Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Classic (page 1 of 7)

Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier

Rebecca is a 1938 Gothic novel by Daphne du Maurier, who described it herself in a letter to her publisher as “a sinister tale about a woman who marries a widower… psychological and rather macabre”. I went in knowing the “twist” ending, but still excited to read it, as I’d heard nothing but glowing recommendations from other readers whose tastes don’t deviate much from mine. So, I won’t be hiding any spoilers in this review (don’t @ me).

Rebecca - Daphne du Maurier - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Rebecca here.
(If you do, I’ll earn a small commission because it’s an affiliate link.)

The opening chapter frames the story to follow: an unnamed narrator living abroad, reflecting on the strange circumstances that led her to that point in her life. It begins with the immortal opening line, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Aside from that, the most important thing you need to know at the outset is that the narrator is never named, not even in dialogue.

When the flashback starts, the narrator is a naïve young woman working as a paid companion, holidaying with her employer in sunny Monte Carlo. She’s so passionately extra, I couldn’t help but laugh at her – a mild scene of social awkwardness over coffee becomes a test of her ability “to endure the frequent agonies of youth”. She is the antithesis of a Cool Girl, she has no chill at all. She constantly imagines the worst – whole scenarios and conversations – and reacts emotionally as though it’s actually happened.

It’s masterful psychological profiling by du Maurier (and annoyingly relatable), but it also gets a bit tiring to read without respite. Consider this your heads-up that Rebecca is not a book to be read in a single sitting; space it out a bit in order to enjoy it properly.

When your girl meets the handsome and enigmatic English widower holidaying in the same hotel, Mr de Winter, she freaks out so hard I desperately wanted her to have a Valium and a lie down. He’s wealthy and wife-less and, against all odds, romantically interested in this nervous little creature who’s paid to fold another woman’s underpants. After a fortnight of courting her, he all but demands that she marry him, and – of course – she agrees.

Now, I get that Maxim de Winter is meant to be the bad guy (that much is abundantly obvious, even in the earliest chapters), but like Mr Rochester before him, I’m hot for it. He’s charming and funny (when it suits him), and there’s something undeniably charismatic about him (despite his tendency to bump off wives when they annoy him – told you there’d be spoilers!).

Anyway, after the wedding and honeymoon, the de Winters return to their grand estate in Cornwall, Manderley (the one from the dream, remember?). There, the narrator meets Mrs Danvers, the Manderley housekeeper who remains steadfastly devoted to the first Mrs de Winter (that’d be the titular character, Rebecca), despite her untimely death in a boating accident the year before. Mrs Danvers is a truly chilling villain, capable of gaslighting even the reader – the whole way through Rebecca, she retains just enough plausible deniability to make you really wonder whether her constant attempts to psychologically undermine the narrator are all in the girl’s silly head.

So, the narrator is thrown into the lavish world of Manderley that doesn’t seem ready to accept her, and she hates it, despite loving Maxim. That’s a very strong start to a novel. Unfortunately, the plot then drags a little. The narrator obsesses over Rebecca, her new friends and household staff are cagey when she asks them questions, on and on it goes for a hundred pages or so. You might be tempted to write Rebecca off at this point – but don’t! It’s worth it in the end, I promise.

Things heat back up again when the narrator convinces herself, finally, that Maxim is still in love with his dead wife and there’s nothing she can do to ever truly win his heart. Mrs Danvers catches her at this (in)opportune moment, and tries to convince the narrator to commit suicide (yikes). Just as the narrator is making up her mind to jump, the shout goes up: a ship has wrecked just off the shore!

Not just that, but the divers who went down to try and free the ship’s hull from the reef found something disturbing: Rebecca’s capsized boat, with a body inside. That means that Maxim “identified” the wrong body that washed ashore after Rebecca’s disappearance. Oops!

And then it all really comes crashing down. Maxim is backed into a corner, forcing him to confess to his lovely new wife that he actually killed Rebecca. According to him, she was a cruel and unfaithful wife who managed to charm everyone but him with her beautiful facade (yeah, but mate, you would say that, wouldn’t you?). When she intimated to him that she was pregnant with another man’s child, he shot her – as you do…?

Almost unbelievably, the narrator accepts all of this without question. The prevailing opinion in the room is “Yeah! Rebecca! What a bitch!”. She doesn’t show a moment’s hesitation in helping Maxim cover up his crime. I can only surmise she was so willing to accept her murderous husband’s version of events because it conveniently and completely allayed every fear she’d had about his true allegiance and affections.

An inquest into the discovery of Rebecca’s (actual) body ends with a verdict of suicide. That’s when Jack Favell shows up and starts making trouble. He was Rebecca’s first cousin and lover, and he tries to blackmail Maxim, claiming to have “proof” that Rebecca would not have taken her own life – in the form of a note she sent to him the night that she died, asking him to come meet her.

NOW, this is where I will poke one important hole in an otherwise-fantastic story climax: why did no one consider Favell a suspect in Rebecca’s murder? Here’s this bloke who’s constantly drunk and highly emotional, who was having an affair with a married woman. He shows up with a note from her that shows they were to meet on the evening she died, a note that he failed to turn over to authorities for over a year… I mean, obviously he didn’t do it, but I kept waiting for SOMEONE to say “Mate, you look suspicious AF!”. No one did, though.

