Way Beyond Retro: Lewis Carroll – Through the Looking-Glass

Alice begins her adventures when she follows the frantically delayed White Rabbit down a hole into the magical world of Wonderland, where she meets a variety of wonderful creatures, including Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the Cheshire Cat, the hookah-smoking Caterpillar, the Mad Hatter, and the Queen of Hearts—who, with the help of her enchanted deck of playing cards, tricks Alice into playing a bizarre game of croquet. Alice continues her adventures in Through the Looking-Glass, which is loosely based on a game of chess and includes Carroll’s famous poem “Jabberwocky.” 

Throughout her fantastic journeys, Alice retains her reason, humor, and sense of justice. She has become one of the great characters of imaginative literature, as immortal as Don Quixote, Huckleberry Finn, Captain Ahab, Sherlock Holmes, and Dorothy Gale of Kansas.

Through the Looking-Glass is the sequel to Alice in Wonderland, based on the scraps of stories told to the Liddell girls, but not included in the first book. Carroll started it in 1867, the year he finished Alice in Wonderland, but it would take him until 1870 to finish it.

Through the Looking-Glass is as strange a tale as Alice in Wonderland, though the story is more linear and clearly based on a chess game, which gives it context and something of a plot to follow. As with the previous book, the story takes the shape of a dream. This time Alice doesn’t drift off next to a burbling river, but next to a cosy fire snuggling with one of her kittens. She needs to travel from the Looking-Glass house (check name in book) to the other side of the river, so she can become a queen. As such, book has a clear goal and as in a chess game every episode has an “opponent” for Alice to “defeat”.

Besides the scraps of stories left after Alice in Wonderland, Carroll also incorporated some of his other, often poetic, works in the book. Carroll’s more well-known poems are in here, such as ‘The Jabberwocky’ and ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter.’ They form separate stories told to Alice during her travels through the Mirror world. Where ‘The Jabberwocky’ is presented both as a mirror poem and a completely mystifying text composed of mainly made up words, which even Alice has to admit she doesn’t understand, the poem does convey a story. The precise meaning of the story might be a little obscure, but it is reminiscent of the sort of epic poetry such as Beowulf, where the hero of the story defeats the monster and is received as a hero upon his return. But where Beowulf is history transformed into legend to illustrate the characteristics of a worthy leader of men, ‘The Jabberwocky’ seems to lack such depth, Carroll added no moral to the story. In comparison, ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ seems to have a clearer ‘moral’, where it ot for the fact that Carroll mostly didn’t seem to believe in adding such morals to stories. Where ‘The Jabberwocky’ is strange and alienating in its vocabulary, ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ is far more familiar in tone. Both characters are pretty much bad eggs, luring away the little oysters just to eat them, though one could pose the question why the elder oyster, who seems to be aware of their intent, doesn’t warn the younger ones. Which raises the question whether he isn’t just as culpable as the titular characters. Eventhough, at first glance, ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ seems the less complicated of the two, if you consider the poems carefully, there are underlying themes to both of them.

The characters are again fabulous and inventive. I particularly loved the insects (probably the only time in history these words will leave my keyboard): The rocking-horse fly, the Snap-Dragonfly, the Bread-and-Butterfly. and the way he’s incorporated the mirrored nature of the Looking Glass World is genius. Though at the same time, I’m having a hard time imagining how some of it would work, such as, for example, the needing to cut the cake backwards in the Lion and the Unicorn scene. It makes sense in the context of the story, but how it would actually work is beyond me. Another brilliant mirroring is the White Queen’s memory. Instead of remembering what has just happened, she remembers what is to happen in the future. So she’s constantly referring to things that have not yet happened, which confuses poor Alice to no end. Funnily enough, this concept was easier to wrap my head around than the backwards cutting of the cake!

I honestly liked Through the Looking-Glass far better than I liked Alice in Wonderland, mostly due to the fact that there was something actually resembling a plot to it. As with Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking-Glass is a work that any one with an interest in the development of English literature, and children’s literature in particular, should read.

Way Beyond Retro: Lewis Carroll – Alice in Wonderland

Source of legend and lyric, reference and conjecture, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is for most children pure pleasure in prose. While adults try to decipher Lewis Carroll’s putative use of complex mathematical codes in the text, or debate his alleged use of opium, young readers simply dive with Alice through the rabbit hole, pursuing “The dream-child moving through a land / Of wonders wild and new.” There they encounter the White Rabbit, the Queen of Hearts, the Mock Turtle, and the Mad Hatter, among a multitude of other characters–extinct, fantastical, and commonplace creatures. Alice journeys through this Wonderland, trying to fathom the meaning of her strange experiences. But they turn out to be “curiouser and curiouser,” seemingly without moral or sense.

For more than 130 years, children have reveled in the delightfully non-moralistic, non-educational virtues of this classic. In fact, at every turn, Alice’s new companions scoff at her traditional education. The Mock Turtle, for example, remarks that he took the “regular course” in school: Reeling, Writhing, and branches of Arithmetic-Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision. Carroll believed John Tenniel’s illustrations were as important as his text. Naturally, Carroll’s instincts were good; the masterful drawings are inextricably tied to the well-loved story. (All ages) –Emilie Coulter 
(Description taken from Goodreads) 

Before reading the book, I’d only ever seen the Disney film and that was last seen twenty years ago. Despite that lapse of time, I still recognised a lot of it in the story. This either means that either Disney was very true to the book or my memories of the film are so fragmented that I only recognised its and the book’s iconic scenes, such as the Cheshire Cat, the Hatter and the Hare, the Caterpillar and the Red Queen’s game of croquet.

