Austen was the master of hiding really heavy themes in plain sight, cloaking them in the social mores of her time. For instance, she presented all the parents as symbolically powerful but ultimately ineffectual (Emma’s Dad was a whiny hypochondriac, and Mr & Mrs Bennet were messy drama queens who played favourites with their offspring). She also poked holes in the idea that wealth and social standing were desirable qualities (Emma’s kindest and most wonderful friends were the poorest social outcasts; Collins and Wickham, despite their good reputations and prospects, were both revealed to be pretty rotten in the end). Plus, she carefully breaks down the social/economic complexities of courtship and marriage in a way that really impresses me. There’s very little in her books about romantic love, really, but a lot about politics, power, class, and community.



Her treatment of marriage is actually less gendered than I’d initially assumed it would be, too. Many of her men do, in fact, find themselves in want of a wife, and for the same reasons of poverty and disadvantage that led women to seek husbands. Look at how, say, Wickham needs to marry a woman of means and respectability to cover his own debts and excuse his past misdeeds. I mean, it’s impossible to overlook the fact that women’s financial security was wholly dependent on men at that time (most women didn’t have independent legal rights or access to the inheritance laws that had benefited only men until the end of the 19th century), but Austen found other ways to give women agency and power in her stories.

So, having written this intricate and complex novel, what did Austen do next? Well, she made some dumb decisions (not to be mean, but seriously). She sold the copyright to Thomas Egerton for £110. She wanted £150, but he bargained her down. This, as I said, was a dumb decision. In owning the copyright, Egerton owned all of the risk of publication (a notoriously money-losing venture) but he also owned all of the profit when Pride And Prejudice went gangbusters. Jan Fergus did some clever maths a few years back, and she worked out that Egerton raked in £450 from the first two editions alone, while Austen got not a penny. It seems incredible that one of the most recognisable authors in the English language earned so little from her most popular work, and I think it’s an important cautionary tale for all the incredible women writers out there – own your shit, ladies!



In my reviews, this is where I’d typically list any adaptations of note, but for Pride And Prejudice there are just too damn many! And there are more released every single year. The enduring popularity of this story knows no bounds. A couple of my favourites include Bridget Jones’s Diary, which places the story in contemporary London, and Pride And Prejudice And Zombies, which is an unbelievably popular Austen-zombie-cannibal-ninja-ultraviolence mash-up. And, not satisfied to let the creatives have all the fun, scientists have got in on some Pride And Prejudice homages too. In 2010, a pheromone found in mouse urine was named “darcin”, after Mr Darcy, because it strongly attracted females (what an honour… kind of). And in 2016, a whole article in the Journal of Inherited Metabolic Diseases was dedicated to speculating as to the possible medical reasons the Bennets didn’t have any male children.

On the whole, I’m extremely glad I persisted with this classic. I think it’s another fine example of needing a book to come to you at the right time. I ended up enjoying Pride And Prejudice far more than I thought I would, and it’s one I’ll definitely re-read and re-visit in the future. I never thought I’d see myself say that out loud, let alone in print, but there you have it: life isn’t always what you’d expect, and neither are books.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Pride And Prejudice:

  • “Elizabeth Bennet is my spirit animal.” – Mary Hammond
  • “No thanks no review, this is stupid I don’t need to review a classic and I resent being held hostage to a review” – Jennifer Jones
  • “Y’all, errybody need to check out Lydia’s FINSTA. NSFW.” – Rebeca Reynolds
  • “Old nd good” – scott patterson
  • “Perfect gift for married co-worker” – KG
  • “Haven’t read it for 40 years, thought I’d try again. Still pretty good.” – Kindle Customer
  • “If you want to read a classic then this is for you but I wasn’t a fan. I’m not really big on romance and this seems heavy on romance a nd girl hates boy but then likes boy relationship centered.” – Mirashan Gregory
  • “This is the quintessential Day Time Soap Opera. 2 seasons or more neatly placed between the cover of a classic novel.” – Karen Marie review
  • “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that Jane Austen rocks.” – Erin S.
  • “Pride and Prejudice is a very tiresome book. Much dialogue and very little action. Too much love and not enough Jesus.” – D
  • “Almost 400 pages of girls talking about which guy has more money and who they danced with. Not worth the paper it is written on.” – Amazon Customer
  • “A story of spoiled sisters and their attempts to be the bestest of the best in a time when how much money you had
matters more than love or morality.
 Seriously, the moral of the story seems to be, if a rich uncle comes calling, you best throw your daughters
at him until one sticks. Just a miserable, long story of some young women trying to find the right man to take care of them.” – JD Wohlever
  • “oh, this book is just awful. The author even insults her own people inside of this. There were several references to the British military that were insults back then; I forget what the are exactly. The characters themselves are never really developed in my opinion. The whole plot is this: girl sees rich guy and hates him because he is socially awKward. Rich guy actually loves girl and tries to tell her that. Girl mistreats the man because she’s blind to everything. Guy eventually has to spend money to get her to like him. They get married. End of story. This book is about a gold digger in all reality. It lacks anything that would make a book a classic. If you want to be driven insane, read this book.” – Not Trans Kieran

The Call Of The Wild – Jack London

Look at this pristine edition of The Call Of The Wild! I treated myself to a brand-new copy from a local indie bookstore. It’s another one that’s really tough to find second-hand, for some reason. This combo edition also includes White Fang, but I decided right at the outset that I wasn’t going to read that unless The Call Of The Wild was super-good and not too distressing. See, normally I’m not allowed to read books with dogs because I’m not equipped to deal with their inevitable death (why do authors love killing off dogs?!). With gritted teeth, I picked up Jack London’s best-known work…

I was right to be apprehensive. I’ll say this right at the outset: do not go into this book thinking it’s a heart-warming tale about a puppy who goes camping. Every page has dogs attacking humans, humans attacking dogs, dogs attacking each other… wahhhh! I know there are a lot of clever metaphors and allegories buried in the story, but that’s no fucking comfort to a dog-lover. Thankfully it’s very short (even shorter than Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde!), only 84 pages of torture. (Spoiler: I did not go on to read White Fang. I’ve quite had my fill of violence against animals, thank you.)

