Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Classic (page 1 of 6)

Sanditon – Jane Austen

I’m slowly making my way through Jane Austen’s body of work: first up was Emma, then Pride And Prejudice. I couldn’t make up my mind which to read next… until the universe made it up for me. The wonderful folks at Oxford University Press were kind enough to send me a copy of Sanditon for review. Never heard of it? Not surprising! Only the die-hard Austen fans really have. It’s the partial manuscript, her final effort, the one she was working on when she died, aged just 41.

If you take a look at the original manuscript (images are available, with transcription, open access at janeausten.ac.uk – good on them!), you can actually trace the timeline of Austen’s writing process. She began Sanditon on 27 January 1817, wrote twelve chapters, then set it aside on 18 March that year. She wrote to her niece a few days later, complaining that she felt unwell, and her condition deteriorated quickly. The unfinished novel, some 24,000 words, sat in a drawer and wasn’t published until more than a century after her death (in 1925). The title comes from the fictional seaside township she created for the story, Sanditon, though that title was applied retroactively (Austen herself never actually decided on a title for the manuscript). It was likely based on the real town of Worthing, where Austen stayed in 1805.

If someone handed you Sanditon without a cover or title page, you probably wouldn’t recognise it as one of Austen’s books. It’s set by the sea, for one thing, moving away from her traditional country-village settings and impoverished-gentry family homes. It may well be the first “seaside novel”, a short tradition in English lit that came after Austen’s time. It’s more than the setting, though, that sets Sanditon apart. Austen was clearly in the mood to mix things up. It starts with a bang, right in the middle of the action, where her novels would have usually begun with a bit of background information or family history (yes, we’re all thinking of “it’s a truth universally acknowledged” here).

She was drawing on a combination of the burgeoning trend for seaside holidays – resorts were capitalising on the reputation of fresh air and salt water bathing for “health” – and the site of cultural revolution that they represented. Here was a setting where the female body, so strictly policed in Austen’s world (real and fictional), was freed from its usual constraints. These towns had floating populations and attracted a variety of characters from all over, which gave her an opportunity (or would have, I guess) to explore new dynamics and new opportunities for humour and critique.





Austen didn’t stray too far from her repertoire, though: Sanditon is still a social satire, as best we can tell, a commentary on the ridiculousness of the craze for seaside holidays. It is also, in some ways, a gentle ribbing of hypochondriacs, people wealthy and privileged enough to imagine illnesses and cures, written by a woman who (we now know) was dying.

It all starts (with a bang, as I said) when the carriage of Mr & Mrs Parker topples over near the home of the Heywoods. Mr Parker is injured, and the carriage all kinds of buggered, so the couple stays with the Heywoods for a fortnight until everyone’s ready to get back on the road. Mr Parker speaks very fondly of Sanditon, a former fishing village; he and his business partner, Lady Denham, have designs on opening a fashionable seaside resort there.

Charlotte Heywood is the eldest daughter still living at the Heywood home (and, again as best we can tell, she was all set to become the main character). When Mr Parker and his carriage are ready to go, she tags along with them, and stays with the Parkers in Sanditon as a summer guest. There, she meets the locals, including Mrs Denham – a twice-widowed woman who got her fortune from her first husband, and her title from the second (wink-wink). She has some scheming and opportunistic family members (it is still an Austen novel, remember) hoping to secure her estate.





It’s a strong set-up, but unfortunately the Sanditon manuscript ends before everything can be laid out properly. More characters are introduced – like Mr Parker’s two sisters, self-declared invalids, and a brother – but the novel cuts off before they can be fully developed and their roles revealed. Still, Austen has just enough time to work in a few zingers.

“I am very sorry you met with your accident, but upon my word you deserved it.–Going after a Doctor!–Why, what should we do with a Doctor here? It would be only encouraging our servants and the Poor to fancy themselves ill, if there was a Doctor at hand.”

Lady Denham, page 35

And a pro health tip from Arthur: take your toast with a “reasonable” quantity of butter, because dry toast will ravage your stomach lining like a “nutmeg grater”. True fact!

Because Austen laid all the ground-work with Sanditon, it’s been a favourite of “continuators” – later writers who tried to complete the novel and emulate her style (her niece, Anna Lefoy, among them). That means there are a few different versions of Sanditon floating around, but my OUP edition is the OG: edited by Kathryn Sutherland (who has worked on a whole bunch of Austen projects), and presented faithfully to Austen’s original work. That means it’s a slim book (it is, after all, unfinished, and ends abruptly in the middle of Chapter 12), but it’s beautifully produced, with a well-researched author biography, introduction, and notes.

Ultimately, Sanditon reads like what it is: a first draft of an incomplete novel. There’s enough of Austen’s natural talent and brilliance there to make it worth reading, but also enough to bum you out – it is terribly, terribly sad that this work will forever remain unfinished (continuators be damned). Still, I appreciated this little window into Austen’s mind, and the opportunity to see the machinations that came before her formally polished and published prose.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Sanditon:

  • “ “I am everything Jane Austin”!” – Gloria Groot
  • “didnt finish” – Joan Strochak
  • “This is not the complete book, only the section Jane Austen wrote” – C. Jones
  • “Slow to start but got better near the end …..” Kaya Penelope
  • “Disappointed with ending, author seems to have tired of writing and abruptly ends the story.” – Teri Jensen

Sybil – Benjamin Disraeli

You might know Benjamin Disraeli from his time as a conservative Prime Minister of the UK. He became a Tory MP in 1837, then Prime Minister in 1868. You might find it hard to believe that he also squeezed out a decent writing career – not just before, or after, but actually during his time in office. Yep, that’s right, he was running the country and writing and publishing books all the while. And today, I’m reviewing one of them: Sybil, or The Two Nations.