Anyway, I’ll try to speed through to the end here: it turns out that Rebecca wasn’t pregnant, but she was terminally ill, and Maxim manages to blame that on her too (“oh, she must have WANTED me to kill her, to save her a painful death, what a bitch!”). He escapes any trouble with the law, BUT the de Winters still have a karmic price to pay for his crime. Mrs Danvers burns the whole damn house down, and effectively forces them into exile.

Seriously, that final scene, that final page with the flames blazing on the horizon, it’s like a bomb going off. It stops abruptly, and leaves your ears ringing and your knees shaking. A chef’s-kiss A+ ending to Rebecca.

My edition includes an afterword by Sally Beauman, written in 2002. According to Beauman: “The plot of Rebecca may be as unlikely as the plot of a fairytale, but that does not alter the novel’s mythic resonance and psychological truth,” (page 437). No one really saw that at the time of publication. Reviewers called Rebecca “nothing beyond the novelette”, a book that “would be here today and gone tomorrow” – a far cry from the dissection of power and gender roles that du Maurier was getting at.

But, time told, after all; Rebecca has never been out of print. It is perennially popular, and has been adapted a bunch of times for both stage and screen (most recently, the 2020 remake for Netflix). I think it’s enduring appeal is due to the fact that it’s a deeply multi-layered literary novel, disguised as romantic fiction. You come for the spooky Gothic love story, but you stay for the evergreen interrogation of women’s subservience to (and subversion of) the rule of men. I’m pleased to report that, one or two quibbles aside, Rebecca lived up to all of its recommendations – and then some.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Rebecca:

  • “I forced myself to slog through this “classic” of gothic fiction and what a waste of time it was. 300 of the overwrought (and very DATED) 400 pages are mind-numbingly boring descriptions of Downton Abbey style tea parties, and the “story,” such as it was, all transpired in the last 80 pages, which themselves could have been edited down to 30.” – White Rabbit
  • “It was a slow and mildly interesting book.” – MRS M SWART
  • “Hated this story..too gloomy” – Sheryl Walsh
  • ” One of the most boring books I have ever read. This frequently makes ‘scariest books’ lists and the only thing scary about it is the narrator’s mother.” – K. P. Klima
  • “This book is, without question, the most boring peace of literature ever written. It makes the technical manual to my VCR look like “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. In fact, it’s so boring that I recommend a new synonym for boring, “Rebecca”. The book is about people who have disgustingly unbelievable personalities, who do really boring things, and make up mysteries about killing people that aren’t even in the story, then insist on telling you about it. The main character/narrator is the most overly emotional and sappy person in all of fiction, and could never ever be a real person, even in the 1920s when this book takes place. She insists on telling you about all of her problems, and how she can never “feel right” at Manderly, even though no sane person could EVER care. It’s enough to make you sick. The story really wasn’t that bad but it could have easily been told in about 1/10 of the amount of time. It’s like Dickens description without everything that makes Dickens good. Even after the thousands of atrocities committed by Hitler, I still consider him to be a great man, for burning THIS book. It’s that bad.” – person

Northanger Abbey – Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey occupies a strange place in the Austen oeuvre. It was the first of her major works to be completed in full (1803), but it wasn’t published until after her death (1817). The first half of the story is a comedy of manners, the second is a satirical spin on the Gothic novel. Her heroine is plain and annoying, but still wins the love of the hero in the end. If the Austen novels were a family, Northanger Abbey would be the weird cousin who never says anything in the group chat.

Northanger Abbey - Jane Austen - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Northanger Abbey here.
(Want to sponsor more fictional journeys to dream destinations? Use an affiliate link on this page, I’ll earn a small commission!)

It would seem that, in writing Northanger Abbey, Austen took her frustration with the tropes of Gothic novels (the shrinking violet heroines, the spooky haunted houses, etc.) and turned it into a story of her own. The Introduction to my edition cites “Austen’s deep-seated dislike of pretension… [and] the absurdities of contemporary literature” as sources of inspiration as well. Basically, Austen wanted to send-up the schlocky novels of her day – something like My Best Friend’s Exorcism would be today’s equivalent.

So, instead of a beautiful young woman who faints at a whiff of excitement, Austen chose for her heroine Catherine Morland, a particularly-naive and over-eager bookworm. She’s a middle-class middle child (of ten!), undistinguished and generally unremarkable. If I had to summarise the central thesis of Northanger Abbey‘s opening chapter, it would be: “This bitch! I mean, she tries, but damn.”

The narrator tells us directly that Catherine is “not really” a heroine. That’s another thing: the narrator’s position in Northanger Abbey is unlike any of the others I’ve read so far of Austen. It’s third-person in the sense that the story is told from an outside perspective, not by one of the characters involved, but at the same time it’s not an omniscient or fly-on-the-wall viewpoint, either. The narrator – slash Austen herself – makes little asides to the reader throughout, offering her own commentary and insights into what’s going on and what the reader should make of it all.