The Call Of The Wild is billed as an adventure novel, set in the Yukon during the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush. London had spent a lot of time in that area himself; he once said “it was in the Klondike I found myself”. He stayed just long enough to get himself a nasty case of scurvy, which was quite common at the time (believe it or not, fresh produce was hard to come by in those Arctic winters, so workers usually missed their 2-and-5-a-day). Still, the experience made a real impression, and gave London enough material to write his book.

When he got back to California, he pitched his story to the San Francisco Bulletin, but they told him that “interest in Alaska has subsided in an amazing degree” and rejected him outright. He persisted, though, and ended up writing The Call Of The Wild in four installments for The Saturday Evening Post. They paid him $750 for his trouble, and he then accepted a further $2000 from Macmillan, who published it in book form in 1903. Nuts to the Bulletin editors who turned him down, because it hasn’t been out of print since.



The story opens in California, where the central character – Buck, a pampered St Bernard-Scotch Shepherd – is stolen and sold into service as an Alaskan sled dog. Sled dogs were in high demand during the Gold Rush. To even reach the Klondike, miners had to navigate what was called “Dead Horse Pass” (charming), so named for the many carcasses that had piled up along the route. The poor horsies couldn’t handle the steep ascents and the harsh climate, so strong dogs with thick fur were called into replace them.

Buck is forced to fight for survival in his new environment, and not just in the metaphorical draw-upon-your-inner-strength kind of way. The humans charged with his care starve him, keep him in a cage, and beat him senseless, teaching him what he calls “the law of the club” (yes, I’m already crying).

When he’s sold on again, this time to dispatchers who take him to the Klondike, he learns from the other dogs how to survive the cold nights and rugged terrain. He ends up beating the leader in a fight (gahhh, stop it!), and he assumes his position as the head of the pack. Success ain’t all it’s cracked up to be though, because he proves himself so valuable that he’s sold on into tougher circumstances, and then sold into tougher circumstances again. This is one corporate ladder you do not want to climb.



Finally, Buck encounters a decent human – John Thornton – and he is nursed back to health. He follows Thornton and his team as they pan for gold, but he gets to run around and explore his new home in the woods for himself. He makes friends with a local wolf pack (awww!), but always return home to camp because he’s come to love his new human (double awww!). You’d think London would end it there, everyone’s happy, but NOPE! One day, Buck returns to find his beloved human murdered by a local Native American tribe. Incensed, he goes on a violent killing spree of his own, taking his vengeance and scaring the pants off the survivors. Lacking other options, Buck joins the wolf pack full-time, answering (here it comes) the call of the wild.

The book was enormously popular upon publication (dear me, why?). Macmillan’s first print run of 10,000 copies sold out immediately. And that popularity has continued through to the present, where London’s work is still taught in schools and he’s earned himself a place in the American canon. The success of The Call Of The Wild is what prompted him to write White Fang: “I’m going to reverse the process,” he said, “instead of devolution… I’m going to give the evolution, the civilization of a dog.” That’s why the works are so often sold in a single volume. Perhaps White Fang is where I’d find the happy ending I was hoping for Buck, but I don’t trust London anymore.



The Call Of The Wild was also fairly controversial, because London had the gall to anthropomorphise a house pet. Critics said he was a “nature faker” (ooh, burn!) for attributing human feelings to a dog. But really, London was just calling upon the oldest form of storytelling, our fables and fairy-stories that commonly attribute feelings and speech to animals, to send the reader some greater message or moral. In this case, it would seem that London’s message was Capitalism + Industrialisation = Bad. Buck had to be forced to give up his creature comforts, but once he does that his instinct takes over and he returns to a more “natural” way of life. He shows us that civilisation is a thin veneer, easily broken, and animals (including humans) are wild and primal at their core. He inverts the coming-of-age tropes, and calls upon a lot of epic and hero archetypes, with Buck being unmasked (rather than civilised) by his journey. London may have ripped out my heart, but it would seem he was damn clever in the way he did it.

I’ve got a pretty strong stomach, on the whole, but my soft spot for dogs made The Call Of The Wild a fucking difficult read. I can appreciate what London was doing, but for me this book was right up there with A Clockwork Orange on the confronting scale, perhaps even exceeding it. Really, its only saving grace was that it was so short! I’m not sure I could have coped with much more. It was beautifully written in parts, the scene-setting was incredibly evocative, but why couldn’t London have tortured oysters or skunks or something instead? Dog-lovers, beware: this is not the book for you.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Call Of The Wild:

  • “This book gives some insight on the golf rush days in Alaska and some of the hardships. Also it is the first book about the feelings of a dog.” – spike1
  • “It’s bad to me i don’t like it at all people dead
Its crazy right yeah ik man ik man” – Amazon Customer
  • “The font is 9 pt or less. The story is timeless, I just don’t want to go blind trying to read it to my grand kids.” – bad smell Mel
  • “All Jack London fans will like this one” – Don Boddeker
  • “Fun novel and dogbook. Want pictures.” – Maiden of Honour
  • “Wow, 114 years old, no apocalypse,no zombies, no EMP. Just a story about a dog, and what a dog! Awesome !” – Kindle Customer
  • “Bought for my nerdy daughter.” – Derby
  • “Down loaded the audio books for the dogs while i am away. They love it!” – Amazon Customer
  • “Excellent short novel about gold rush days in Alaska. While a jr. high student could read it without difficulty, it still was a wonderful introduction to Alaska before a cruise there.” – Bruce Wolf
  • “Teeny tiny print is pathetic.” – Robert Phillips
  • “now i know why they say this book is read by so many inmates,they have to change their way of living when they are put in jail” – toni moon


The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

I’ve got a little surprise for you, Keeper-Upperers: this review is actually a two-fer! The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn is the book from The List, and most of this post will focus on that story, but when I picked up this Wordsworth Classic edition, I realised it actually contained The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer as well, so I decided to read them both. As per the blurb on the back, “sharing so much in background and character, these two stories, the best of Twain, indisputably belong together in one volume” – and, as it turns out, in one review 😉

The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer

The introduction to this edition says that Huck Finn is quite inconsistent as a character, and Tom Sawyer is a “simpler affair” to read. Plus, it comes first in the chronology of events, so aside from anything else it makes sense to read it first. Twain published The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer in 1876, and it was initially a complete flop (all the best ones are!) but it went on to become the best-selling of any of his works during his lifetime. The story is set in the 1840s, in the fictional town of St Petersburg (which is quite obviously based on Twain’s own hometown: Hannibal, Missouri).