As far as legacies of politicians go, Sybil is a pretty good one. First, it’s where we get the political concept of “one nation”, frequently cited (and misused, *cough*Pauline Hanson*cough*) by politicians today. It alludes to the bitter divide between the “two nations” of England in Disraeli’s time: the aristocratic landowners lived lives of luxury, while the workers and underclasses lived in horrific conditions and extreme poverty. Disraeli was making A Point, you see, that we should aspire to be “one nation”: a government that represents and rules for all, not just a privileged few. Oh, and Sybil also gave us the trope of a villain stroking a white cat. So, there you go.

Sybil was first published in 1845, the same year as Friedrich Engels’ The Condition Of The Working Class In England. Both books sought to draw attention to the plight of the poor, just in different ways. Disraeli wasn’t shy about shamelessly ripping off the ideas and research of others. In fact, a lot of the background information for Sybil was drawn directly from official government reports, to which he had access by virtue of his job. Disraeli wanted to make his political and philosophical points more palatable by shoe-horning them into a love story: “a tender love story linked to a gripping detective plot”, according to the blurb on this edition. That makes Sybil a “roman à thèse”, a fancy way of saying it’s a fictional book about an idea, a novel with a thesis. But don’t be fooled: the “love story” is the flimsiest excuse for a premise that I’ve ever encountered, and Sybil is a blatant critique of capitalism and industralisation.

Look, I’m all about political reform and uplifting the working classes. I can totally get behind Disraeli’s points about representative democracy and equality. But I must say, when it came to crafting a fictional story to make those points, Disraeli made a real pig’s ear of it. Sybil reads like he sat down with a checklist of everything that should be included in an “industrial novel”, and wrote until he checked off all of them, one by one: someone tours a factory and is horrified by the workers’ conditions, the workers go on strike, all the rich people panic, the characters have political arguments, someone tries to start a union…



The “story”, if we can call it that, follows Charles Egremont, a new conservative party MP (whose rich family basically bought him the election). His brother wants him to marry an heiress, Lady Joan, but Charles is ambivalent about that union (to say the least). While he’s trying to worm his way out of it, he runs into a bloke named Gerard, and overhears his daughter – Sybil – singing. And just like that, Charles is a goner! Just from hearing her voice, he falls head-over-clacker in love. Lady Joan be damned!

It sounds somewhat romantic, but bear in mind that it takes a lot of meandering chapters to get to this point – weird hybrids of character histories, and critical essays about British politics and monarchy rule. The book is set around the time of Queen Victoria’s ascendance to the throne, but Disraeli rambles on and on about hundreds of years of history before that. So, y’know, don’t get too excited.

Once he’s “fallen in love”, Charles Egremont starts hanging out with Gerard, trying to get a whiff of his daughter, and sticking his nose in everywhere it doesn’t belong. Charles tells himself he’s just trying to find out first-hand what the life of the working classes is actually like. And reader, it is grim. He is astounded that it’s so different to his life as a member off the aristocracy (imagine!), with all the starvation and disease and general misery. After a big blow-up argument with his brother about cancelling the wedding planner, Charles decides to move into a house up the road from Gerard for a while. All the better to continue with his new hobbies: spying on the poor, and jerking it to Sybil.

This gives Disraeli ample opportunity to air ALL of his grievances with capitalism. He likens the exploitation of the working classes to serfdom. What a revelation! *eye roll* Okay, fine, at the time, it probably was a revelation, but reading this “groundbreaking” critique two hundred years later, I was just sitting there like… yeah, no shit, mate.



Ultimately, as Charles watches on, the working classes mobilise (yeah, boys!). They’re fed up with all the workplace deaths and no tea in the break room, so they go on strike. It looks like it’s working, but things start to go awry when the protestors turn into an angry mob, and groupthink takes over. They decide they’re going to lay siege to Marney Castle. But don’t worry, Sybil and Charles get away safely, and live happily ever after.

Ah, yes, Sybil, we haven’t said much about her yet – mostly because there’s not much to say. She was so two-dimensional, she was almost see-through (even by the extra-low standard I set for privileged male writers of that period). Her main job was to stand around being beautiful and believing in social justice, while wealthy white men like Charles made all the decisions and did all the politicking. She eventually hooks up with Charles, of course, but that’s about all she does throughout the whole book named for her. Sad.

The introduction to this edition promised me that “Sybil is, in large part, a novel about what it feels like to be in love with someone who disapproves of you”, but – as I’m sure you can tell by now – I really wasn’t feeling that. Sybil is far grittier than, say, David Copperfield or Vanity Fair. It’s not as plot-driven, and it’s far more academic. That might be because, unlike Dickens and Thackeray, Disraeli’s work was never published in serial form, so he didn’t have to keep it pacy and punchy to keep the readers coming back week-to-week.

I think I only soaked in about 10% of what Disraeli was pouring out. Sybil is probably better suited to readers who are already deeply familiar with the system of British government and the monarchy, and/or people who have a keen interest and some background knowledge of 18th and 19th century British history. Having an at-best rudimentary understanding of both, this book didn’t do much for me. I appreciated Disraeli’s ideas, but I wasn’t a fan of his execution.

There was only one part that stuck with me, my favourite line:

“I rather like bad wine,” said Mr Mountchesney, “one gets so bored with good wine.”