Alice in Wonderland is a strange story. It’s funny and entertaining, but it has no plot whatsoever and doesn’t really make much sense. It’s a link up of seemingly loose scenes and encounters Alice has once she goes down the rabbit hole. Considering the origins of the story, this isn’t all that surprising. Carroll first invented the tale while telling stories to the Liddell sisters while on a series of afternoon boating expeditions. Alice is based on the second sister, Alice Liddell. Her insistence that the stories should be put into proper book form, was the impetus for Carroll to actually write the stories down and see them published.

The characters of Alice in Wonderland are fantastic and fabulous. They are what make the book shine, from the huffy mouse Alice meets in her pool of tears, to the dodo and the owl that tell tales to get them dry, to the Mad Hatter and the March Hare, the Duchess and her cook, they are all distinct and weird. My favourite ones are the Rabbit and the Cheshire Cat. The Rabbit because he’s what I remember first and foremost about the film; the entrance of the Rabbit and his little song. I can still hear it in my head to this day. On top of that he is such an officious little soul in the book, he makes me smile every time. And the Cheshire Cat, because, well, who doesn’t love the Cheshire Cat? To me he is one of the epitomes of felinity, with his casual mysteriousness and smugness. He always made me grin in the film and continued to do so in the book.

The story seems simplistic, but that’s probably only on a surface read. From what I’ve read in the Bakewell biography of Carroll’s life, there’s a lot beneath the surface. Carroll, under his true name of Dodgson, was an enthusiastic satirical pamphlet writer, and no doubt this facet is also present in his Alice in Wonderland. Still, it was meant primarily as a children’s book, so whether its intended readership was supposed to get the references is doubtful. I know I didn’t, though that is probably partially due to the fact that I’m not familiar with most of Carroll’s contemporaries and the contemporary issues.

While Alice in Wonderland is fun and fantastical (in the broadest sense of the word) I didn’t really like the book. I guess I just couldn’t handle there not being a plot to the book. Despite this, I can appreciate the literary merits and importance of Carroll’s seminal work, as a classic of English literature and as the first true children’s novel. As such it is a work that any one with an interest in the development of English literature and children’s literature in particular, should read.

Way Beyond Retro: Bram Stoker – Dracula

Welcome to another instalment of my semi-regular feature Way Beyond Retro. In this feature I’ll be reading the non-speculative books or classic speculative fiction books still in my TBR-pile. You can find more details on Way Beyond Retro in this introduction. I won Dracula in a Twitter competition from Oxford World Classics.

Bram Stoker’s 1897 Gothic shocker introduced Count Dracula to the world, an ancient creature bent on bringing his contagion to London, the very heart of the British Empire. Only a handful of men and women stand between Dracula and his long-cherished goal, but they are vulnerable and weak against the cunning and supernatural powers of the Count and his legions. As the horrifying story unfolds in the diaries and letters of young Jonathan Harker, Lucy, Mina, and Dr Seward, Dracula will be victorious unless his nemesis Professor Van Helsing can persuade them that monsters still lurk in the era of electric light.

The most famous of all vampire stories, Dracula is a mirror of its age, its underlying themes of race, religion, science, superstition, and sexuality never far from the surface. A compelling read, rattling along at break-neck speed, it is a modern classic. This new edition includes Stoker’s companion piece, ‘Dracula’s Guest’.

For all my having a BA in English and having mainly read speculative fiction since I was fourteen, I’ve never actually read Dracula before. Yes, that is appalling, I know. It gets worse… I did see the film featuring Gary Oldman as Dracula. And I didn’t really like it that much, convincing me that I probably wouldn’t like the book that much either. Yes, I’m deeply, deeply ashamed of my teenage self. Luckily, I grew up and decided I wouldn’t let myself be scared of creepy films anymore and even more luckily I won a copy of Oxford World Classics’ new Dracula edition, so I could rectify the situation. After reading it, one thing is sure, this vampire does NOT sparkle, though his girls might!

The introduction to the novel by Roger Luckhurst, who also provided the footnotes, was excellent, very entertaining and informative. It was a pleasure to read an introduction that was written recently, as most of my classics have somewhat dated introductory material. The material gave a good overview of both the author and the work, touching on themes such as sexuality, gender roles, politics, race and science. The author concludes the introduction by looking at what came after Dracula and it was interesting to see in how many directions the vampire mythos has travelled and how it hasn’t really ever gone away.