I’ll resist the temptation to break down the entire plot in detail for you (otherwise this two-fer review would end up longer than the novels), but suffice it to say that the young protagonist – Tom Sawyer – has a whole bunch of small-town adventures. He wags school, tries to start gangs like his heroes from adventure books, falls in “love” with a girl from his school and breaks her heart, the whole nine yards. The character of Huckleberry Finn (“Huck”) appears often, usually as a kind of side-kick in The Tom Sawyer Show.

I noticed reading The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer that Twain presents the reader with a really unsettling juxtaposition of innocence (see: small-town adventures, as described) and very adult themes. Tom Sawyer witnesses a murder, many in the town experience abject poverty, a couple of the adults are dreadful alcoholics, plus… well, y’know, slavery. These elements – innocence and darkness, side-by-side – really reminded me of To Kill A Mockingbird. I suppose that’s hardly surprising; I’d wager that almost all Southern literature has its roots in Twain’s stories. After all, our mate Hemingway once said that “all American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain” (and, yes, he was technically referring to Huckleberry Finn, but I think it still holds up).




Tom Sawyer is a good lead-up to The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn in terms of getting you acquainted with the time period and the language. I’m going to acknowledge right here that, yes, there are a lot of racial epithets – some folks are cool with that, some aren’t, it’s up to you to decide for yourself. And on a related note, I must confess it took me an embarrassingly long time to work out that “Injun Joe” actually meant INDIAN Joe (i.e., Native American)…

The introduction was right: The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer is indeed a simpler affair, and I knocked it over fairly quickly. Despite the adult themes, it’s basically a straightforward boy-adventure story. Huck Finn, on the other hand…

The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn

As much as he was Tom Sawyer’s side-kick in the first book, Huck is definitely the star of the show in this review. The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn was published eight years after The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer, and represents – in my mind, anyway – a huge leap forward in terms of Twain’s craft. It was the first major American novel to be written entirely in vernacular English (i.e., in the slang and local colour of the region), and is now considered to be one of the Great American Novels.

I know we generally shit all over vernacular writing and whinge that it makes stories harder to read, but Huck Finn actually felt a lot more readable than Tom Sawyer, like Twain had finally hit his stride. The writing was far more engaging and immersive, and I didn’t struggle with the vernacular at all. If you really hate that style of writing, then sure, give this one a miss, but don’t make the mistake of lumping it in the same basket as D.H. Lawrence and his cronies. If you can handle the Southern accents in the movie version of Gone With The Wind, you won’t have any trouble with The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn.




And here’s a cool piece of literary history for you: Twain actually composed The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn by hand on notepaper, over the course of several years, and the original manuscript still exists today! On it, we can see how Twain’s use of language and vernacular evolved as he was writing it. The famous opening line originally read “You will not know about me”, which Twain later changed to “You do not know about me”, before finally settling on the final version which we now all know so well:

“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by a Mr Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.”

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)

So, as you can see, Huck tells us of his adventures himself, and they’re a direct sequel to The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer. Now, our mate Tom takes a pretty sharp left turn; in his book, he’d seemed like an innocent ragamuffin who let the pirate adventure stories he read feed his overactive imagination, but in the first few chapters of Huck Finn he comes across as an out-and-out psychopath. I really didn’t like him much at all after that; he literally tried to start a murder cult, and I’m not about that life.

We get to learn more about Huck Finn, finally, and he is infinitely more likeable (I mean, he’s not perfect, but I was rooting for him just the same). Huck is about thirteen or fourteen, his father is the town drunk and they’re incredibly poor, so it’s tough for the kid to fit in. In his adventures with Tom at the end of the previous book, Huck had come into a large sum of money, so the townsfolk suddenly take an interest in his upbringing and welfare. He goes to live with the Widow Douglas and her sister Miss Watson for a while, and they try to beat some Jesus into him, but he escapes their clutches… only to wind up being kidnapped by his drunken a-hole father.




Huck manages to keep his Pap’s dirty hands off the money, but still has a bit of a rough trot with the old man. He’s locked in an isolated cabin in the woods, subjected to bouts of extreme violence, and on the whole things are looking pretty bad… but Huck is an enterprising kid, and he goes all-out with an elaborate escape, literally faking his own death. I mean, sheesh! I tried to run away a few times as a kid, too, but I never took it that far.

On the run, Huck encounters Jim, a huge (but very polite) black man who was once the slave of Miss Watson. It turns out most of the townsfolk assume that Jim killed Huck, and he was scared that Miss Watson would sell him down the river, so he’s done a runner too. Huck has to do a bit of mental gymnastics to overcome the guilt he’s been conditioned to feel for helping a runaway slave, but he comes to care deeply for Jim and they have a lot in common, so they become fellow travellers on the Mississippi River. They head towards a town in Illinois (a free state) where Jim won’t have to live looking over his shoulder.

Now, opinion is very divided as to whether this is a “racist” book, even above and beyond Twain’s liberal use of the n-word. Many academics posit that Twain intended The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn to read as a scathing satire of entrenched social attitudes, especially racism, but there are plenty of people who disagree. They say that Twain not only used racist language, but relied on racial stereotypes to get his point across. For my part, as I read it, there’s obviously a lot of structural racism involved and some white-saviour elements that grossed me out, but Huck and Jim’s relationship seemed to be very genuine, mutual, affectionate, and respectful. On several occasions, Twain explicitly showed Huck working hard to overcome the attitudes he had been socially conditioned to hold, and behave in such a way that contradicted the racism of the time. As such, I don’t think we should hold up The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as the last word on defeating racism in America, but simultaneously it seems that it was rather progressive in its own time, and it’s still a book from which we could certainly learn more.

