On an Austen anthology

I recently reread all of Austen’s novels for a special author module I was taking in my final year. i had the privilege to delve into Georgian England, peaceful garden walks and a hell of a lot of contemporary drama. Austen really is one of my all time favourite authors. But what hit me the most was her current audience. On a course of 45 students, there were 2 males. The first time this has ever happened in a long history of the course running.

I didn’t really think about it initially, I was just glad that I had been offered a place on the module. But as the weeks continued and the discussions began to turn towards Austen’s contemporary and modern audience, adaptations and afterlife of the author I began to realise that there was something quite severely wrong.

In her day, her novels were read by whoever could get their hands on them, largely men. These are not romantic novels, they are social satires. This, it seems our modern world seems to have forgotten. Yes, there are marriages, and romances, but this does not solely classify the novel as romance. Her witticisms are subtle, nuanced and her style varies throughout her anthology.

Her later novel Persuasion is more apparently a social critique of the changes occuring in British society. Anne and Wentworth are the only realistic couple, I feel, in the entirety of her lovers. (It may seem like this is blasphemy, I am still very much in love with Elizabeth and Darcy so don’t fret!!) They meet and are kept apart by family, only to meet again in the future when their situations are different, they are more equal but they have loved each other continuously despite their separation regardless.

I am hoping to conduct a summer experiment on my sister this year who has yet to read any Austen literature. She will start with Persuasion first before moving onto read the rest in chronological order or however she would rather do it. My aim, is to investigate whether she will see Anne and Wentworth as being romantic lovers or practical lovers. I feel that for many people, Persuasion is a novel that many people read last because it was the last to be finished by Austen. They therefore bring their memories of lovers being drawn together despite all the odds to their reading of Persuasion and come off slightly disappointed. We all know from the outset that Anne and Wentworth will marry. It is destined.

But is this because we have Austenian presuppositions? I will hopefully find out this summer!

Dreams in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre

I thought that it was about time that I tackled one of my favourites. I didn’t really want to review books that I unconditionally love because it leaves them open to attack, and I know that every book has its faults, none of them can be prefect because statistically speaking perfection cannot exist; but some of them are pretty darn close.

I recently wrote an essay on the function of dreams in Jane Eyre and it really got me thinking because there seems to be so much relevance, all the events in the novel are so perfectly interconnected and almost mystical that it seems like an obvious observation. Yet the first time I read the book, which has to be at least four years ago, I didn’t pick up on any of the uncanny elements of the text. To me it was just a romance, set in the my favourite time period. Jane was a strong-willed woman who was an inspiring character to both the reader and the other characters in the novel. She always followed her brain, often to the detriment of her heart, but she wanted independence – financially and socially. Once she had achieved this, she was able to wrap the story up with a marriage and happily ever after.

But Jane doesn’t have it easy. She is locked up by her aunts, attacked by her cousins, alienated for the entirety of the novel, even at times by the man she loves. Jane’s experience in the Red Room seems to establish her entire story and future, it is such an important part of her childhood that it influences her in later life. It pops up frequently throughout the novel, particularly involving the incidents with Bertha before her wedding. The Red Room symbolises Jane’s alienation and therefore warns her of her heart and her passions, it protects her from becoming dependent on other people. Jane wants to be independent and marry someone on equal terms, but being financially dependent on her husband is contrary to this.

On the search for independence

On the search for independence

Bertha is also an interesting dream-like character as for the majority of the novel she isn’t seen, isn’t even spoken about she is just heard and the consequences of her actions seen. She is entirely invisible, the madwoman in the attic, locked up because she is ‘crazy’. To some extent she is mad, setting the bed on fire and destroying Jane’s veil, but she is only this way because of her treatment. Abused, mistreated and confused. Jane relates to Bertha, she is the passionate side of her character, the side that let herself become dependent on Rochester, marry him and then be traded in for a younger model.

Of course I don’t read the book in such a cynical way, it is still a love story in my eyes – but something about Bertha and the haunting aspect of dreams has revealed the harshness of the text. Imperialism and the role that Britain played in the colonies is hinted at in the novel, with Bertha and Mason coming from Jamaica. The Lowood institution that Jane is sent to as a child is another example of Victorian cruelty and the expectations of children and orphans.

Yet despite all of that, the suggestions at a political agenda, the hauntings, dreams, deaths, the novel is still beautiful. It is written so eloquently, with Jane as a character dropping in and out of her opinions, talking to the reader as it makes the book personal. Jane is talking to you. Jane is in search for a man she can marry and live happily with, it just so happens that certain events have to get in their way before Edward Rochester is her man. The hauntings are only there to make the novel more realistic. Reading a romance is enjoyable regardless of the likeliness of the conclusion, but when one is so heavily soaked in truth and at the same time impossibility it seems impossible for such a thing to occur. Yet Charlotte Bronte has done it, and created a book that is pretty close to perfection in my eyes.

 

Review: Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things is NOT a small book

Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things  is one of those books that seems to come along once in a blue moon. It seemed to defy all the conventional ‘rules’ of literature and in the process created a sensation. The characterisation, non-linear narrative, and unfamiliar and yet at the same time familiar setting make it hard to put down.