Most interesting to me were the themes of sexuality and science. Not so much the Dracula as a sexual allegory angle, but the way Lucy and Mina rather mirror Dracula in their harems of men. Dracula has his trio of weird sisters and both Lucy and Mina collect a group of men about them, who are completely devoted to them. Actually, I found that rather creepy, the way the men all but put the ladies on a pedestal and adore them in not quite the old-fashioned chivalric way. In the case of Mina, it is both more and less disturbing as the men aren’t as overtly amorously drawn to her as they are to Lucy, as she is already engaged to Jonathan. But it’s exactly that which makes it disturbing; she’s engaged to someone and here are all these men ready to lay down their lives for her. This might just be due to Gothic conventions or it might just be that I’m just not as much of a romantic as I thought, I mean I didn’t get the obsessive Heathcliff/Cathy attraction in Wuthering Heights either. However, what I did like a lot was the scientific approach the party takes, led by Van Helsing, and the details Stoker included. My favourite of which was Mina’s gathering and collating the information from all the sources, as it’s both a narrative ploy and such a valid scientific method. Both the scientific approach and the details made the narrative feel very modern in its own context. They also illustrate the mental split Victorians found themselves in with regard to science and religion and the superstitions of an earlier ages. Though the fact Van Helsing just went back and forth between Amsterdam and London kept somehow surprising me, I kept forgetting that they’d already invented steamboats at this time.

What does Dracula mean for speculative fiction? Everything vampire related seems to spring from him. Stoker might have collated everything that has come before, the folklore and superstitions, but also earlier literary works which used the vampire myth, but his Dracula is a creature all his own and has fathered, figuratively speaking, all that came after him. So do we rejoice that it brought us Buffy and Lestat or do we mourn because it brought us Twilight? I don’t know, everyone will answer that question differently, but I think Dracula has given us an archetypal monster, which has inspired many authors to reinvent it and the vampire mythos and which doesn’t appear to be vanishing soon.

I loved this book. I hadn’t expected to love it, but I did. Once Jonathan entered that coach leaving Bistritz, I got swept along right up till the end. Dracula is a classic, important both to speculative fiction and to Gothic and Victorian literature. It’s a story any speculative fiction reader should at least read once and in this case watching the film doesn’t count! If you won’t take my word for it, take Mark Charan Newton’s, as he insists on the same, albeit in a much more eloquent fashion.

Way Beyond Retro: Tales from the Thousand and One Nights

Welcome to another instalment of my semi-regular feature Way Beyond Retro. In this feature I’ll be reading the non-speculative books still in my TBR-pile. You can find more details on Way Beyond Retro in this introduction. Tales from the Thousand and One Nights is one of the books I rescued when my mother was throwing out most of her books when she emigrated. 

Originating from India, Persia and Arabia, the Tales from the Thousand and One Nights represent the lively expression of a lay and secular imagination in revolt against religious austerity and zeal in Oriental literature. They depict a fabulous and fanciful world of jinns and sorcerors, but their bawdiness, realism and variety of subject matter also firmly anchor them to everyday life. In this volume the translator has caught the freshness and spontaneity of the stories – which, although imaginative and extravagant, are a faithful mirror of medieval Islam.

When I got the pick of my mother’s books when she needed to get rid of them as she was emigrating, the reason I picked Tales from the Thousand and One Nights was twofold. First of all I was of the opinion that I ought to have read at least part of one of the great, classical literary influences, both on the literature I studied at university and on my beloved speculative genre. Second of all, I had bought Anthony O’Neill’s Scheherazade, a retelling of the story of Scheherazade, a few months earlier and never really got past the first twenty pages and I thought reading some of the original The Thousand and One Nights might help me get into the book more. Of course, this was almost ten years ago and both books have remained unread until now.

The Thousand and One Nights are a collection of folk tales that found their current form in the early nineteenth century. Their first introduction into the West, however, was as early as 1707 when the French Orientalist Antoine Galland. He encountered the stories on his voyages in the East and brought them back and translated them into French. He wasn’t just a translator though, as I learned from the BBC4 program Secrets of the Arabian Nights, which serendipitously aired just as I’d started reading the book. Galland also adapted some stories, which he’d heard being told during his travels, to satisfy the rising demand for more Arabian Nights tales. After their introduction to the West, The Thousand and One Nights went through Europe like a wildfire, being in high demand in upper class drawing rooms. And while they have gone through many incarnations, being bowdlerised by the Victorians and turned into children’s stories by them as well, they have never disappeared into oblivion and have remained popular to this day.

The Thousand and One Nights contain strong themes of compassion, charity, loyalty and forgiveness. As illustrated by The Tale of Judar and his Brothers, where Judar keeps forgiving his brothers and providing for them, regardless of all their greed and scheming. Another strong theme connected to loyalty is the importance of familial relations. It is paramount to care for your family, not just your immediate family, but your extended family as well. And people cast each other in familial roles, even if strangers, as we see in the case of Sindbad the Sailor and Sindbad the Porter, where the former is rescued on his last journey by an old man, who makes him his son and heir by marrying him to his daughter. Familial relations can also be used to deceive, as illustrated by the Moor in Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp, who pretends to be his long lost uncle so he’ll help him recover the lamp.

Women are either Mary’s or Eves, though in some cases they may represent both, such as the three girls from The Porter and the Three Girls of Baghdad. These seem to be largely temptresses in their treatment of the porter, but when they later tell their stories to the Caliph they turn out to be victims of circumstance as well. This ambivalent view of the feminine seems to to move from harlots to housewives during the telling of the Tales by Scheherazade, as she wanted to show that not all women were faithless and treacherous and to convince her Sultan to let her live, or at least that is what the BBC show claimed. From the small selection of tales in this book, it is hard to distil this development.