“A sound heart is a surer guide than an ill-trained conscience… [Huck Finn is] a book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collusion and conscience suffers a defeat.”

Mark Twain

Anyway, back to the fun stuff: Huck and Jim have a series of adventures and mishaps as they travel along the Mississippi. Towards the end, Jim gets captured by a family who believe there is a substantial reward on his head (being, as he is, a runaway slave). Huck reunites with Tom Sawyer, and the two of them make a (very, laughably, elaborate) plan to set Jim free. It involves secret messages, a hidden tunnel, a rope ladder smuggled in Jim’s food (he was kept on the ground floor, but okay), snakes, and a bunch of other stuff that Tom had read about in adventure books. When they finally get Jim out, Tom gets shot in the leg and Jim remains with him, at risk of being recaptured, rather than taking the opportunity to escape alone.

(This is all pretty typical of the adventures that Huck and Jim have together, by the way, and there are a lot of ’em.)




Still, it’s all resolved rather quickly. It turns out that Jim’s “owner” (ugh) had died a couple weeks prior, and granted him freedom in her will. Huck’s father is dead, so he can return home safely. He and Tom set off back to St Petersburg, and Huck declares that he is quite glad to be done writing his story. He knows there’s a plan afoot to adopt and “civilise” him, so he plans to flee west (to “Indian Territory”) if they try it.

As much as Tom Sawyer’s adventures reminded me of To Kill A Mockingbird, The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn oddly evoked another more contemporary book: The Catcher In The Rye. A lot of the same elements are there: a lost, wayward boy; strong characterisation through coarse language and slang; and (of course) a long history of being challenged and banned. As early as 1885, libraries had banned Huck Finn from their shelves. The Boston Transcript newspaper that year ran a story that read:

“The Concord (Mass.) Public Library committee has decided to exclude Mark Twain’s book from the library. One member of the committee says that, while he does not wish to call it immoral, he thinks it contains but little humor, and that of a very coarse type. He regards it as the veriest trash. The library and the other members of the committee entertain similar views, characterizing it as rough, coarse, and inelegant, dealing with a series of experiencing not elevating, the whole book being more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people.”

Boston Transcript (1885)

Twain reportedly then wrote a letter to his editor, saying:

“Apparently, the Concord Library has condemned Huck as ‘trash and only suitable for the slums’. This will sell us another twenty-five thousand copies for sure!”

Mark Twain (1885) – funny bastard, eh?

The controversy persists to this day, and it ties into the whole is-the-book-racist debate. Huck Finn was the fifth most challenged book in the U.S. throughout the 1990s, with most objections citing its frequent use of the n-word and other racial slurs. Some publishers have attempted to mollify concerned parents and teachers by, for instance, publishing editions that cut out or replace the offending language. These attempts always backfire (duh), serving only to stoke the fires of the controversy. There’s no “winning” this debate, I tell you…

There is a whole world of really interesting articles and discussions out there, and if you’re curious you should definitely take a look. A lot of people who are far cleverer than me have posted some really insightful analysis about Twain’s treatment of race, identity, class, and the American South. It makes for fascinating reading, whether you (like me) have just read The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn for the first time, or whether it’s your life-long favourite. As for the book itself, I’d say steer clear if you’re sensitive to issues of race and discriminatory language, but if you can stomach that stuff reasonably well, you should give it a go. If you read it once in high-school. but haven’t picked it up since, it’s definitely one that’s worth revisiting. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a nice entree, a simpler story of some interest, but The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn is the main course, Twain’s pièce de résistance.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn:

  • “I THOUGHT THAT THE STORY WAS GOING GREAT AT THE BEGINNING AND IT WAS BUT I JUST STARTED TO GET BORED” – Paul Robert Carroll
  • “Warning, will tell kids about some of your tricks.” – Regular Buyer
  • “Book isn’t normal sized” – Emily S
  • “Mark Twain didn’t write many bad ones.” – Thomas E. Bracking
  • “I’d talk about the plot but I don’t want to get shot!” – Solong
  • “Haven’t read them yet, but I’m sure I will like them because Mark Twain is incredibly entertaining for a dead guy.” – M. Waters
  • “i got this book as a gift to my ex a bit before we broke up.” – David A Medina
  • “Dude no words only pics a few pics 4 me. I hated it. This best way 2 read this is 2 smash whatever device u r using” – Ayden mccormick
  • “I was forced to read this for school and it was a complete waste of time I would much rather be reading Lolita or listening to one direction” – Felicia Hill


Kim – Rudyard Kipling

I’d always thought Rudyard Kipling was a poet, but here we are. You’re never too old to learn! He was born in Bombay in 1865, and worked as a journalist in Lahore, until he began writing stories and poems about India. He wound up winning a Nobel Prize for his literature, so it would seem he was pretty damn good at it. He’s probably better known for The Jungle Book and Wee Willie Winkie, but I decided to read Kim, first published in 1901.

The blurb on the back of this edition is hectic, and I had no idea what to make of it:

“Kim, a young Irish orphan, is brought up in the native quarter of Lahore. While he is accompanying a Tibetan lama on his search for the River of Immortality, Kim is picked up by the British and groomed for the Secret Service. His first assignment is to capture the papers of a Russian spy in the Himalayas…”

Kim, Pan Classics edition (1978)

That makes it sound like some kind of mash-up of The Alchemist and The Thirty-Nine Steps, right? Actually, that’s probably not far off…

So, Kim‘s story takes place against the backdrop of “The Great Game” (which I thought meant chess, but apparently not). That’s what we now call the political conflict between Russia and Britain in Central Asia, around the time of the Second and Third Afghan Wars (late 1800s, basically). Kipling loved India, his homeland, and right off the bat he gives you gorgeous portraits of the people, and the landscape, with particular focus on the bazaars and life on the road.