That’s drawn from the opening scene and, to be frank, I wouldn’t recommend reading much further than that. The beginning was the best and most interesting part of the whole book, which isn’t saying much, sadly.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Sybil:

  • “Could have done without icky sweet Sybil. Very powerful images of social inequities of the times. Are we heading this way?” – Quotarian
  • “I have only read the first bit, didn’t really grab my attention and hold it so the jury is still out” – TieDye Kid
  • “Benjamin Disraeli writes, “There are three types of lies — lies, damn lies, and statistics.” In Sybil, Disraeli attempts to explain the struggle of the Victorian working class. He spends a great deal of time justifying himself which is boring to read. The story itself is told by an obvious elitist masquerading as suffragette. Though it has many quotable sentences, I did not enjoy this book in its entirety.” – Ali


Clarissa – Samuel Richardson

I feel oddly guilty about picking up an abridged version of Clarissa by Samuel Richardson. I know I shouldn’t, but I do! I would’ve preferred, of course, to read and review the full text (I’m a dirty completionist at heart), but they’re surprisingly hard to come by. I’m getting to the pointy end of my Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list now – there’s no time left to waste searching further afield! Plus, Clarissa is literally one of the longest books in the history of the English language, over one million words long! Even my “abridged” copy runs to 500+ pages. So, I grit my teeth, and went ahead with it. This is Clarissa, as abridged by George Sherburn.

I mention Sherburn specifically to acknowledge his fine work, but also because, as he mentions in his note on the text, no two versions of Clarissa – abridged or otherwise – are exactly the same. The original edition (Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady) was first published in 1747-48. Each subsequent edition has introduced its own errors, oversights, changes, and mis-prints. So, don’t hate on me for any discrepancies between what I say here and what you’ve read for yourself!

Clarissa is an epistolary novel, but Richardson said that he intended it for it to be read as an instructional text, not merely as entertainment. Because I don’t give a shit about spoilers, I’m going to give you the key lessons right up front: parents, don’t meddle in your kids marriages. And girls, pick better husbands. That’s the tl;dr version.

It all starts with the Harlowes, a family of new money who are completely obsessed with improving their social standing. Their eldest daughter, Arabella, catches the eye of Captain Lovelace, a rich but roguish bachelor. Arabella is flattered, but she rebuffs his advances. Then, for reasons that aren’t made entirely clear (to me, anyway), Lovelace and Arabella’s brother, James, end up in a duel. James comes off second-best, and Lovelace is promptly made persona non grata at Casa de Harlowe.

Lovelace gives no fucks at all. He sets his sights on the younger Harlowe sister, our girl Clarissa. He makes her repeated offers of marriage. The family should have been falling all over themselves for her to accept, given that they want to better their position and all, but they’re kind of hung up on how he stabbed James that one time, so they tell her to tell him to fuck off. They arrange for a different bloke – Mr Holmes – to marry Clarissa instead.

And how does Clarissa feel about all this? She’s not that fussed on either of them, to be honest. She’d be happy enough to stay at home, being a dutiful daughter and writing long letters to her BFF Miss Howe. She refuses to marry Holmes, and she’s all “I’m not going to marry Lovelace either, but what’s so bad about him? I could do worse!”.

Daddy Harlowe is not pleased. Not at all. In fact, he locks Clarissa in her room until she agrees to do as he says. He also fires her favourite servant, just to show her he means business.

Important note: ALL OF THIS happens in the first seventy pages! Clarissa might be a long book, even in its abridged form, but DAMN! It builds up to a rollicking pace, very quickly!



Anyway, poor Clarissa ends up locked in her room for weeks on end. Her family insist that she must secretly have the hots for Lovelace if she won’t marry Holmes, and she’s all “Umm, no? I just think I should be able to choose my own husband, ya dig?”. They don’t dig.

Meanwhile, Lovelace keeps finding ways to send Clarissa secret love notes. He begs her to run away with him, which – to be fair – looks like a more and more attractive prospect, the longer this locked-in-her-room business carries on.

The thing is, when we finally start to hear a bit more about Lovelace’s side of the story, we learn that he is a TOTAL NARCISSISTIC PSYCHOPATH. He’s hell bent on getting exactly what he wants, whatever the cost. He concocts a scheme to trick Clarissa into running away with him, and the bastard actually pulls it off. Never mind that it does irreparable damage to her relationship with her family, and causes a huge scandal – Lovelace is just happy to have “won” his “prize”. Ugh.

“You are all too rich to be happy.”

Page 19

Clarissa’s “freedom” is short-lived, and she becomes Lovelace’s prisoner in effect. It’s out of the frying pan and into the fire for our girl. Her family refuse her requests for forgiveness. They won’t let her come home, or even send over her stuff. Lovelace drags her up and down the country to various “safe” houses. He even hides her in a brothel at one point; that might not sound so bad to contemporary readers, but at the time, living in a house of “ill repute” meant saying buh-bye to any chance you had for a good reputation and a good life. Poor Clarissa!

Our girl isn’t backing down, though. She still refuses to marry Lovelace, and it drives him bonkers. She manages to escape at one point, but alas, he catches her and cons her into coming back.

By every standard we hold today, Lovelace was an abuser. Let’s be clear about that. He’s not a “romantic lead”. He cuts Clarissa off from her family. He controls her finances. He emotionally manipulates her within an inch of her life. And, of course, support systems for victims of domestic violence back then weren’t what they are today (ahem). All Clarissa has going for her is her friend, Miss Howe, and her advice pretty much amounts to “marry Lovelace to shut him up, and fingers crossed he dies young”. Not helpful!

In between proposals, Lovelace keeps trying to get into Clarissa’s pants – and (hopefully) I don’t need to explain why pre-marital hanky-panky was a big no-no back then. She turns him down every time. Fed up with rejection, the abhorrent creep drugs and rapes her, and this has (to say the least) a severe impact on Clarissa’s physical and mental health.

Like all abusers, Lovelace comes to her with the I’m-so-sorrys and the I’ll-do-betters and the please-marry-me-anyways. He just WILL. NOT. STOP. PROPOSING. (mostly because, it would seem, he’d rather bone a more enthusiastic participant). Our amazing girl, even in the death-grip of PTSD, still tells him to go directly to hell.