The stories aren’t just fantastical in a speculative sense, but in a literal sense as well. The stories aren’t very logical, not even within the context of the stories. They are, however, very entertaining, ranging from morality tales, such as the Fable of the Donkey, the Ox, and the Farmer, to out and out farce, such as The Historic Fart. Yet these stories favour the rogues and ne’er-do-wells; being good and virtuous doesn’t always equal being rewarded, as illustrated by The Tale of Judar and his Brothers, where the forgiving and loyal Judar ends up being killed by his avaricious brothers. In this case fortune really does favour the brave, as shown by The Tale of Ma’aruf the Cobbler, where Ma’aruf’s outrageous lies become the truth and all’s well that ends well, much to Ma’aruf’s frind Ali’s dismay.

Much of (Middle) Eastern based fantasy draws on The Thousand and One Nights. In some cases more directly than others, such as Howard Andrew Jones’ The Desert of Souls, which is as the author himself says (to paraphrase) Sherlock Holmes meets Arabian Nights meets Sinbad crossed with Indiana Jones. Others are less obvious, but the story-within-a-story model such as used in Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicles, is the basis for The Thousand and One Nights. This model can even get very confusing as the nesting becomes Matruschka-like in proportions and it can get difficult to keep straight at which level the story is placed. One thing that I found striking, was the fact that the jinn in these stories aren’t half as treacherous as they are often portrayed. The only malicious jinn is the one from the The Fisherman and the Jinnee, the rest of the jinn in this selection of stories, is nothing more than magical, wishful-filling slaves.

Tales from The Thousand and One Nights was a very entertaining collection of tales taken from The Thousand and One Nights. These stories still need to be read, both because they are a classic in literary history and because they have such a profound influence on much of the Middle-Eastern inspired cultures in the speculative genre. But most importantly, these stories deserve to be read for themselves, as they are fun, adventurous and give a peek at a culture that is both exotic and fascinating.

Way Beyond Retro: Frances Burney – Evelina

Welcome to another instalment of my semi-regular feature Way Beyond Retro. In this feature I’ll be reading the non-speculative books still in my TBR-pile. You can find more details on Way Beyond Retro in this introductionEvelina was one of the books I bought as research for the thesis I never finished and consequently I never read the book. It is the last of four 18th century novels in this series, as the previous three books are also leftovers from the thesis-that-wasn’t-to-be.

Frances Burney - Evelina
Not actually the cover of my copy,
but I can’t find that online!

Written in secret, the manuscript copied for her publisher in disguised handwriting, Frances Burney’s first novel Evelina appeared anonymously in 1778.

It was a sequel to Caroline Evelyn, the novel burned by its author when she was fifteen; Evelina, the apparently illegitimate daughter of vanished Caroline, happily enters a society much more dangerous than she realizes. Subtitled The History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World the novel records in letters its young heroine’s encounters with society, both high and low, in London and at fashionable watering places.

The novel explores representation and performance, social mores and masks, in a world full of distractions, from overturned coaches to golden automata, from opera to malevolent monkeys. Evelina is also a ‘family romance’, and, as Margaret Anne Doody’s Introduction indicates, it is acutely observant of the social laws regarding power, authority and authorship, which the author herself had to subvert, at least in part, like her naïve letter-writing heroine.

The above is a great summary of what the novel is about. It describes the themes, the content and the importance of the work in the author’s life and body of work. What it can’t convey is the book’s wonderfully engaging tone of voice. Evelina is an epistolary novel, which follows Evelina in her first year out in society. The letters are those written by Evelina, on the one hand, and her foster father Reverend Villars on the other. Evelina writes mainly to the Reverend Villars and her best friend Maria Mirvan, but there are also a few loose letters to others. Some other authors appear, but their letters are always included in the letters written by Evelina and Villars. The tone of the novel is fun and it is very readable despite its 18th century peculiarities of spelling and words.

The novel is about class in both senses of the word: status and manners. You may be of a higher class, but still have no manners and vice versa. The story seems to illustrate that class is something you’re born with, you either have it or you don’t. If you’re born without it, you can put on the mask but it doesn’t make you genteel. Both Sir Clement and Mr. Smith are examples of this; Sir Clement is an unmannered oaf, who based on his title and status in society thinks he can behave as he likes and get away with it. Mr. Smith, in contrast is not born of the upper class and hopes to convince people that he has a claim to gentility by adopting upper class manners and opinions. Of course, he gets it wrong most of the time. Evelina is the opposite; seemingly born out if wedlock to a Lord, she is raised in less exalted circles than her birth would have entitled her to had she been legitimate. Despite this she possesses all the social niceties and virtues expected of her when entering society, although she is hampered by her great naivety.

Both Sir Clement and Mr. Smith gave me the creeps, their almost obsessive pursuit of Evelina is disturbing, but shows the vulnerability of young women in society in the era. Reputation is key, something of which Evelina is well aware. When she’s forced to go out in public with her low relations, she fears running into anyone she knows from higher up in society especially Mr. Orville. The vicarious shame Evelina feels for the Branghtons and Mrs Duval is at once hilarious and tragic. It a different sort of shame than the one she feels for the rudeness of Captain Mirvan and, to an extent, Sir Clement. The latter springs from her feeling they should know better, but being powerless to correct them, where with the Branghtons it is more shame to have to acknowledge the connection.

With its romantic story, the hilarious shenanigans instigated by Captain Mirvan, its almost satiric look at class and society and, most of all, with its endearing protagonist, Evelina is a lovely read, which kept me thoroughly entertained. Evelina deserves to be read today and I’d recommend it to anyone who likes the works of Jane Austen.