Kim is a young orphaned boy, his Irish father and mother having died in abject poverty. He etches out a living for himself running around the streets of Lahore, begging and doing small errands for the local horse traders and other sketchy types. He befriends an old Tibetan lama, who is on a quest to free himself from the “Wheel of Things” (yeah, alright mate) and find the “River of the Arrow” (bloody hippies). Kim thinks that doesn’t sound too bad, and he doesn’t have much else going on, so he ships out with the old guy, becoming his disciple and helping him along the road. He also takes on a secret mission from the local bigwig, to carry a message to the head of the British intelligence in Umballa, but that seems pretty incidental to the road-trip… for now.


Kim carries all of his father’s papers with him, which turns out to be a bad move. A regimental chaplain recognises him as the son of one of their soldiers, and ships him off to boarding school in Lucknow. The lama is pretty bummed to be separated from his only disciple, but agrees to pay for the bboy’s education and figures they’ll hook back up again later. Not only does Kim stay in touch with the lama, he also keeps his finger in with all his Secret Service connections, and trains himself in espionage on the sly. Hey, a boy’s got to have a hobby!

The military decides that three years of schooling will suffice, and Kim is appointed to a government position, with a bit of a holiday to get himself ready. He uses that time to catch up with his old mate the lama, and they trek to the Himalayas. Here’s where his worlds collide: the lama unwittingly pisses off the Russian intelligence agents, and Kim uses the opportunity to pick up a bunch of important papers and staff to pass back to the British as he’s rescuing his pal.

And cue an existential crisis: the lama starts wailing about how he has “gone astray”, because he can hardly expect to find this “River of the Arrow” in the mountains, so he orders his travelling companions to take them back. This suits Kim just fine, because it allows him to drop the Russian documents back to his British bosses.


Now, the lama gets his happy ending: he finds his river, achieves Enlightenment, yadda yadda yadda. But it’s up to the reader to decide Kim‘s fate. Either he chooses to stick with his old mate and live the life of an enlightened Tibetan Buddhist, or he sets off again to do more spying. Kipling was very deliberately vague on which way it goes. All Kim had to say to the lama in the closing passage is: “I am not a Sahib. I am thy chela.” (Meaning “I am not a master. I am your servant.”) So, that’s about as clear as mud…

If I’m being honest, a lot of this plot went over my head as I was reading. I really only started to connect the dots when I was reading summaries online later. It’s like A Passage To India all over again. I just didn’t get enough of this story to offer any brilliant insights – sorry!

Kim is considered by many to be Kipling’s magnum opus, but that is (of course) hotly debated in some circles. A lot of the controversy seems to center around whether it should be considered children’s literature (I say no: if it went over my head, I don’t know what hope an eight-year-old has). It’s definitely an adventure story, a bildungsroman, and – drawing heavily upon Kipling’s own experiences growing up in India (including the clash of East and West) – it all takes place against this backdrop of politics and military conflict. You could probably spend years studying this book academically, because there’s a lot to look at.

Academics that have given it a gander have spent a lot of time considering Kipling’s depictions of race. The introduction to this edition says: “The once fashionable charge that Kipling was a particularly unpleasant apologist for imperialism, brutal, racist, and jingo, was always a caricature; yet there are parts of his work that give even his admirers pause.” And I’d say that’s a fair assessment. Even though the language seemed more contemporary than I would have otherwise expected, some of the stuff around Kim being a white boy who appeared brown gave me the icks.


I think you need to know what you’re getting in to when you pick up Kim, and you need to be deeply invested in the time period, the setting, the culture, and the politics, in order to fully appreciate the story. For the rest of us, I think you can probably pick up just about everything you need by reading a few summaries online, and scanning some extracts with Kipling’s particularly poetic and beautiful descriptions of India, for which he’s well known. For me, Kim was a pretty book, an interesting book, but probably not one I’ll pick up again.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Kim:

  • “The footnotes of the Kindle Edition don’t work properly. Tapping a word gives the footnote of the next word which is very inconvenient.” – T.O.
  • “The story is good just not the easiest story to read, maybe I had a bad week. I normally love Rudyard Kiplings work. I wish it was an awesome book with my name as the title. It’s not even a girl called Kim lol” – KimBuc2
  • “no written in any language I can fathom.” – 1thru5
  • “quick service good price great writing I didn’t get every reference” – bojangleshiker
  • “It’s old. It’s “racist”. It is an absolutely wonderful book !” – Karen W
  • “I had heart that Kim was one of the best books of all time. Had to wait 2 months for library to acquire it.



    Have never been so disappointed in anything. Cults, voodoo, spells, magic, demonic activity, caste system, blasphemy, abuse, violence, superstition, humanism (worship of certain humans), depression,… UGH!!



    WHAT A WASTE OF TIME!! DON’T BOTHER READING THIS.” – DeAnne


The Wind In The Willows – Kenneth Grahame

Keeper-Upperers, I made a whoopsy! Back when I reviewed Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, I mistakenly labelled it as the only children’s book on The List – I forgot entirely about this bad boy! The Wind In The Willows is a children’s story written by Kenneth Grahame, first published in 1908. Set in a rural part of Edwardian England, it follows the adventures (or misadventures, as it were) of four anthropomorphised animals: Mole, Rat, Badger, and (be still my beating heart) Toad. Having not been totally Disney-fied, it hasn’t quite reached the pervasive popularity of Alice, but I’d say it’s about on par in terms of loveliness.

Now, oddly for such a delightful little tome, The Wind In The Willows was actually born of some pretty miserable circumstances. Kenneth Grahame had a pretty rough trot, on the whole. His mother died when he was five, and his father had a pretty hectic drinking problem, so the kids were dumped with their grandmother. It was all rather shitful, but Grahame made the most of it. His Grandma lived near the Thames and he loved exploring the area, mucking around, as kids do. He survived his rough start, and went on to score a pretty swanky secretary job at the Bank Of England. He married at the age of 40, and the following year his wife had their only child, a sickly boy named Alastair (nicknamed Mouse), born premature and blind in one eye.