The story is set in Kerala, India and retraces the lives of an upper caste family in the lead up and aftermath of a tragic drowning accident, with  focus on the destruction of the fraternal twins Estha and Rahel’s lives. The story starts at the end, finds the beginning in the middle and finishes somewhere in the middle which allows the characters to be developed and seen at different stages of their lives. The vast array of characters also aid the storytelling because the narrative is not restricted to one person’s viewpoint; third person narrative enables us as readers to experience India through the eyes of children, grandparents, women, men and untouchables.

What I liked most was the political aspect of the novel. At the very heart of the plot was the transgression of the laws that have built Indian society and yet they were so easily broken, broken by ordinary people. The laws that surround religion, nationality, caste, gender, sexuality, incest: the laws that lay down “who should be loved, and how. And how much.” But it remains relatable, although it discusses and leaves those issues open for criticism it is not a political attack on the system. It questions the importance of the small things over the big, or in this case the social ‘laws’.

Love Laws

Love Laws define who we can love, when and by how much…

I found one of the characters particularly interesting. Velutha who is the God of Small Things. What I most enjoyed was his presence in the text, for the majority of the opening he is only referred to, and is not seen or given a large role because of his place as an untouchable in the Indian caste system, at the bottom of the hierarchical system. But as the ‘laws’ were starting to become more apparent as the plot picked up and they started to be questioned and broken, he became a crucial character. Despite the stereotype associated with the untouchables to the other characters he was, and is for me, one of the nicest characters. He was not aggressive or violent towards those who were ranked higher in the heteronormative society.

Although set in India between 1960-1990 depending on which part of the narrative we look at, the text was familiar. I have been to India and was able to imagine the places I had seen and compare that to the descriptions in the novel, but regardless of my experiences I still felt that I was able to relate to the characters. The descriptions of the exotic didn’t feel like Roy was trying to sell India, like some people have criticised, but it just felt like a description of a family home in India. For Roy, the scenes that she writes about are quotidian, nothing more.

Review: Lord of the Flies by William Golding

I can’t bring myself to write that I didn’t like this novel, declaring that outright seems almost like an offence. But I certainly didn’t love it. There is something so completely and utterly chilling in the thought that boys as young as 6 are capable of killing. I understand that this is an allegorical novel and that the children represent both sides of humanity, both good and evil, but Golding has used young boys as his medium to tell the story. Which for me almost made it too uncomfortable to read.

Lord of the Flies

I am glad that I did read it though on a few levels however, and so I don’t want to turn readers away because of my experience of the uncanny. Firstly, the character development is fantastic. Jack particularly interested me because he is determined to win, determined to receive more support than Ralph and determined for things to be run his way. Jack represents all that is bad with mankind, savagery, brutality, an instinct to prey on the weak and vulnerable and most importantly the desire for power. Without Jack acting as the novels antagonist there would be no need for Ralph. Without this murderous 12 year old boy the book would perhaps have been more enjoyable to read, which is why I like him. He manipulates fear to his own advantage, even for a brief moment convincing Ralph and Piggy, the figureheads of order and civilisation, that being a member of a tribe is the only option.

Secondly, glasses. Piggy and his glasses. For me this was a crucial aspect of the novel because so many of the events relied on who had possession of the glasses, and therefore who has power over fire. Although the glasses were crucial to the boys survival on the island, something about them experimenting and playing with an ordinary object helped them to be children again, no matter how briefly. Similarly at the begin of the novel when they swim in the lagoon, this is easy to read because it is children acting the way we expect them to in society. This becomes uncanny and uncomfortable to read when events turn sour very rapidly.

Finally, the Lord of the Flies himself. The dark and confusing island that the boys inhabit is a hot bed for the mythical and savage. The boar’s head represents all that is wrong with humanity whilst at the same time offering salvation, without sounding too philosophical. The head declares that the beast lies within all the boys and they are the only ones that can do anything about it. SPOILER ALERT Simon’s death however takes the truth with him and this has a strong resonance, I felt in reality. For everything that is good, there are far more things that are evil.

It was this that I found so disconcerting and uncanny, the book offers no real salvation, no optimist opinion of the future. The future is bleak because all humans are instinctively savage and brutal and those who do possess rare inherent moral values would be “dealt with”.

The only redeeming point that I can pick out from that would be that at least those people do exist.

Review: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

On my reading list for this week was Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, and I know what you are thinking, why are you writing a review about one book and talking about another? Once I have finished reading that book it is definitely going to be making its way onto here soon because I have so much to say. But what interested me the most about it was the frequent references to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness which I read a few years ago.

Heart of Darkness is one of those novels that you have to just grin and bear. Take it with a pinch of salt. Imperialism has so many emotional strings attached to it that it can often spark outcry and rebellion if the wrong thing is said, and I am a little nervous attempting to review it on here. But from reading it, it seemed to be about the issues of alienation and confusion and not just imperialism.