Way Beyond Retro: Tobias Smollett – The Expedition of Humphry Clinker

Welcome to another instalment of my semi-regular feature Way Beyond Retro. In this feature I’ll be reading the non-speculative books still in my TBR-pile. You can find more details on Way Beyond Retro in this introduction. The Expedition of Humphry Clinker was one of the books I bought as research for the thesis I never finished and consequently I never read the book. It is the third of four 18th century novels in this series, as the previous two and the next book are also leftovers from the thesis-that-wasn’t-to-be.

Tough, splenetic, and widely experienced, of all the great novelists of his time Tobias Smollett is one who registered best the bawdy, brutal side of the eighteenth-century life. Towards the end of his life, however, he grew mellower, and Humphry Clinker (1771) is a tale of high good humour. Squire Bramble’s picaresque tour of the Britain of George III has enough eccentric characters and comic adventures for several lifetimes, and a wealth of local colour.

Published in June 1771, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker was to be Tobias Smollett’s last novel. The author died in September of the same year. Though Smollett is most remembered for his picaresque works, such as The Adventures of Roderick RandomHumphry Clinker is more of a travelogue than a picaresque. It is not the ending or the plot that is the story, but the scenery on the way. There isn’t really a solid plot to the story; Bramble takes his niece, nephew and sister on a tour of the Isle after collecting Liddy from her school, after she got in trouble for falling in love with a common player boy. This indiscretion and its ultimate resolution and Mrs Tabitha’s attempts at landing herself a husband would seem to be the closest we get to a traditional storyline. But again, this isn’t the point of the novel. The portrayal of contemporary British life is far more important and if you are looking for a glimpse of what eighteenth century life was like for the well off, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker provides just that and in spades.

Humphry Clinker is an epistolary novel and this episodic form of narration suits the wandering tale very well. It allows Smollett to jump ahead in time at will, but also to give us several viewpoints on the same event. Smollett’s touch is deft, the voices of the narrators are distinct and each is different in style and tone. Liddy sounds girlish and teeny, Jere typifies the collegiate boy and Bramble is ponderous and serious, but with a good heart. The other two letter writers are more defined by style than tone, both Mrs Tabitha and Win are recognisable from their atrocious spelling and grammar. This serves as excellent comic relief, but also serves to drive home points about their personalities; Tabitha is shown in all her self-important and self-serving ignorance, while Win is shown to be a barely literate, rather naive serving girl. The titular Humphry Clinker isn’t one of the correspondents, in fact he only appears after about a quarter of the book.

The title of the book seems to be a bit of a pun. The titles of all of Smollett’s other books start with The Adventures of. This one is the only one starting with The Expedition. Of course this refers to their travels, with Clinker as one of the party, but it can also seem to refer to Clinker’s eventual upward mobility.

In the introduction to the book, written by its editor, Angus Ross, the narrative is said to contain parts of Smollett’s earlier writings. These passages are easily identified as they are often disguised as harangues by Bramble on the state of society. Bramble seems to be Smollett’s mouthpiece; Smollett is known for his rather autobiographical streak in his writing and while both Jere and Bramble have long pieces which seem to have been lifted from earlier works, Bramble is the one who expresses opinions, while Jere more or less provides background information. While these ‘lifted’ sections were easily identified in the text, they never feel clunky or information dump-like, they flow from the narrative and serve to build the characters. They actually made me smile more often than not, as it seemed Bramble had the eternal ‘old man’s complaint’ most of the time: ‘In my time, when I was younger everything was better.’

The prevailing sense I had while reading this novel can be summarised by the proverbial The more things change, the more they stay the same. Smollett gives us a snap shot of his time and includes the plaints uttered by its inhabitants. Funnily, a lot of the complaints are still uttered today, both by the old and not-so old. It gives the book a sense of timelessness and relevance for the modern-day reader. Add to this the fact that it is as humorous as The Adventures of Roderick Random and you have a great read, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Highly recommended for people who want to explore some of the classics of British literature!

Way Beyond Retro: Charlotte Lennox – The Female Quixote

Welcome to another installment of my semi-regular feature Way Beyond Retro. In this feature I’ll be reading the non-speculative books still in my TBR-pile. You can find more details on Way Beyond Retro in this introduction. The Female Quixote was one of the books I bought as research for the thesis I never finished and consequently I never read the book. It is the second of four 18th century novels in this series, as the previous and next two books are also leftovers from the thesis-that-wasn’t-to-be.

The Female QuixoteIn The Female Quixote (1752) Lennox exploits the clash of literary illusion and mundane reality with deft and high-spirited satire whose comedy overlays a serious concern for her heroine.

Brought up by her widowed father in a remote English castle, Arabella resorts to reading the French novels popular in her mother’s youth, and in the solitude of this Arcadia paints a picture of her life as adventurous and deeply romantic. When her father dies, however, she inherits a barbed legacy: if she is not to lose part of the estate it appears she must marry her cousin Glanville. But Arabella has developed a different, private code of conduct which does not allow her to take any role but centre stage in the drama of her own life; her literary heroines are always in control.

Let me be honest; The Female Quixote was a huge struggle to get through. Only the fact that I’d decided that I was going to finish this book and review it, kept me from putting it away. Frustratingly, this wasn’t because the story as such was bad or the writing was shoddy, it was because Lennox’s protagonist Arabella does what she is meant to do too well.