After a couple more failed attempts, Clarissa FINALLY manages to escape for good. She finds sanctuary with a nice married couple who live above a shop, but she lives in constant fear that Lovelace will find her. He sends his friend, John Belford, to try and lure her back, but that plan totally backfires when Belford takes pity on Clarissa and they become friends.

Clarissa is dangerously ill at this point – mostly due to stress – and she starts preparing for her death. She appoints Belford the executor of her will, and he’s super-impressed by how mature she’s being about the whole thing. That’s when Richardson throws in a lot of Christian God talk; it’s up to you whether that’s fine or bothersome.

Clarissa’s cousin, Morden, shows up, just in time to see her before she shuffles off the coil. The rest of her family have a change of heart about the whole ostracising-her-for-eternity thing, but they’re about a minute too late. Clarissa dies before anyone can make amends. In an iconic act of passive-aggression, she leaves them a bunch of really good stuff in her will, so they feel extra-bad about how they treated her.

Lovelace is apparently super-bummed about his victim’s death (yeah, boohoo). Belford convinces him that it would be an opportune time to take a holiday, because Cousin Morden wants to beat the shit out of him. He takes off, but Morden tracks him down anyway, and Lovelace comes a cropper. The End.

Richardson concludes with a summary of what happens to all the other characters afterwards (along the lines of that awful Harry Potter epilogue), and throws in a little more moralising to round things out. Just to reiterate, the take-home messages are: parents, don’t interfere in your kids’ plans (or otherwise) for marriage. Ladies, friends don’t let friends marry arseholes. And fellas, no means no. You got that?

Clarissa was well-received upon publication, but a lot of readers got all mad that Clarissa and Lovelace didn’t get a happily-ever-after (seriously!). Some even wrote their own alternative endings, which I guess would constitute the original fan-fic. Richarson worried, with all the brouhaha, that his actual message, the morals of it all, hadn’t cut through. All his readers were too hung up on this supposed “love story”. So, in later editions, he made changes to paint the Clarissa character in a “purer” (more sympathetic) light, while making Lovelace more sinister and evil.

I was really impressed with how Sherburn handled the abridgement. It would seem, from his notes, that he only omitted one noticeable plot point (the death of a minor character); and, even then, he gave enough of an explanation in-text that I didn’t feel like I missed much.

On the whole, Clarissa wasn’t as difficult a read as I was expecting. It had a Pride And Prejudice vibe to it, but written in the epistolary fashion of Dracula and a bit long-winded like Tristram Shandy. In fact, I reckon if Austen, Stoker, and Sterne had a creative three-way, Clarissa would be the resultant love-child. If two out of three of those appeal, this is the book for you!

My favourite Amazon reviews of Clarissa:

  • “Longer than “War and Peace”, this account of virtue chased and trashed is the novel’s version of continuous cricket: mad in detail, slow in execution, passionately related. Told in letters, the correspondents spend what seems a year recalling a year but a crowded year. Take this book to a desert island; it will endure and also make a crackling blaze.” – Peter Jakobsen
  • “Well, it took me two years to read it, but Miss Harlowe did change my life for the better. The book can be quite psychological and gripping, but my favorite parts are the communiques, in turns sweet and chastising, between Clarissa and her BFF, Miss Howe. Of course, the ending’s a bummer.” – A. Johnson
  • “What a group of despicable characters! By page 500, I was hoping every character would be put to the rack. By page 1000, I was hoping for a mass hanging. By page 1500, I was willing to grant clemency to a few.

    Dozens of times I nearly relegated this book to the pile of books to be sent to an enemy – BUT – each time would pick it up again because I had to know if my hopes would be realized.

    Should you read Clarissa? By all means; if for no other reason than to serve as penance for all past sins of omission or commission wreaked on others.” – Tanstaafl
  • “I haven’t finished the book yet, but so far this is one of the best books ever. I just know things will turn out well for Clarissa. She’s the best. I bet she’ll get married to some foreign king and live in a Swedish castle with him. Lovelace is okay, but she can do better. I bet you she dumps him at the end of the book. I can see it now. She’ll probably say: “Don’t go there Lovelace” and walk out the door. I can’t wait to see what this book has in store for Clarissa Harlowe. Best character ever! Best book ever!” – misterb1020
  • “Okay, the book came in tip-top shape, and the story is a masterpiece, totally five stars. By the way, if you’ve read it, I must congratulate you…it’s one of the longest novels ever written in the world.

    Anyway, Clarissa’s character at first was lovely. I enjoyed her, but after awhile, I started to hate her. I really did. Granted, I know she went through that ordeal and all, but then hundreds and hundreds of pages following that ordeal, I got soooo sick of her self-pity and, “I’m a poor creature” this, and “I’m a poor creature,” that, and, “I’m the most abandoned person in the world, poor creature me, me, me,” and I very literally wished she would just shut the hell up and die already. She was as much of a narcissist, in my opinion, as Lovelace. I mean, she just kept wallowing, with her stupid uplifted hands and eyes, her kerchief perpetually to her face, whimpering about herself and lousy life when there were so many opportunities for a happy ending. She was always talking about her fame and what a great person she was, and how could such a famous, pious creature as herself be brought so low? She literally committed suicide by starvation, and just LOVED talking about how ill she was and the way she was dying. I mean, she really loved talking about her pending death, and made such a huge display of it among her new acquaintances. And excepting her immediate family, she she had so many friends around her willing to help: Anna, Mr. Belford, Mr. Hickman, Mrs. Norton, Mrs. Smith, etc., yet, she kept lamenting how alone she was, that she was friendless and abandoned. It’s like, she enjoyed this negativity. Instead of becoming a strong, powerful character after her experience, she became a self-pitying, egomaniac. Ugh. I do love this story because it really got a reaction out of me! If a story can do that, then the author did something right.” – Stimpy

Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe

When I read the blurb of this Penguin edition of Robinson Crusoe, my first thought was: hang on a minute! They’re saying THIS is the first English novel, now? I thought it was The Pilgrim’s Progress! According to my bookish timeline, The Pilgrim’s Progress was published long before Robinson Crusoe. I guess it depends how you define “novel” when it comes to deciding which one was “first”. Apparently, there’s been some in-fighting at the Penguin editorial offices! Either way, I knew I was in for another shipwreck novel, and I hoped fervently that this one would work out better for me than Lord Of The Flies

Defoe was remarkably prolific over the course of the last decade or so of his life. He published Robinson Crusoe and a bunch of sequels, but still managed to die in debt, in hiding from his creditors. The introduction hastens to reassure me that Robinson Crusoe isn’t all that representative of his body of work; he got into writing for the money (ha!), and this is just one of many books he wrote because he sensed there’d be a market for it. Among those other works of his, the one that caught my eye was a beauty published in 1727, titled Conjugal Lewdness; or Matrimonial Whoredom, A Treatise Concerning the Use and Abuse of the Marriage Bed. I literally snorted aloud when I read that title (and again when I realised you can still buy copies in print!).

But to the book at hand, which was, incidentally, originally titled The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner (Defoe had clearly done his keyword research). The titular character is part of an illegal expedition to purchase slaves, but winds up shipwrecked, and forced to work as a slave would to keep himself alive (only he gets a much happier ending than most slaves did, naturally).

“Crusoe’s transformation from terrified and confused survivor to colonial master and avenging overlord of his island marks Robinson Crusoe as one of the key modern myths of English and even European culture.”

p. xxvii

Defoe probably drew his inspiration from many of the real-life stories of castaways that were floating around at the time. In particular, there was a Scottish sailor by the name of Alexander Selkirk, who was stranded for four years on the (until then) uninhabited island of Mās a Tierra, which has since been renamed Robinson Crusoe Island, in honour of the novel that immortalised it. Defoe was notoriously secretive about the sources of his inspiration, but we can be pretty confident that Selkirk was his model for the hero of his book. In fact, there’s a whole body of work investigating and documenting Defoe’s muses, including Tim Severin’s Seeking Robinson Crusoe.



If you’re going to give this one a go, you need to be prepared: there’s no chapter breaks (just like The Pilgrim’s Progress), so it reads as one long block of text. But I’ll be breaking it down for you, so never fear 😉

It starts with a young Robinson Crusoe telling his parents to fuck off, and taking to voyages at sea against their wishes. He has a lot of rotten luck with shipwrecks and describes a few, including the story of how he came to own a Brazilian plantation as a result of one of them, before he gets to the main event…

He joins an expedition to bring slaves from Africa, but winds up shipwrecked on an island near the mouth of the Orinoco River (serves him right, to be honest). He, and three animals – the captain’s dog, and two cats – are the only ones to survive. He manages to salvage a bunch of tools, guns, and other supplies from the ship before it breaks apart and sinks entirely.

And then he gets to work. He builds himself a “home”, of sorts, a rudimentary gated community. He figures out how to make a calendar, with blunt marks on a wooden cross. He hunts, raises goats, cultivates barley and rice, dries grapes to make raisins (but not wine? wtf?), and figures out how to make pottery with the limited tools and materials he has within reach. He also sits around reading the Bible a whole bunch, and talks ad nauseam about how grateful he is to God that he survived. As far as Crusoe can see, he’s pretty well set; the only thing missing is a little human connection.



Years pass, and Crusoe notices that “native cannibals” (his words, not mine) occasionally visit the island to kill and eat their prisoners. Naturally. He gets all worked up about it, and makes a plan to kill them in turn for committing such an abomination. Then, he thinks the better of it (what a guy!). He turns his efforts to freeing a prisoner or two, so he can put them in his own employ as servants and talk God with them on the long, cold, lonely nights. Eventually, one prisoner does escape his captors, only to end up in Crusoe’s clutches. He is christened “Friday”, after the day of the week he “appeared”, and Crusoe teaches him English and brainwashes him into converting.

I don’t think I even need to say it, but I will anyway: gross. So gross. Colonially gross. And every restaurant or other business that has referenced “Friday” in this regard is gross, too.

But I shouldn’t get ahead of myself, so let me continue: more “natives” show up and apparently partake in a cannibal feast. Crusoe and Friday forget all about how they’ve decided it’s “not their place” to take vengeance, and they kill most of them, sparing a couple of prisoners – one of whom is Friday’s father, and the other a Spaniard, who tells Crusoe all about his ship that wrecked back on the mainland.

Crusoe’s cogs start turning: he devises a plan to head back to the mainland with this Spanish guy, and Friday’s father, and bring all of the remaining crew back to Crusoe Island. Then, they’d work out how to build a new ship, set sail, and return to a Spanish port. Great plan, guys! Seriously! Flawless!



Then another ship shows up, an English one (it’s like that island from the TV show Lost, ships just keep showing up even though they’re apparently uninhabited). Mutineers have taken over the vessel, and their intention is to ditch their disgraced Captain on the island and sail on. Crusoe, ever the opportunist, strikes a deal with the Captain that he’ll help him take back the ship, on the condition that they leave the mutineers to suffer in their jocks on the island as he’s had to do all these years, and they’ll sail back home together. In an odd moment of Christian charity that seems otherwise completely out of step with his character, Crusoe takes the time to show the ditched mutineers how he survived on the island, and promises them that he’ll send a ship back to retrieve them later (wouldn’t hold my breath).

