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Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Classic (page 1 of 7)

The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall – Anne Brontë

The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall is not my first foray into the ouveur of the Brontës. Way back in the archives, I read and reviewed Charlotte’s Jane Eyre (loved it!), and Emily’s Wuthering Heights (so-so). Being the dirty completionist that I am, though, I couldn’t stop there: I gotta catch ’em all! So, that’s why I finally picked up Anne’s longest and best-known novel, to complete the set.

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The blurb made the story sound surprisingly contemporary – a mysterious and beautiful young widow moves in to Wildfell Hall, and Gilbert Markham finds himself irresistibly drawn to her despite the rumours that swell around town – but don’t be fooled. The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall has all the 19th century manners and customs that you’d expect, albeit with some unexpected progressive overtones.

A bit of background: Anne was the youngest of the Brontë sisters. She published only two novels (this one, and Agnes Grey, which is also wedged into my to-be-read shelf somewhere…) before she died in 1849, shortly before her 30th birthday. The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall was first published the year before her death, in 1848, under the now-famous gender-neutral pseudonym of Acton Bell. It was an instant success, but… well, big sis Charlotte got her Mean Girl on. More on that below.

To the story: it is an epistolary novel, styled as the letters from Gilbert Markham to a friend of his, including a rather large section drawn from Helen Graham’s diaries (Helen being the titular tenant of Wildfell Hall). Yes, it’s the ol’ Brontë switcheroo: the narrator is not always the “narrator”, and despite a supposed single narrative perspective, others’ points-of-view are substantial to the plot. That makes the timeline a little wonky, beginning in 1847 but telling a version of events from 1821 through 1830. Don’t worry, it all irons out nice and smooth.

Gilbert’s letters begin by describing the arrival of a mysterious widow, one Mrs Helen Graham, who has taken up a tenancy in the nearby abandoned mansion called Wildfell Hall. Although he says the woman is “too hard, too sharp, too bitter for my taste” (page 42), and he has his eye on the local vicar’s daughter, their occasional social interactions pique his interest. Eventually, he gets to know the widow and her son quite well (he and the boy bond over their mutual love of dogs, #relatable). Still, Mrs Helen Graham refuses to divulge much about her past or origins, even though doing so would put an end to some of the particularly nasty rumours that have started swirling around the small town.





This all unfolds in Part One of the novel, chapters 1-15. That section ends with Gilbert mistakenly believing that local man Lawrence has secretly entered into an illicit courtship with Mrs Graham. Gilbert has a real shit-fit (kind of inexplicably, seeing as it’s basically no business of his whatsoever), but Mrs Graham concedes that he has a right to know the truth of who she is and her relationship to Lawrence, so she hands over her diaries to Gilbert in the hope that they will speak her truth for her.

All of this might sound very Austen-y, a social comedy with the central romance pot-holed by misunderstandings. However, in Part Two – chapters 16 to 44 – The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall takes a sharp turn. The introduction of Helen’s perspective, through her letters, reveals an entirely different plot and purpose altogether.

It turns out Helen isn’t a widow at all; rather, she is on the lam, hiding from her alcoholic fuckwit of a husband, Arthur Huntingdon. They married young, back when Helen thought he was super-hot and had the naive notion that she could coax him out of his bad behaviour (with the drinking and the dames and what-not).

Sidebar: The prevailing view in analysis nowadays is that Arthur is a stand in for Anne Brontë’s real-life brother, Branwell, who himself was susceptible to the lures of drink and drugs, despite the efforts of his sisters to keep him on the straight and narrow.

Helen’s story is surprisingly gripping. it’s not like there are a lot of cliffhangers or anything, but I still found myself just-one-more-chaptering as I read my way through, crossing my fingers that the next chapter would be the one where she would leave the sorry sack of shit and be done with it. She’s all about dismantling toxic masculinity, it’s her life-long hobby and obsession, and over the course of the novel she realises and affirms that it shouldn’t be the job of women to reform bad boys. They should reform themselves, or shut the fuck up and leave the rest of us alone. See? Progressive!

Oh, and Mr Lawrence? The one Gilbert thought she was having an affair with? Actually her brother. Whoops!





The story seemed to be wrapping up around the 470-page mark, near the end of Helen’s diary, and I wondered what on earth could be left in the remaining 120 pages… but I stuck with it and, as it turned out, there was indeed more to come.

Part Three – chapters 45 to 53 – begins when Gilbert finishes reading Helen’s epic diary. She puts it to him that he should not pursue any romance with her, as she is not actually a widow and as such is not free to marry him. He’s all “yeah, okay”, but keeps the flame burning for her all the same. His hopes pick up when Helen’s estranged husband falls deathly ill, figuring that his path will be free and clear… only Helen does the “right thing” and zooms right back to her husband’s side to nurse him. Damn.