Arabella is completely obsessed with French Romances. She’s an eighteenth century Twihard, only sans vampires. This becomes problematic when she decides this is how the world should work and leads her life accordingly. Naturally, the world doesn’t work like this and when Arabella’s father dies, her life becomes complicated, as her perceptions of life and the real world start to clash. Arabella’s voice is distinct and unique and was problematic for me. Lennox let her speak in the language of romance and that means long, convoluted sentences, which sometimes require several rereads to make sense. The following is a good example of Arabella’s speech:

When I shall be so fortunate, interrupted she, to meet with a Lover who shall have as pure and perfect a Passion for me, as Oroondates had for Statira; and give me as many glorious Proofs of his Constancy and Affection, doubtless I shall not be ungrateful: But since I have not the Merits of Statira, I ought not to pretend to her good Fortune; and shall be very well contented if I escape the Persecutions which Persons of my Sex, who are not frightfully ugly, are always exposed to, without hoping to inspire such a Passion as that of Oroondates. (p. 48)

Arabella speaks as if she should write on pink paper with purple ink and dot her i’s with hearts. Luckily, only Arabella and occasionally Sir George, he of dishonourable intent, use this mode of speech. The other characters speak far more plainly. The difference in voice between Glanville and Arabella is distinct and serves to emphasize Arabella’s silliness. Arabella’s strange notions are almost as exasperating to me, as the reader, as they are to her suitor Glanville.

However, while exasperating, Arabella’s eccentricity does serve to make Lennox’s point. As stated in the introduction and the appendix to the book, The Female Quixote was meant to be an indictment of the romances and the nefarious influence they could have on young minds and, through Lennox’s portrayal of Arabella, as such it succeeds. Arabella’s ‘conversion’ comes about abruptly and the final book feels very rushed; the reasons for this are explored in the appendix, so I won’t go into them here, other than to say that while as a denouement it may have been a little underwhelming, at that point in the narrative I was just glad to get it over with.

Another factor that made the reading experienced a mixed one for me, was the editor’s decision to retain the original capitalisation and interpunction. The use of capitals for almost every proper noun is distracting, as is the italicisation of all names. Adding to the confusion was the lack of quotation marks in dialogues, which at times made it difficult to keep straight who was speaking and what was part of the speech and what was meant as description of the speaker. While I can understand the desire to stay close to the original text, especially for academic purposes, for the casual reader such as myself, it would have been preferable if at least the capitalisation and quotation marks had been modernised.

The question then remains why this book should be read today? I can think of several reasons. One, it has a place in English literary history, if only for its connection to both Dr. Johnson and Samuel Richardson. Two, whatever the book’s flaws, Charlotte Lennox was a skilled writer, who wrote her story with great flair and thorough knowledge of her subject matter and deserves to be read. Three, despite everything, Arabella remains a sympathetic character and if you look beyond the absurdity of her notions,  her situation shows the unequal position women occupied in the eigtheenth century. This last point is further explored in Margaret Anne Doody’s introduction to the book. Apart from giving some insight into Charlotte Lennox’s history, Doody touches on several feminist themes in the book.

So, if this book deserves to be read in my opinion, who would I recommend it too? Honestly, only to those who wouldn’t read it casually. It’s not a book read purely for pleasure by a chance passerby. It’s more suited to those who would read it for research or someone very familiar with the literature of the times. I am neither of these anymore and because of that, this book, while technically sound, just didn’t work for me and turned in to a really tough read.

Way Beyond Retro: Tobias Smollett – The Adventures of Roderick Random

Welcome to another installment of my semi-regular feature Way Beyond Retro. In this feature I’ll be reading the non-speculative books still in my TBR-pile. You can find more details on Way Beyond Retro in this introduction. The Adventures of Roderick Random was one of the books I bought as research for the thesis I never finished and consequently I never read the book. Roderick Random will be the first of four 18th century novels in this series, as the next three books are also leftovers from the thesis-that-wasn’t-to-be.

Roderick Random (1748), Smollett’s first novel, is full of the dazzling vitality characteristic of all his work, as well as of his own life.

Roderick is the boisterous and unprincipled hero who answers life’s many misfortunes with a sledgehammer. Left penniless, he leaves his native Scotland for London and on the way meets Strap, an old schoolfellow. Together they undergo many adventures at the hands of scoundrels and rogues. Roderick qualifies as a surgeon’s mate and is pressed as a common soldier on board the man-of-war Thunder. In a tale of romance as well as adventure, Roderick also finds time to fall in love…

Smollet drew on his own experiences as a surgeon’s mate in the navy for ther memorable scenes on board ship, and the novel combines documentary realism with great good humour and panache.

The eigthteenth century saw the birth of the modern novel, from the early (actually pre-eigthteenth century) works of Aphra Behn to the later works of Defoe, Swift, Richardson, Fielding, Goldsmith, Smollett and many others. The novel wouldn’t become the leading form of literature until the onset of the Victorian Age, but to follow its development from its infancy to the more modern forms is fascinating.