And, just like that: Robinson Crusoe is rescued! After “eight and twenty years, two months, and nineteen days”, he heads back to England. His family have long assumed him dead (understandable, really), so there’s nothing left for him from his father’s will, and not a whole lot else to keep him there. He heads for Lisbon, to claim the profits of his estate in Brazil, and goes to great effort to transport it all back over land. He’s determined he’ll never go near the goddamn sea again (once again, understandable). Friday accompanies him all the way *cough*Stockholm Syndrome*cough*, and they have one last adventure together fighting off hungry wolves in the Pyrenees. I must admit, I skimmed through that part – I was pretty over it.

When Robinson Crusoe was first published in 1719, it was a smash hit. The initial print run of 1,000 copies sold out straight away. To meet the demand, the printer issued five more runs, marking some of them as new “editions”. He wasn’t real crash hot at his job, though, because he managed to introduce new errors every time. The text for the edition I read is based on a photocopy of one of the first-first editions held in the British Library. Interestingly, it credits the author as being the protagonist, Robinson Crusoe, leading many readers to believe it was a real-life memoir type of thing.

Even with the errors, all the new editions sold out, too. Defoe quickly wrote a lesser-known sequel, The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, which he claimed would be the last of the Crusoe stories… but, being the money-hungry bugger he was, he couldn’t resist releasing a third, Serious Reflections During The Life And Surprising Adventures Of Robinson Crusoe: With His Vision Of The Angelick World the following year. By the end of the 1800s, there was no other book that had more editions, spin-offs, and translations – more than 700 of them!



So, let’s break down (some of) the ways in which this book is extremely problematic, shall we?

Crusoe sees himself as King Of The World (the world being his island), and imposes all of his European technology and agriculture upon it, basically just trying to re-create his homeland. He goes so far as to explicitly refer to the island as his “colony” by the end of the novel. And, of course, a large part of that is his exploitation of Friday, who is – no bones about it – his actual slave. Defoe went out of his way to idealise their master-servant relationship, because it played well for the predominant worldview at the time. He couldn’t risk losing book sales just to make a political point about human rights, now, could he? I respect the hustle, I guess, but I just can’t get past how gross it was. Here’s Crusoe, the “enlightened” European, redeeming the “savage” from his “barbarous” way of life through enforced assimilation. Ugh.

It’d take thousands of words, probably a whole book, for me to break down this bullshit, and I’m sure there are plenty of other people (far smarter than me) who are better able to identify and articulate all of the relevant issues. For now, let me just say: if those themes bother you, Robinson Crusoe is a book you want to back up slowly from and never look at again.

Those attitudes weren’t just dreamt up by Defoe to make for compelling fiction. In real life, he was a Puritan moralist (remember that other book of his I mentioned up top?), and mostly he wrote about how to be a good Christian. That’s why so much of Robinson Crusoe focuses on the main character ruminating about providence and penitence and redemption. Crusoe really hammers home Defoe’s believe in an absolute morality – we can see that in the way he treats cannibalism, declaring it a “national crime” on the island he stole settled, and forbids Friday from practicing it (even though, as I read it, the poor guy had no intentions of eating anyone).



If you can get past all that – and hats off to you if you can, because I really struggled – there’s a bunch of other ways to read this book, which is probably why it has endured as long as it has. It could be read as an allegory for how civilisation develops, a manifesto for neoliberal economic individualism, the importance of repentance, the strength of religious faith, etc. It also marked the beginning of realistic fiction as a literary genre, so (even for all its sins) we owe Robinson Crusoe a pretty huge debt. Defoe spawned many imitators, and castaway novels became extremely popular in the 18th and 19th century. Stories along these lines, of shipwreck and humanity’s triumph, are now called “Robinsonade”. Most of them have fallen into obscurity in the intervening centuries, but Swiss Family Robinson is still kicking – and its homage wasn’t subtle, Johann David Wyss literally borrowed Crusoe’s first name for the family in his story (as the title suggests). And Gulliver’s Travels, which was published a few years after Robinson Crusoe, has largely been read as a rebuttal of Defoe’s optimism. Having read them both now, I can totally see that. A more recent example would be Cast Away, the 2000 film starring Tom Hanks as a FedEx employee who winds up stranded on an island alone for many years.

Look, I didn’t hate Robinson Crusoe. I certainly read it more eagerly than I did Lord Of The Flies. I’m just not on board with the colonialist bullshit it espoused, even in context. I did appreciate the psychological and behavioural struggles that Defoe depicted (with startling accuracy, given that psychology as a field wasn’t born until about three hundred years later), in terms of the effects of isolation on Crusoe’s habits and emotions. For instance, the scene where birds were pecking at his burgeoning crops – a banal regularity for most agricultural farmers – was terrifying and emotionally devastating for Crusoe, alone on an island with few tools and no help, entirely dependent on that crop for his future food security. I was pretty moved by that part, actually, even if he was a racist dickhead.

Most importantly, however, just as reading The Martian convinced me that I couldn’t possibly survive on Mars, reading Robinson Crusoe convinced me that I would never survive being shipwrecked alone on a desert island. I’ve made my peace with it. If it happens, I’ll just drink whatever booze I can pull off the ship, and meet my maker tipsy shortly thereafter. It sounds preferable to fart-arsing around building shelters and fires – I know my priorities.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Robinson Crusoe:

  • “Soooo unhappy with this! Was NOT Robinson Crusoe as ordered but inside government was one world government propaganda. :(“ – Jennifer Kline
  • “This version (hardback, Sterling) is actually pretty nice itself! Good binding, pretty art on dust jacket, and artwork throughout.