Still, her ministrations only keep him alive long enough to make him feel good and guilty before he shuffles off this mortal coil (good riddance). Gilbert keeps a respectful distance – also, he doesn’t know where she is or how to get a hold of her – until he gets word that she’s getting married to someone else. He hustles over to her town to do his “I object!” bit, but finds out when he gets there that it was actually Helen’s brother getting married (we’re back on the poor-communication-kills rom-com plot now) and Helen is overjoyed to welcome him back into her life. She makes him wait a bit, naturally, but in the end they live happily ever after.





The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall falls smack-bang in the middle of the Venn diagram of the other Brontë sisters: all the angst of Wuthering Heights, with all the introspection and proto-feminism of Jane Eyre. The defining difference in Anne’s work is that she didn’t gloss over the gritty stuff the way her Romantic sisters did, and she didn’t play up spooky Gothic elements either (Wildfell Hall isn’t a “haunted mansion”, it’s just old and empty). All the darkness in her novel – the alcoholism, infidelity, violence – was real, and graphic for the time.

And that’s why Charlotte, her elder sister, removed The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall from circulation after Anne’s untimely death. It had been a great success on publication, but in Charlotte’s view it disgraced her younger sister’s memory. She wanted Anne to be remembered as a sweet, saintly girl who didn’t write about such horrid things. Never mind the fact that Anne did write about horrid things, and well: Charlotte knew best (and was probably quite jealous of her younger sister’s success, besides). And that’s why Anne basically fell from memory for decades, why the names we most commonly associate with the Brontë brand are those of her sisters.

Still, over the last century, Anne has finally garnered the kind of popular and critical attention she deserves. This might sound ridiculous, but I find it hard not to take it personally that Charlotte screwed Anne over like that. “I was rooting for you!” etc. I keep trying to imagine whether my attitude and preference would be different if I had read The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall before Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, but it’s difficult. I guess I’ll just have to let bygones be bygones (even though none of them were actually mine to begin with), and judge the works on their own merit. In that spirit, I reckon The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall is a winner. A bit convoluted, maybe, but a breath of fresh air in 19th century English literature.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall:

  • “Story was a sort of a downer even with the happy ending.” – Ericka Grant
  • “Anne cannot write up to her famous sisters. What a bore!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Too long, too wordy, too predictable and the heroine is insipid.” – ann v menche
  • “Interesting story. I never think of people in that era being so messed up. Why do they have so much free time on their hands?” – M Roberts
  • “This book is WAY too long. 100,000 words could’ve been deleted and we, as readers, would be none the wiser. The writing style is superb. I don’t think anyone in publishing today could emulate the style in which all three Bronte sisters wrote. The story itself is interesting, but Helen’s “abuse” did not really strike me as abuse, but rather “neglect.” When I first heard about this novel, I thought a woman was going to get repeatedly beaten and raped. But sadly, that is not the case. I guess beaten and raped was “too intense” for the time period. Leave it to Viktor Wolfe to write a good “beaten and raped” story!” – Viktor Wolfe
  • “All her angst was a bit tiresome.” – pamie65

Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

As we finally enter the downhill run for 2020, it seemed fitting to pick up Great Expectations. After all, we all had such great expectations for this year, didn’t we? Nothing went to plan, for us or for one of Dickens’ most-beloved protagonists, Pip. I really loved David Copperfield, so I figured I was all set for another five-star read from the master of English literature. Unfortunately, 2020 struck again…

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Great Expectations was Dickens’ thirteenth novel, but only the second (after the aforementioned David Copperfield) to be fully narrated in the first-person. He must’ve known he was on to something, because this one, too, traces the psychological and moral development of a young man, his transition from country to city life, and an eventual homecoming. But beyond that, they actually have very little in common; apparently, Dickens re-read David Copperfield before starting Great Expectations, to make sure he didn’t accidentally repeat himself.

Dickens structured Great Expectations as three “stages” (volumes), but it was initially published as a serial (as most stories were back then) in Dickens’ own weekly magazine, All The Year Round. Installments appeared from December 1860 to August 1861, and Great Expectations was published in full in a three-volume set later that year. Fun fact: Dickens only put pen to paper and started publishing because the previous serial – A Day’s Ride by Charles Lever – was tanking and circulation numbers were way down. Just goes to show, if you want something done right…



The story begins on Christmas Eve 1812, with our boy Pip an orphan at 7 years old. While visiting the grave of his parents, he encounters an escaped prisoner who bullies him into stealing food and tools from home. For Pip, “home” is a (very) modest dwelling shared with his hot-tempered much-older sister and her amiable husband, the town blacksmith Joe Gargery. They took Pip in after his parents died, and no one ever lets him forget how lucky he is that they did so. (Why does every adult in a Dickens novel get off on psychologically torturing children? Seriously!)