Raising Alastair was tough, and a few years after his birth Grahame decided he was jack of the rat race. He resigned from his position at the bank and moved the whole family back to the country, where he felt most at home. He spent a lot of his time “simply messing about in boats”, and began expanding the bedtime stories he had made up for Alastair into a manuscript. The characters of Toad, Mole, Ratty, and Badger had been fixtures in the Grahame household during Alastair’s childhood; even when Papa Kenneth went off on one of his boating trips, he would write letters home containing tales of their adventures for his son. So, The Wind In The Willows must’ve been a walk-up start, right? Kid tested, and approved?

Well, not really: a number of publishers rejected the manuscript outright. Everyone was expecting books more in the vein of his previous works (he’d already published The Golden Age, and Dream Days, by this point), and they were sorely disappointed. When he finally found a publisher willing to take a chance on his children’s story, the critics panned it… but the public loved it! Bookstores kept selling out, so multiple print-runs were required, in quick succession. Plus, it got a ringing endorsement from President Teddy Roosevelt, who wrote to Grahame to say he had “read it and reread it, and [had] come to accept the characters as old friends”. That’s one heck of a blurb, eh?




I’m with Teddy: it’s a brilliant book. And it’s certainly not “just” a children’s story. There’s plenty in there for adults, like this gem:

“The best part of a holiday is perhaps not so much to be resting yourself, as to see all the other fellows busy working.”

Page 13, The Wind In The Willows

The story starts with Mole, who decides he can’t be fucked cleaning his messy house, so he abandons it altogether and goes to crash on a mate’s couch. HUGE respect, straight off – I feel that! He and his mate, Rat, have a wonderful time boating every day and living together (a more contemporary interpretation of this story offers a queer reading of their relationship, but that’s perhaps a discussion for another day). They decide to visit their mate, Toad.

Now, Toad’s a real larrikin; he has a tendency to jump on every fad, and the latest is his growing obsession with motorcars. He’s kind of a garbage person, with his criminal tendencies and blatant fat-phobia and all, but he’s also debonair and charming in his over-the-top way, and anyone who says he isn’t their favourite character is lying.

Mole decides he would also like to meet the elusive Badger, but gets really lost trying to find his house. Rat rescues him from freezing to death in the woods, and on their way home they end up stumbling upon Badger’s abode anyway. He offers them shelter from the snowstorm outside, and winds up joining their growing posse.





Meanwhile, Toad’s obsession with motorcars quickly spirals out of control. While Badger, Ratty, and Mole are sitting around drinking tea like grown-ups, Toad steals and crashes several cars, winds up hospitalised on more than one occasion, and has to pay out big money in fines. The crew holds an intervention for him, but he escapes and steals a convertible for one last joyride (that, of course, lands him in jail). He eventually escapes, and has all kinds of mishaps and misadventures making his way home. When he rejoins his mates, he convinces them to gang up and banish the weasles and stoats that have been squatting in his home during his incarceration absence. Toad learns a few important lessons about humility and friendship, and they all live happily ever after.

I thought The Wind In The Willows was going to be a light, easy read, and it was… but not as light or as easy as I was expecting. It seemed to require a lot more focus than Alice, but (granted) I did have a nasty head cold at the time I was reading it and my brain felt like Swiss cheese, so it might not have been entirely Grahame’s fault. I didn’t have it as bad as some folks: a historian was found tortured and murdered in his home in 2016, because a thief had broken in, intent on finding the rare first edition hidden somewhere in the house. (Seriously, this actually happened!)

The Wind In The Willows would be a great one to read out loud to kids, but that’s not all it’s good for. It’s also a great pick for adults who need a little bit of a break from lofty literature (like I did after last week). And I’m glad Grahame managed to turn his shitty life circumstances into a wonderful and enduring story that has become such a major source of joy in so many childhoods – good on him!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Wind In The Willows:

  • “The plot was awful it was silly and profane. Don’t you dare waste your time on this book please heed me don’t download this horrible awful mean.nasty ugly book!!!!!!!!!!!!” – Shannon
  • “I have no idea how to read or write. Was disappointed when this wasn’t hentai.” – F.T.
  • “This is my very favorite book. Nice Kindle version. The illustrations look good on my iPad.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I am a young reader and I found NO interest in this book.
I think that this should have more drama.” – garcia


What Makes A Book A Classic?

What makes a book a classic? There are about as many answers to that question as there are booklovers. When I started the Keeping Up With The Penguins project, my goal was to catch up on all the classic books that everyone else seemed to have already read, even though I only had the most nebulous idea of what that actually meant. In categorising my reviews, I’ve used the rough guesstimation that books over 100 years old that are still in circulation must be classics, but over time I’ve come to realise that this might not be the only measure. So, let’s take a look at this eternal question and answer it for ourselves: what makes a book a classic? 

What Makes A Book A Classic? - Text Overlaid on Collage of Penguin Classics Book Covers - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Is “Classic” Even The Right Word To Use?

First off, let’s make sure we’re all talking about the same thing. Classic books are those we hold up as being exemplary or noteworthy in some fashion (more on that in a minute). Whether or not a book is considered a “classic” will change over time, between readers, and so forth. It’s a floating target, unlike related concepts like “the canon”.

The canon is more like a specific list of books that are considered “essential” in our understanding of a period, area, or group. That’s why you might hear reference to the “Western canon” (which would include books like David Copperfield, The Divine Comedy, and The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn), or the “African American canon” (which would include books like Beloved, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and Their Eyes Were Watching God). The canon is usually presented as a reading list, by a university or publisher. Consider it the cousin that comes to your classic books barbecue wearing an Armani suit.

Is every classic book written by a dead, white man?

Let’s address the big, hairy problem right up front: too often, when we talk about “classic” books, we’re talking about the ones written by dead white men. Straight men, non-disabled men, and men of wealth and power. There are exceptions, of course – Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, for instance, or the works of the Brontë sisters – but for the most part, it’s privileged white dudes all the way down.