    AS FOR THE ACTUAL STORY, it’s awful! What was Daniel Defoe thinking? First novel? Yeah, we can tell, buddy! You just have a 26-year-old white dude stranded on an island for … a long time, and it’s just 150-ish straight pages of us reading how he tames goats and figures out how to grow grapes. Whoop-de-friggin-do! Don’t bother. Read “The Female American” instead. It’s got its own problems, but it’s a heck of a step up from this. My coworker Taylor recommended this to me, and now I know why everyone hates her.” – Cat Grass
  • “Don’t waste your money. I bought this book before reading the reviews and it was the worst mistake of my life. Because I didn’t read the reviews, I have to now get another book.” – Hope Y. Parrish
  • “Christmas gift for grandson…get him off the computer.” – Amazon Customer


Frankenstein – Mary Shelley

Have you ever been so bored of the men at a party that you create an entirely new genre of literature? Did you then follow that up by writing one of the most enduring monster stories of all time? That’s the potted version of Mary Shelley’s life, but that’s what happened, and we should all be worshipping at her feet. I’ll talk more about her fascinating (and terribly tragic) life in a minute, but for now let’s take a look at her best-known work: Frankenstein, the story of a young scientist and an unorthodox experiment that went horribly wrong.

The original full title was “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus”, though most modern editions (including mine, see above) exclude that subtitle, which is a shame because it tells us a lot about the story. A quick Greek mythology lesson: Prometheus created mankind on Zeus’s orders. He taught us to hunt and read and talk and do all those human-y things we love to do. Zeus was a bit disappointed with the final product, though, so he punished us by keeping fire for himself and the other gods. Our boy, Prometheus, wasn’t having that, and he told Zeus to fuck right off. He brought fire down to us, and copped his punishment on the chin. Zeus sentenced him to be eternally fixed to a rock, where each day an eagle would peck out his liver, only for it to regrow overnight and he’d have to go through the same again the next day. So, yeah, we owe Prometheus a lot, and it doesn’t take a genius to see the parallels with Shelley’s Frankenstein

Oh, and another quick note to get out of the way before we dive in: yes, we know, Frankenstein is the name of the doctor, not the monster. We fucking know. People who point it out are (generally) wankers. Shelley never gave the monster in the name, identifying it in the book as the “creature”, “monster”, “demon”, “wretch”, “fiend”, and so on. Of course, she was making a point about how the lack of a name prevents a sentient being from forging a true identity and all of that, but the confusion also means that mistakes will happen and I wish readers wouldn’t make such a big deal about it. I’ll be calling the monster “the monster”, for the sake of clarity, but just so you know if I ever hear you say um-actually-Frankenstein-was-the-doctor in conversation, I will roll my eyes at you.



So, the story of Frankenstein and his monster is actually framed a couple of different ways in the book. It’s an epistolary novel, with events taking place sometime during the 18th century. Captain Robert Walton kicks things off with a few letters to his sister; he’s been trying to sail to the North Pole, and his crew picked up one Dr Victor Frankenstein off the ice, where he had apparently collapsed while chasing after a monstrous creature.

Through a series of conversations with the good doctor, Walton is able to deduce that he actually created this monster and now lives a life of misery and horror as a result of his creation. Frankenstein offers up his story as a cautionary tale, and tells it so…

Young Victor was obsessed with science as a kid, even though everyone else thought he was a weirdo. After his mother died, he took himself off to university, and he began doing experiments as a way of escaping his grief and keeping his mind busy. That’s how he stumbled upon a technique for creating life from inanimate objects.

Now, you might assume he used electricity to do that, but that’s actually not in the canon – Shelley, in her book, described an elemental process and some vague alchemy. The use of electric shocks and screws in the monster’s neck didn’t appear until the 1931 film adaptation and other early depictions of Frankenstein’s monster. So, there you go.

With his new secret chemical formula to make dead things become alive things, Frankenstein created a huge humanoid form (it had to be big, he explained, otherwise the small bits would be too fiddly) out of pieces he scrounged from cadavers. He tried to make it pretty, but when the monster came to life it was scary as all hell. Frankenstein, freaked out by what he had done, reverted to the age-old tradition of doing a runner. He bailed the fuck out of his laboratory, leaving the monster there.



You’d think that would take up most of the pages of this slim book, but Frankenstein moves really quickly, so the story is only just beginning. In perhaps my favourite plot point ever, Dr Frankenstein returned to his laboratory to find the monster missing… and he’s all “Phew! We’re cool! Problem solved!”. He doesn’t even wonder where it went. LOL!

The whole situation stressed him out so much that he ended up getting really sick. He recovered just in time for the monster to kill his little brother. The criminal justice system being what it is, the authorities arrested and convicted the kid’s nanny of the murder, and put her to death. By Frankenstein’s math, that put his monster’s death toll up to two, and he was pissed.

After a while, he reunited with his monster. The poor creature tried to explain himself, saying he was just sad that everyone hated and feared him (aw!). He asked the doctor to build him a wife, so he didn’t have to be lonely anymore. That sounded pretty reasonable to me, but then the monster threatened to kill everyone Frankenstein loved if he didn’t comply with this request – which was, admittedly, less chill.

How is the monster able to communicate these demands, you ask? Well, it turns out he spent most of the intervening time stalking a kind immigrant family, peeping in their windows, and somehow all those hours watching them and stealing from their library taught him language. He’s startlingly eloquent, given the basis of his education. Yes, it’s a bit of a stretch, but if the monster learning to speak is the most unrealistic part of this novel for you, you might need to re-evaluate your priorities…



The doctor headed for England, taking a friend with him, and the monster followed hot on his heels. Frankenstein got to work back in the laboratory, but inside he was still freaking out that the female he created would hate the monster, or turn out even more evil than him, or (worst of all) they might fall in love and start breeding, unleashing a new generation of horror on the world. When that thought occurred to him, it was the final fucking straw. Frankenstein had had a gutful, you guys! He destroyed all the work he had done and told the monster to shove it.