Eighteenth century novels are an acquired taste. They have both a far more moralistic flavour and a more salacious tone than their currently more widely read, nineteenth century Romantic and Victorian counterparts. The novels can be dry (Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, which bored me to tears), byzantine (Laurence Sterne’s Tristam Shandy, which I just couldn’t slog through) and humorous (Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones made me laugh despite its moralistic core), but they are all factors in the evolution of the novel as we know it. Tobias Smollett is one of the lesser known authors of the period. He was mainly an author of the picaresque novel, who acknowledged his inspiration by Le Sage and Cervantes, he even published translations of the former’s Gil Blas and Cervantes’ Don Quichote. The Adventures of Roderick Random is his first published novel. 

The Oxford World’s Classics edition I own, is edited and introduced by Paul-Gabriel Boucé. The notes Mr. Boucé provides are very helpful, especially to understand some of the nautical terms and theatrical references. The introduction y Boucé and the preface written by Smollett are a bit dry, but once the story starts and gathers pace it’s truly entertaining. The text is surprisingly readable. There is not as much old and obscure wordage as you might expect. The words that are difficult are often the nautical terms mentioned above or references to era-specific terms that have just fallen out of use today.

The main theme of the book is money: the possession of it, the want of it and the ways of obtaining it. And those ways go pretty far. Of course this is not surprising in an era where you were either (independently) rich, really hard-working on a living wage or poor; an obsession with money and the independence and security the possession of it brings, would almost seem natural. Roderick’s greatest wish is to be independently wealthy, as he would have been if he hadn’t been orphaned and disowned by his grandfather. He tries several careers, but marrying an heiress seems the easiest and surest way to attain his goals. His schemes to marry well are pretty outrageous and offensive. Consider the following passage for example, where Roderick makes a deal with one of his friends, Mr. Banter:

‘As they are both utter strangers to life, it is a thousand to one that the girl shall be picked up by some scoundrel or other at Bath, if I don’t provide for her otherwise. – You are a well-looking fellow, Random, and can behave as demurely as a quaker.- Now if you will give me an obligation for five hundred pouns, to be paid six months after your marriage, I will put you in a method of carrying her in spite of all opposition.’
      This proposal was too advantageous for me to be refused: The writing was immediately drawn and executed; … (p. 323)

And a little later in the story, after Roderick has met Miss Snapper and her mother, he makes a calculated decision to pursue the girl:

During this unsocial interval, my pride and interest maintained a severe conflict, on the subject of Miss Snapper, whom the one represented as unworthy of my notice, and the other proposed as the object of my whole attention: The advantages and disadvantages attending such a match, were opposed to one another by my imagination; and at length, my judgement gave it so much in favour of the firs,t that I resolved to prosecute my scheme, with all the address in my power. (p. 333)

Roderick, and most of his friends for that matter, is a cad, plain and simple. This is also illustrated by the way he shamelessly uses his friend Strap. Strap would share his last bread crumb with Roderick, who at one point would rather be shot of the embarrasing acquintance, until he needs someone to pay his way and he takes Strap’s devotion pretty much for granted. But for all that, Roderick is still extremely likeable. The book is told in his often humerous first person point of view and as such, his less likeable actions are softened and smoothed a bit, so that the reader doesn’t realise their true nature until she takes a step back from the text.

My favourite part of the book is the part where Roderick is at sea. Partly this is because I love old sea adventures and partly because for all his manoeuvering and intriguing for advancement, at sea it all comes down to what he can do for himself. It also leads to the somewhat Deus-Ex-Machina solution to the novel, which provides the “happily ever after”-ending for almost every character. But then these endings are part and parcel of the picaresque and prevalent in a lot of novels of the age.

My favourite line in the book made me giggle because it seemed an eigthteenth century “yo mama” joke:

She’s a thousand times more chaste than the mother who bore you; and I will assert her honour with my heart’s blood!

So is there anything speculative about The Adventures of Roderick Random? No, not at all. It’s a straight up picaresque novel, with some adventure thrown in. But it is still a book that deserves to be read. Both for its place in English literary history and for the story itself. It’s a diverting read and while not as iconic as the works of Swift and Defoe, at least as good as and far more readable than the works of Richardson and Sterne.

Way Beyond Retro – Beowulf

Welcome to another instalment of my semi-regular feature Way Beyond Retro. In this feature I’ll be reading the non-speculative books still in my TBR-pile. You can find more details on Way Beyond Retro in this introduction. Beowulf is another of the texts I had to read from at university. Having only read the lines prescribed, I never read the entire text. When I picked up the book from my shelf, I discovered that my Penguin Classic edition was an untranslated Old-English edition. Since it’s been over 10 years since I actually learned how to translate Old English and I’ve forgotten most of it, I borrowed a copy of the Norton Critical Edition of Seamus Heaney’s translation, published in 2002, from work. 

Eighth-century in its origin, Beowulf is an epic Anglo-Saxon poem and one of the earliest texts in Engish literature. Of the 32.000 lines of Anglo-Saxon writing preserved over one-tenth of these are the lines of the Beowulf. The poem describes the journey of the young Beowulf to the Danish court of King Hrothgar, which is besieged by a monster called Grendel. Beowulf vows to take on Grendel and relieve the court of his oppression. He succeeds, but incurs the wrath of Grendel’s mother, who comes to the court to take revenge. Beowulf follows her to her underwater lair and slays her. Triumphant, our hero returns home to Geat-land, where, after several heroic deaths in the family, he assumes the throne. Beowulf becomes a wise and well-beloved king, but when his country becomes plagued by a dragon, he once again dons his armour to slay a monster and save his people. He kills the dragon, but loses his life in the process. He is buried in grand style by his grieving retainers, who we leave standing next to his grave site, contemplating their loss and the greatness of their fallen hero.