I don’t think there’s anyone out there who honestly believes that those men are the only ones who wrote books worthy of being designated as classics, so why are writers of other identities so often overlooked? Reasons abound, to be honest, and I could probably write a thesis on the topic. For now, suffice to say, I think it’s a combination of a few factors: historically, white men were the only ones who had the opportunity to write (by virtue of their wealth and power) and the networks to disseminate their stories; the stories they published reflected a prevailing worldview, which made them popular; and the ivory towers were mostly staffed by more white men, who felt most comfortable teaching their students books written by people who looked like them (meaning students of that particular identity were more likely to take up a pen, see-it-to-be-it and all). On and on the cycle goes…





So, we must do what we can to redress the balance. Make sure that the criteria you choose to judge for yourself what makes a book a “classic” isn’t exclusionary. When you find yourself perusing shelves of classics, look for the works by women, by people of colour, by people with disabilities, by LGBTIQ+ people – any work from a perspective that has been marginalised in the past. Request those books, review them, recommend them, and make sure they get the recognition they deserve. By the magic of the internet, these works are now reaching previously-unimaginable audiences, and the publishers and gatekeepers are hearing the demands of readers to expand their catalogue. Keep fighting the good fight!

Criteria to Consider When Defining Classic Books

Let’s get to the fun stuff! How do we decide whether a book should be called a “classic”?

Age

This is the most common, and most obvious, criterion: age. Or, put another way, we can be fairly confident that a book that has endured for decades or centuries – that has “stood the test of time”, if you will – is a classic. It’s a great idea because it’s easily quantifiable; there’s nothing subjective about how many years a book has been around, which means fewer arguments. But how old does a book have to be to be a “classic”, exactly? I used the nice round figure of 100 years, for simplicity, but that (of course) shifts year-by-year, and it’s a little long in some people’s estimation. Some experts suggest “generations”, rather than an exact number of years, because books that endure past those who were alive when it was first published must have something good going on. It’s an idea.

Of course, either yardstick would exclude books that many booklovers consider to be classics regardless: think To Kill A Mockingbird, or The Grapes of Wrath. That’s why some have suggested the creation of a new category, the “modern classic”, for those books that aren’t quite old enough to be considered classics proper, but are well on their way.



Literary Merit

I think we can all agree that simply being old isn’t enough: what else makes a book a classic? The next most obvious criterion is whether or not it’s any good. An old book can hang around for lots of reasons, but in order for us to consider it a “classic” it should probably pass some test of merit. I’m sure you can see why this is problematic, though; gauging the quality of a book is deeply subjective (just ask anyone who’s been to a book club!).

A comprehensive discussion on how to determine literary merit is probably a bit beyond me and my scope here on my lil’ blog. What I will say is that I think it’s important to recognise that “good” doesn’t necessarily mean “readable”. For instance, I can acknowledge that The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman has a lot of literary merit, while also simultaneously believing that it sucked from a contemporary reader’s standpoint. A book’s literary merit and whether it is fun to read are two completely separate matters. And, failing a final ruling from an all-powerful dictator, it’s probably going to be up to each of us to decide for ourselves what constitutes “literary merit” and whether a book has it or not (for the time being).

Cultural Contribution, Significance, and Popularity

Books don’t exist in a vacuum: they affect the world around them, and in turn take on new meanings when the world around them changes. Take, for instance, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four. His themes and imagery of surveillance, censorship, misinformation and government control are constantly evoked in political debates, and his work has taken on scary new resonance over the last few years. There are others, too, like Catch-22 or Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, that are so pervasive they actually become part of our cultural lexicon. We continue to read and reflect on these books because they’ve made such significant contributions to our world; they’ve become, in effect, household names.

Within literature itself, the significance and popularity of a book is often marked by its influence on other, subsequent works. Sometimes this as obvious as a direct adaptation (look at how many contemporary takes we have on Pride And Prejudice, for example, and Little Women). Often, though, it’s much more subtle, with recent works calling upon or emulating styles and themes of classic books. I think it’s only fair that we consider these kinds of literary and cultural contributions when deciding what makes a book a classic, as they make it possible for a book to a book to retain its popularity over time.



Historical Record and Influence

One of the most wonderful things about the written word is the way that it endures, and what it can tell us about the past. Even though, as we’ve acknowledged, perspectives on the past have all to often come from privileged white men with their own inherent biases, they still managed to record details that might have otherwise been lost, and we’re better able now than ever before to think critically about them as sources of historical record. Consider classic books such as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which has taught us so much about the Middle Ages, or more recently the works of Dickens and the Brontës, which have given us a multi-layered understanding of the mores of Victorian England.

Some classic books take it one step further, and actually influence the course of history. The best example of that has to be Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, often called The Great American Novel, and credited – by Abraham Lincoln, no less! – with prompting the American civil war and the crusade to end slavery. It’s a high bar, no doubt, but this kind of historical influence is surely at least part of what makes a book a classic.

How Italo Calvino Defined Classic Books

Unsurprisingly, writers have thought a lot about this question (because, really, it concerns them most of all). Italo Calvino, a beautiful Italian author, wrote a whole book on the subject – Why Read The Classics? – and gave us a list of definitions that he felt, considered as a whole, would bring us closer to understanding what makes a book a classic. I’ve reproduced a few of my favourites here:

“A classic is a book which with each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading.”

“A classic is a book which even when we read it for the first time gives the sense of rereading something we have read before.”

“A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers.”

“Classics are books which, the more we think we know them through hearsay, the more original, unexpected, and innovative we find them when we actually read them.”

“‘Your’ classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it.”

Italo Calvino, “Why Read The Classics?”

He concludes that a universal definition of a classic book is basically impossible, and “there is nothing for it but for all of us to invent our own ideal libraries of classics”.





So, what makes a book a classic? I’m with Calvino, it’s ultimately up to each of us to decide for ourselves. That said, I think age, literary merit, cultural contribution, and historical influence are all good factors to consider. I think it’s also important that we do everything we can to ensure that we don’t end up lost in the cock forest (as Benjamin Law once so delightfully put it). We need to make a determined effort to include classic books written by women, people of colour, and other marginalised groups. What do you think makes a book a classic? Tell me in the comments (or share your thoughts over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman – Laurence Sterne

When you pick up a book called The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, you figure that you’re going to read all about… well, the life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, who was probably a top bloke. But you’d be wrong! Laurence Sterne has some fun in store for us, my friend…

This book was published in nine volumes, the first two appearing in 1759 and the remaining seven coming out over the following years. In the mid-1760s, a lot of imitators and copycats came out of the woodwork, trying to cash in on Sterne’s success, so he personally signed every single copy of the Volume 5 print-run, ensuring that his loyal readers knew they were getting the real deal. (Turns out John Green wasn’t the first to do it after all, ha!)