You’d think the monster would fly into a rage at this point, but he actually took the news quite well. In sum, his reaction was: “Yeah, okay, no wife for me, but no wife for you either – when you get married, I’m coming for your girl on your wedding night, so watch your back,”. And then he killed Frankenstein’s friend, just to show he meant business.

Now, I realise Dr Frankenstein doesn’t have a great track record with decision-making, but at this point he makes a truly, unbelievably bad call. Despite the monster’s warnings, and his own growing anxiety, he went ahead and got married to his adopted sister (whom he referred to as his cousin – it’s almost-but-not-quite incest, which is a bit gross, but George R.R. Martin has pretty much deadened our sensitivities on that subject forever).

And, sure enough, that very night, the monster showed up and took her out. The doctor, enraged, chased him all the way to the North Pole, determined to defeat his monstrous creation once and for all, but he collapsed from exhaustion and hypothermia before he could catch him. That’s where Walton and his crew found the man, and we’re back at the beginning again.



Dr Frankenstein promptly dies, but he makes Captain Walton promise to kill the monster on his behalf. The monster, of course, conveniently appears on board shortly thereafter. I was expecting a big violent showdown, but he is able to talk Walton out of killing him by making a big show of mourning the death of his creator. He promises to kill himself instead, and Walton’s all “Um, okay?”, and watches as the monster drifts away on the ice, never to be seen again. It’s not a happy ending – heck, it’s not a happy book.

It was a lot more introspective than I expected. Really, this whole story is about interior worlds. Frankenstein, at its heart, is about the shame and guilt of the Doctor, and the loneliness and desperation of his monster.

Now, this is one of those rare cases where the story of how a book came to be written is just as fascinating as the book itself (if not more!). In 1814, aged just sixteen, Mary met and fell in love with the then-unknown poet Percy Shelley, and she ran away with him. They weren’t married until 1816, shortly after Percy’s first wife died by suicide (oh, yeah, the guy was a real peach).

The idea for Frankenstein came to Mary that year, when she was holidaying with Percy and his mate Lord Byron on the shores of Lake Geneva. Byron suggested that they have a writing competition, to see who could come up with the best ghost story. Mary dithered for a few days, and struggled to come up with anything she thought would be scary enough, but she knew she was onto a winner when she dreamed of a scientist who created life but was horrified by what he had made. She connected that premise with her earlier travels in Geneva, where she’d passed Frankenstein Castle (yes, a real place); in there, a couple centuries earlier, an alchemist had engaged in strange and dark experiments. Boom! A horror story, and the science fiction genre, was born.



The themes of the work, we can see in retrospect, were very clearly drawn from Mary Shelley’s real life. She had a pretty rough trot: her mother died, she had a terrible relationship with her father, her first child was born prematurely and died in her arms while Percy was off having an affair with one of her step-sisters. From these experiences, she distilled themes of loss, guilt, and the consequences of defying nature, and funneled them into Frankenstein. Consider how the monster turns evil due to a lack of parental and spiritual guidance, for instance…

Mary initially conceived Frankenstein as a short story, but with Percy’s encouragement she expanded the manuscript into a full-length novel. She wrote the first four chapters in the weeks following the suicide of her half-sister (told you! rough fucking trot!), and the first edition was published anonymously in January 1818. Then she moved to Italy, where she lived with Percy until he drowned in 1822 (seriously, the woman’s life was just an endless parade of death and misery).

Mary Shelley’s name wasn’t connected to the book until the second edition was published with a proper byline in 1823. She was 25 years old. When the author’s gender was revealed, the British Critic published a review that said:

“The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel; but if our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should; and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment.”

“Oh, snap!”, they might have thought, but the reading public didn’t give a shit. Frankenstein sold gangbusters; it was an immediate popular success, and by the middle of the 20th century it was demanding serious and extensive critical attention from academics. The list of subsequent adaptations and re-releases is longer than my arm, and readers are, even today, always hungry for more.



Frankenstein fused elements of the Gothic and the Romantic, capturing the attention of both audiences, and it levelled-up the popular ghost stories of the time to create the first true science fiction novel. No longer were monsters and mysterious beings purely fantastical; Shelley gave us a monster that was the product of man’s own actions, his own scientific experimentation and discovery, and that had never been done before. Not bad for a teenager who was just trying to show up her boyfriend and his mate on holiday, eh?

There are now a few different editions floating around, the later ones being highly revised and sanitised. It’s up to you which you’d prefer to read, but I’m a fan of dirty bits in literature, so I’d recommend trying to find the earliest version, as close to the original as you can. I’d also highly recommend you check out this great discussion over on the Keeper Of Pages blog, for more fascinating insights into reading (or re-reading) Frankenstein.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Frankenstein:

  • “free book enough said” – andrew
  • “*SPOILER ALERT* Basically, this guy spent time of his life trying to life from scratch. But when he finally succeeded, he got scared and ran away from it? There are a lot of questionable decisions from him too. He fits the definition of “coward”.” – Rusydi Farhan
  • “I thought I had the wrong book when I started reading it. Very different from most of the Frankenstein movies.” – Mark B
  • “WRONG LANGUAGE” – jackeline
  • “This book stinks! Munsters re-runs are much better” – Rich Fish from Glen Ridge
  • “Very boring story about a crazy science guy who wants to reanimate a Trump lookalike. On the positive side I would like to pitch in and her a hand” – Prince Henri I
  • “Movie was a million times better than that stupid story but I will say that it was very poorly written” – JMann
  • “Terrible novel; long, preachy, unrealistic, especialy where Frankenstein’s “monster” has read Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and other classics and holds forth like an Oxford don.” – Richard Kelly
  • “This book was so boring I threw it out my window. (Almost) It just had too much detail” – Bernard Callahan


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