The novella follows the story of Marlow, a sailor who has gone to Africa in the hope of filling in the blank spaces on the map. He meets the man Kurtz who has become a local hero to the villagers and is worshipped like a God. Even the idea of “filling in the blank spaces on the map” seems to suggest a Western superiority that Conrad seems to be criticising in his book. The treatment of the local Africans in the Congo is horrific to read and really brings home the cruelty and harshness of colonialism.

But what makes the novel really hard to read, for me, was the ease at which the soldiers who were stationed in Africa changed. Kurtz is a man who has gone mad with power. He has been left alone to his own devices for too long and has “gone native”. He collects ivory by brutally killing locals in a manner that doesn’t seem to bother him. This made me most uncomfortable. How everything is just accepted. Although Marlow as a narrator often questions the actions of his colleagues, he is not a reactionary, nothing is done. His inability to see that he could do something and doesn’t is saddening.

Heart of Darkness

Despite all of this, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. For some reason the brutal realism that was present throughout was refreshing. Conrad hasn’t attempted to hide and cover up the horrors of imperialism, he has stripped it bare. Revealed it for what it truly was and it is for this reason that I feel this novel is so widely considered a ground-breaking novel.

Review: Wise Children by Angela Carter

This has to be, undoubtedly, one of the most confusing novels I have ever read. Parties, performances, A midsummer’s nights dream, America, the bard, twins, twins and even more twins. The carnivalesque mystique that presents itself through the novel is both extremely entertaining to read and aids the fairytale, surreal and magical tones that Carter has written in. But I think more importantly, the garish and hectic lives the characters live is a reflection of theatricality in itself.

The narrative follows the lives of Nora and Dora Chance, twins who both want to make it in showbiz like the rest of their family. The events that occur in the story are flashbacks and so the story in itself is confused as it does not follow a linear time scale and is able to jump around depending on the moods and thoughts of the female twins. The endless stream of characters; people they knew in childhood, family, relatives, husbands of actresses, illegitimate children of actors, film producers and comedians does not make this an easy text to read. If it was not for the family tree provided at the back of the book I would have been stumped from chapter 1.

But despite this chaotic and frenzied tone often overwhelming the reader I feel that it is because the events that occur are so interesting and peculiar that you cannot put the book down. Carter has reached the boundaries of what magical realism can do in literature. Carnivalesque and clocks. The simple combination of the everyday with the extraordinary is what makes it so fantastic. The frequent references to Shakespeare help the reader to make their own connections with the Chance sisters and the events that occur in their estranged lives. Again bringing something that is relatable into the mythical.

My final thought on this book is the beauty that seems to transcend the harsh realities of the text. Although Nora and Dora have lived through very hard times, lost people they loved and more often than not been seen as outsiders and not accepted into other people’s lives; they are still happy. They are still willing to grab life by the hand it pull themselves along with it. Persistence: a great coping mechanism. They seek pleasures in the small everyday things in life and although hoping for the world, the are happy to settle with a house in London.

 

"What a joy it is to dance and sing!"

“What a joy it is to dance and sing!”

Review: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

America. Alienation. Adolescence. These three words, to me, seem to summarise The Catcher in the Rye. J.D. Salinger’s only full length novel focuses on the troubles and difficulties of growing up and the desire to belong whilst maintaining ones own identity.

The protagonist Holden Caulfield leaves his school after realising that he is unhappy being surrounded by people he doesn’t like because of their annoying personal habits or their outlook on life. Phonies. Phonies is the go-to word of the narrator. Adults that he meets whilst spending time in New York city drinking, smoking or just generally wandering the cold winter streets are phonies. They are superficial products of the post second world war society. The worst part for Holden is that everyone is unable to realise their phoniness. Even sadder is the fact that Holden doesn’t realise that he is a phony himself. His compulsive need to lie and the speed at which he disregards people because of this highlights the phoniness that is present in the world.

Holden is both alienated and alienates. He is unwilling to grow up and take that final step into the adult world, like a traditional bildungsroman. He also refuses to like various characters in the book because of their artificial qualities. He also alienates himself because relationships confuse him. Opportunities for emotional and physical relationships present themselves to Holden throughout the novel but he inevitably declines because he wants to remain individual and apart from the norm.

The Catcher in the Rye

I think it this that has left The Catcher in the Rye with such a legacy. But also a universality. So many people can relate to Holden as a character. He is just one small person trying to be himself in a world full of phoniness and change. His fascination with the natural history museum shows how isolated and alone Holden both is and likes to be. The creatures frozen in time haven’t changed since he was young and this is one of the only static elements of the novel.

In a world that is rapidly developing, with technological advances and a booming economy, there is no time to build up the intimate relationships that Holden believes should exist. His romantic view of the world is outdated and again he prevents himself from belonging. Sex is prevalent throughout the novel, with his need to lose his virginity and his apparent interest in it. Holden is a product of this changing society. He wants to lose his virginity to someone he respects and loves but is also aroused by people he doesn’t care for and considers stupid.

It is this inability to grasp the world which makes the character of Holden so relatable. Although the reasoning behind his self-alienation and inability to connect with the real world is unique to him, I feel that I can relate to him as a character. The social pressure to belong in a constantly moving, changing, growing world is something which cannot be done without trouble. Everyone has problems. Some people are just better adjusted at coping with them than others.

Phonies