The introductory essays in this edition use a lot of words to say… well, not much, really. They’re probably super-interesting to English majors and people who have spent their lives in academia, but for the uninitiated they’re pretty impenetrable. You probably won’t get much out of them unless you’re already very familiar with Sterne in his contemporaries; otherwise, you’re probably better off perusing Laurence Sterne’s Wikipedia page instead, or reading this Very Good Review from KUWTP 😉

So, The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, as we’ve established, purports to be an auto-biography of its titular character, but that’s a fucking joke. Ha ha bloody ha, Sterne! You figure out pretty quickly that Tristram’s defining characteristic is that he can’t tell a straightforward story, and he goes off in tangents that make Mrs Dalloway feel like a walk in the park.





This makes for a very slow read. By the half-way point, about ten chapters in to Volume IV, Tristram had just been born and named. That’s as far as we get into the “life and opinions” of Tristram Shandy over the course of 260 pages. Yawn! The narrator spends most of that time prattling on about his father (Walter), his mother (unnamed, sexist!), his Uncle Toby, and the servant Trim. He makes a whole lot of references to Shakespeare (the local parson is named Yorick, just in case it wasn’t obvious enough), and he also borrows heavily from John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding. There really isn’t all that much life-and-opinion-ing at all, to be honest, even once Tristram’s life actually begins.

I’m not ashamed to admit I gave up on the footnotes. There were just SO MANY! I got carpal tunnel from flicking back and forth every time one appeared. I took to just skimming over them all before I began each chapter, figuring I’d catch enough give me the context I needed… but by the last few volumes, I’d given up on them altogether. Seriously, there were footnotes within footnotes! It was footnote-ception! It reminded me a lot of The Divine Comedy in that regard.

It also reminded me a lot of Moby Dick, in terms of pacing: slow, with bursts of action, and lots of digression. If you enjoyed Moby Dick stylistically (not just for the swashbuckling), then I’d recommend The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman to you in a heartbeat. Most of the “action” is domestic in nature, often centering on arguments between the cynical Papa Walter and the optimistic (read: naive) Uncle Toby.

But those small moments of interest are separated by Tristram’s elongated, bloated musings on everything: from sex, to insults, to the influence of one’s name, to the shape of one’s nose, to the science of obstetrics, to strategic siege warfare, to the state of philosophical thought… in the end, the only actual events Sterne describes are Tristram’s birth (where his nose was crushed by the doctor’s forceps, to his father’s great dismay – I think “nose” might have been a euphemism for “cock”), a couple of other minor accidents he had growing up, and an adolescent trip to France. The rest of the book is all miscellaneous ramblings.





As ever, when it comes to lofty classics, I’m sure I’m missing the point. Over the last hundred years or so, Sterne has been lauded for his “masterpiece of bawdy humour and rich satire”, and “gloriously disordered narrative”. Apparently, The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is “a joyful celebration of endless possibilities of the art of fiction [and] also a wry demonstration of its limitations”. I’m sure all that is true… but I’m not the only one who didn’t get it. His contemporaries and the literary critics of his time did not like his shit at all. They slammed him for his “obscenity”, to the point of defaming him with ongoing widespread accusations of “mindless plagiarism” and “artistic dishonesty”. The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman was pretty popular with the hoi-polloi, but it was a long time (literally centuries) before academics and critics accepted him. I’ve also seen this book called “the first post-modernist novel”, which (given it was published in the 1700s) begs the question: can a book even be post-modern if modernism hasn’t happened yet? No one can give me a straight answer on this, which leads me to believe they are all talking out of their arses.

In sum, The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is not for beginners. If you’re new to the classics, or even to 18th century literature specifically, this is not the one you want to start with. Gulliver’s Travels is from the same period, but infinitely more readable. The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is a Serious Book For Grown Ups(TM), best read and understood by people who have devoted their lives to studying English literature and history. If you like to read for fun, if you like getting lost in a good page-turner, heck – if you like it when the narrator sticks to the damn point: this is not the book for you.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman:

  • “I had no idea what the author was talking about. I just read it to make me fall asleep whenever I had insomnia.” – Loretta
  • “It’s probably great, but I didn’t notice it was in German, a language I don’t know.” – Marie Brack
  • “What in the hell was this lunatic yammering about for all those 650 pages? What is the deal with his obsession with noses, penises, and hobby-horses, hobby-horses, hobby-horses? Why does anyone consider it amusing when a writer keeps telling you he’s going to get somewhere, but never does? Why is it entertaining at all to have blank chapters? Why is that cute? Why is that interesting? Who finds this funny? Who finds anything funny here at all? Why does this book of endless, mindless prattle, blabber, and piffle tickle anyone at all? Who finds digression to be enjoyable in literature? You? Why? Why? Tell me!

    

I checked the ratings on Goodreads. This is what it showed:



    5 stars: 33%, 4901

    4 stars: 28%, 4064

    3 stars: 22%, 3268

    2 stars: 9%, 1414
    
1 star: 5%, 848



    Meaning: 95% of these readers are flock-following, digression-loving, hobby-horse riding loonies who have swallowed the Kool-aid. There is nothing here but vacuous thundergunk. Pure, putrid unentertaining garbage. If I would have laughed once – just once – during the reading of this book, I would have given it a whole extra star, but it couldn’t even do that. I give him one star for spelling Tristram’s name right, and even then, it’s a made-up name anyway, so I may have been hoodwinked as well.” – Martin M. Bodek

  • “English humour without a plot line” – Amazon Customer


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 my Keeping Up With The Penguins reading 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 her 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
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