So, Pip pinches some food and a file for the prisoner (so he can gather his strength and cut off his shackles). The poor kid is freaking out that he’s going to get busted, all through Christmas dinner. There’s a knock on the door, and it’s a unit of soldiers asking Joe the Blacksmith to mend some shackles so that they might re-capture two escaped prisoners. Once the prisoners are re-captured and shackled, one of them falsely confesses to having stolen the food and the file himself, clearing Pip of any suspicion.

Sorry for the absurd level of detail here, but it’s all important later, I promise – a clarification that applies to this review and to Great Expectations itself in equal measure. That said, even though Dickens has a reputation for long-windedness and bloated sentences, he can be extremely evocative and succinct when he wants to be. Plus, the wry humour I loved in David Copperfield definitely carries over…

“My sister having so much to do was going to Church vicariously, that is to say, Joe and I were going.”

Great Expectations (Page 23) – Lol!

A few years after the convict incident, Pip is summoned by local pain-in-the-arse Mr Pumblechook to go and visit Miss Havisham. She’s a wealthy and notoriously reclusive spinster, so she needs a young gun around the place to liven her up a bit. Upon arriving at her decrepit mansion, Pip promptly falls in love with Miss Havisham’s adopted daughter, Estella. Now, this bitch is cold as ice, the Queen of Treat-‘Em-Mean-Keep-‘Em-Keen. The rest of Great Expectations could almost be summed up as “Pip remains butt-hurt that Estella was mean to him for the rest of his life, while desperately trying to win her approval,”.



The visits to Miss Havisham continue until Pip is old enough to begin his apprenticeship under Joe (which Miss Havisham pays for). Joe’s assistant, Orlick, is jealous as hell about the up-start brother-in-law getting the plum gig. Instead of wallowing in his misery, like a normal person, he bonks Mrs Joe over the head with something heavy. She doesn’t die, but she does suffer severe brain damage, and Orlick figures justice has been served.

Four years into Pip’s apprenticeship, he receives a visit from a lawyer, Mr Jaggers, with the most intriguing offer. Apparently, an anonymous patron has set aside a large sum of money to finance Pip’s dream of Becoming A Gentleman. Obviously, Pip assumes it’s Miss Havisham, his previous financier, but Mr Jaggers refuses to confirm or deny. Off Pip goes to London, to learn how to Act Proper…

Thus begins the second stage of Great Expectations. Pip sets himself up with a tutor, and finds a best friend in the tutor’s son, Herbert (who bizarrely calls Pip ‘Handel’ throughout the novel – it was annoying and confusing as heck for a while). The swankier Pip gets, the more embarrassed he becomes about his upbringing, and he starts to look down his nose at Joe and the family who raised him.

Word comes from home that Orlick (of head-bonking fame) has come into the employ of Miss Havisham – uh oh! – but Pip, being a dick-swinging gent now, has a quiet word in Mr Jaggers’ ear and sees to it that Orlick gets the sack. Now, here’s the weird part: you’d think that this would be a huge CLANG moment with reverberations, given that this is a book about moral development and all, but Dickens kinda glosses over it. Instead, he skips straight ahead to the next Big Twist: that Pip’s sister finally succumbs to her injuries and topples off the mortal coil. Joe is, understandably, quite bummed.



Pip’s still getting five hundred quid a year from his anonymous benefactor, which is more than he knows what to do with, so he decides to do a little anonymous benefact-ing of his own. He sets his mate Herbert up in a plum job that will last him the rest of his life. He figures this good deed will get the karma train running back his way, but alas, Estella still won’t have a bar of him. She decides she’s going to marry some other dickhead instead; Pip tries to talk her out of it, and she (quite rightly) tells him to get fucked and mind his own business.

So, we’re about halfway through Great Expecations at this point (it feels longer than 2020, doesn’t it?), and FINALLY Pip’s benefactor is unmasked! Obviously, it’s not Miss Havisham. It’s actually the convict he encountered that first night in the cemetery (see? told you it was important later!). Mr Abel Magwitch was transported to Australia after he was re-captured, but he never forgot the kindness of the little boy who got him a feed and helped him in his bid for freedom. Magwitch worked hard, yanked on some bootstraps, and eventually got enough money together to make Pip a gentleman. Unfortunately, he violated the terms of his sentence to return to England to see that it was done, so now he’s put everyone in a real fucking pickle. Nice going, Magwitch.