The “inciting incident” is Catherine’s invitation to join some family friends on a sojourn to Bath. Of course, she accepts, and while she’s staying with them, she befriends the world’s most Extra supporting character, Isabella. She’s all “oh, you simply MUST come for a walk with me, or I will DIE, I will be DECEASED, for you are my BEST FRIEND IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD and without YOU I would meet an UNTIMELY DEATH!”, on every damn page. Still, Catherine doesn’t seem to find her as exhausting as I did; she joins Isabella at balls, at the theater, at the baths, and so on.

Shortly thereafter, Catherine also meets Henry Tilney – our leading man. He’s not as dashing or charismatic as other Austen heroes, but he’s got his own kind of charm. The blurb for Northanger Abbey described him as “irresistible but unsentimental”, which is bang on. Catherine immediately falls head-over-heels in love with him – even goes so far as to befriend his sister Eleanor, in an effort to get closer to him – but he seems just mildly entertained by her (well, until the happily-ever-after).

You know who’s more-than-mildly entertained by Catherine? John Thorpe, Isabella’s brother. He’s crude and gross and would definitely have sent Catherine dick pics if he’d had the technology. He never shuts up, either. Catherine doesn’t want a bar of him, but ends up kind-of accidentally stringing him along, in an effort not to hurt his or Isabella’s feelings. Whoops.

Catherine’s own brother, James, joins them in Bath for a bit, and decides he’s in love with Isabella. She’s keen on him too, and accepts his proposal of marriage… only to come down with a ghastly case of cold feet, coincidentally around the same time as she finds out he’s not rich. She starts trying to flirt her way into a more fruitful marriage, but by the end of Northanger Abbey she gets her comeuppance and James gets away scot-free.

Once the party’s over in Bath, Eleanor invites her new friend Catherine to come and stay with her and her brother (Henry, the hottie, remember?) at their place, the titular Northanger Abbey. Catherine, having read a lot of Gothic novels, expects a spooky haunted house filled with ghosts of long-ago traumas and whatnot. Of course, it’s nothing of the sort. She stays there safe and happy as a welcome and beloved houseguest, until Eleanor and Henry’s father boots her.

That’s very bad news for Catherine, given her plan to seduce Henry and marry him and love him forevermore. Turns out, his father had had the same idea, which is why she was invited to the abbey in the first place, only Daddy thought his future daughter-in-law was wealthy. When a (scorned) John Thorpe told him she was practically a pauper, he quickly tried to pull up the seeds he had sown.

Henry’s not having a bar of that. He flips Daddy the bird, and rides like the wind to Catherine’s side, to tell her that he does love her after all (rich or no) and they’ll be married (with Daddy’s approval or no). Oh, and Eleanor manages to marry rich, too, which goes quite some way to assuaging Daddy’s concerns. Badabing, badaboom, there’s your happy ending!

So, as far as Austen novels go, Northanger Abbey is more bold and bawdy than some of her more-renowned offerings. While it hits a lot of the same notes as your Emmas and your Pride And Prejudices, it hits them a lot harder, and holds the pedal down for good measure. Take, for instance, the very obvious moral position with regards to literacy: all of the “good” characters of Northanger Abbey love books and talk about them at length, while all of the “bad” characters turn their noses up at them. I wonder what Austen was getting at with that, hmm?

(I feel I should also mention – though it was hard to work out where, so this will have to do! – that there are a couple of instances of blatant anti-Semitism, which I found really jarring, having not encountered that particular type of antiquated nastiness in Austen’s work previously. Just a heads up!)

I think I preferred the subtlety of some of Austen’s later work, but there’s something to be said for the explicit humour of Northanger Abbey – her other works made me nod appreciatively, while this one made me literally lol. I suppose it depends what you’re in the mood for as to which side you come down on. Still, I found this a cracking good read, and any Austen fan worth their salt should give it a go.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Northanger Abbey:

  • “I think she’s just freaking herself out.” – Molly Koeneman (she / her)
  • “Jane Austen is a very proficient writer indeed.” – revrich333
  • “This book was like purposefully watching a terrible documentary to help you fall asleep. Every time I picked this book up I fell asleep. This is not a book I would recommend unless you need sleep.” – Andrea
  • “Not really a book about a heroine. No heroine here just a girl that lucks up marrying the man she liked. Boring.” – KTWeed
  • “it was okay I guess, I liked the wishbone version better” – toyherb

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.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall - Anne Bronte - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall here.
(Anything you buy through an affiliate link like this one earns me a small commission, which helps me keep keeping up!)

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: The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall 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. That’s some quality 19th century tea, right there!

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…

Great Expectations - Charles Dickens - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Great Expectations here.
(This is an affiliate link, which means I’ll get a tiny cut for referring you, and you’ll get my eternal gratitude!)

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.

Sanditon - Jane Austen - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Sanditon here.
(Want to keep up with this one? Just so you know, when you use an affiliate link on this page to make a purchase, I earn a tiny commission!)

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 was still intended to be 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 Austen had the chance to lay everything 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.”

Sanditon, 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

« Older posts