Third stage: Pip needs to figure out how to get Magwitch out of the country, pronto, and he enlists Herbert’s help to get it done. Now, I must say, the plot of Great Expectations really starts to fall apart at this point. It’s a lot of Pip running back and forth between Mr Jaggers and Miss Havisham, getting money and figuring out who Estella’s birth parents are (??? who cared until now? honestly?).

Dickens officially loses me when Miss Havisham spontaneously combusts – no, I’m not kidding! Pip gets badly burned trying to put out the flames. It’s painful and all, but he cops on with it, and he and Herbert are just about ready to smuggle Magwitch out of the country… when Pip is foolishly lured to the remote(!) marshes(!!) at night(!!!) and Head-Bonker-In-Chief Orlick tries to murder him.



I’m just going to rush through the rest of it, because really, if you’re not Done(TM) with Great Expectations by now, you need to work on your priorities. Herbert saves the day, and Pip is rescued from certain death. They almost manage to get Magwitch out of England, but they get busted at the last minute and it all goes to hell. Magwitch dies in prison. Pip gets real crook and Joe has to nurse him back to health. Joe also ends up paying all of Pip’s debts (no idea where he got the dough, but I was so bored and confused by this point I didn’t really give it much thought). Joe marries the nurse who cared for his first wife (good for him). Pip moves with Herbert and his wife to Egypt (cool, cool). He comes back after eleven years, and has his final encounter with Estella.

She falls into his arms, and they finally live happily ever after, right? WRONG. After all that, there is absolutely no pay-off. Great Expectations ends with the famously ambiguous line that Pip saw “no shadow of another parting from her” after that. The end.

So, yes, Great Expectations was a bit of a let-down. My fault, really, for reading it during this stinking-bad-very-no-good year.



Clearly, Great Expectations didn’t draw me in the way that David Copperfield did. I’m still struggling to figure out why, exactly. I remember David Copperfield being brilliantly paced, and it kept me hooked, all the way through to a satisfying resolution. Great Expectations started off okay, with poor orphan Pip and his crisis of conscience, but after that it just kind of tanked.

I think maybe this book’s downfall is that, though Dickens tried to write an interesting plot and character (as he did so successfully with David Copperfield), he was too preoccupied this time around with inserting his Ideas into the story. He ended up with 600+ pages about the (contradictory) concepts of morality and status, being a good person and being a gentleman, etc. Those ideas all made their way into David Copperfield of course – as they do many other Edwardian and Victorian books – but that was a book about characters with problems, not problems personified in characters. Great Expectations is an interesting philosophical and class commentary – about the origins of wealth, personal values versus social ladder climbing, and so on – but that alone doesn’t make for a good read.

The one real upside to reading Great Expectations (aside from the fact that now I can say I have and I never have to do it again) is that I can officially say the rumour that Dickens “couldn’t write women” is absolute bullshit. By far, the most interesting characters in Great Expectations were Mrs Joe (who was basically the original Petunia Dursley), Miss Havisham (the bitter old broad who hates all men, very relatable) and Estella (who has no time for being “nice” to boring boys unworthy of her). Apparently, Estella was based on Dickens’ real-life mistress, Ellen Ternan – I hope she gave him hell.

So, that’s it. I found Great Expectations a real slog, and struggled to get through to the end – which makes it the perfect metaphor for this slog of a year. I loved David Copperfield enough that I’m not dissuaded from ever trying Dickens again, but Great Expectations and I are done. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to a first-timer! Here’s hoping my next Dickens – and the next year! – is a return to form.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Great Expectations:

  • “I know this is true Dickens style, but the detail wasted on nothing for pages and pages was just too much. Pip is a twit.” – Victoria Reader
  • “I had low expectations… they were met.” – Jon M. Wilson
  • “I guess the author had lower expectations than the audience did” – t
  • “i would recomend this book to friends who have insomnia or those who i absolutely despise.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I was forced to read this book in my English class this year, and I almost died. For a more thrilling read, try a dictionary or a phone book.” – Brandon Rohrig
  • “Reading GREAT EXPECTATIONS as a 14 year old high school student in 1967 helped me acquire a clearer understanding of the concept of infinity. Eternity could never be as long as this book, which I endured to its soporific, boring end. I recommend it to hold up the end of a busted sofa!” – Author in the Attic
  • “Amazon. Sort your reviews section out on this. Reviews in this section seem to be for everything from a book to a mug to a tea towel to an audiobook to Anne of Green Bloody Gables. Atrocious.” – Def Jef

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

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