The manuscript which contains Beowulf (MS Cotton Vitellius A. XV, housed at the British Library) is a collection of stories about wondrous creatures. It is preceded by The Passion of St. Christopher, The Wonders of the East and a Letter of Alexander to Aristotle and followed by a poem on the Old Testament heroine Judith. So even placed in this context the story seems to fit into the speculative. It certainly is a horror story, with the monsters creeping in at night and terrorising the people at the Danish court. While there is a strong Christian influence in the narrative, Beowulf, Hrothgar and company are firmly pagan:

Sometimes at pagan shrines they vowed
offerings to idols, swore oaths
that the killer of souls might come to their aid
and save the people. That was their way,
their heathenish hope; deep in their hearts
they remembered hell. (ll. 175-180)

The story is based in history, since it references many historical kings, battles and places, but it is a history that has been moulded into legend.

While Beowulf was originally composed orally and then written down, unlike the much later dated Mabinogion, it is a far more fluent whole. The story is far less fragmented, with the only large shift in time being the fifty years between Beowulf’s fighting Grendel and his mother and his fighting of the dragon. As such it is far easier to follow and for me more enjoyable.

So what is speculative in Beowulf? The question is rather, what is not speculative? Beowulf is filled with heroes and monsters. Besides Grendel and his dam, there are dragons, trolls and sea monsters. The latter not just being found in the mere where Grendel and his mother live, but also in the sea, as mentioned in the swimming episode told during the banquet. If Beowulf was written today, it could be classified as a sword and sorcery tale. You could also argue that a modern day version of Grendel could be portrayed as a zombie. He rends flesh and eats people, he is other, though he still has human qualities, being a descendant of Cain. In this sense, Beowulf doesn’t seem outdated. On the contrary, it seems far less so than younger tales such as the Mabinogion and some of the Arthurian Romances.

Beowulf remains a ripping good yarn, which one can imagine being told at a feast or round the fire to great enthusiasm of the listeners. Indeed, it drew great enthusiasm from me as a reader. The translation I read (and quoted from above), was the one by Seamus Heaney, first published in 2000. It’s a beautifully translated piece of poetry. Heaney has tried to be faithful to not just the letter of the original, but the spirit. The result is a text that is not just a translation, but has a soul all of its own. Heaney makes this ancient story accessible to modern readers, without losing the feel of the original. Beowulf is one of the cornerstones of British literary history and as such is compulsory reading for any student of English. But most of all, the book should be read for the story it tells: of the man called Beowulf and the monsters he fights.

Way Beyond Retro – The Mabinogion

Welcome to the first outing of my semi-regular feature Way Beyond Retro. In this feature I’ll be reading the non-speculative books still in my TBR-pile. You can find more details on Way Beyond Retro in this introduction. This week’s book is a leftover from my university days. In my third year I took a course entitled Arthur of Britain. For this course I had to read the last tale of The Mabinogion, Gereint and Enid. Due to course load I never got around to reading the other tales.

‘On the bank of the river he saw a tall tree: from roots to crown one half was aflame and the other green with leaves.’

Nothing illustrates the strange nature of these Welsh stories better than this vertically halved tree. The combination of fact and fantasy, of myth, history and folklore in The Mabinogion conjures up a magical enchanted world, which is none the less firmly rooted in the forests, hills and valleys of ancient Wales. The eleven stories were composed orally over a span of centuries, before being written down in the thirteenth century. They make up, in their virtuosity and panache, one of the great Welsh epics. 

The Welsh tales in The Mabinogion have been preserved in two manuscripts; the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest. Set down around 1325 AD, the stories are transcriptions of originally orally composed tales. The tales themselves draw from Celtic myth, history and Arthurian legend. They derive their name from the first four tales which are called the Four Branches of the Mabinogi. These four can be considered a clear group of connected tales, just as the last three are grouped as the Welsh Romances, due to their connection to the Arthurian legend.

The Mabinigion is not the easiest read, mainly because of the oral origins I surmise. There are a lot of narrative jumps and formulaic phrases, similar to the kind found in Homer’s Illiad and Odysee. They also presume a familiarity with other stories, since there are fleeting references to these. There were two things that drove me absolutely crazy. One was the interminable ennumerations of things, with the listing of those of Arthur’s men who support Culhwch in his quest to win Olwen being the worst offender running up to eight pages! Eight pages, listing nothing but names. Granted there’s a lot of comedy there, as the storyteller has a lot of fun slipping in puns and weird names, but they just got lost in the mass of names. Add to this the constantly having to think about how to pronounce the Welsh names and these eight pages seemed like eighty to me. The second thing that drove me crazy was things just happening out of the blue and people accepting it without blinking. Take the following passage:

Manawydan and Rhiannon sat together and began to talk; gradually his thoughts and desires grew tender towards her, and it pleased him that he had never seen a lovelier or more beautiful woman. ‘Pryderi, I accept your offer,’ he said, whereupon Rhiannon asked, ‘What offer was that?’ Pryderi answered. ‘Lady, I have given you as wife to Manawydan son of Llyr.”I accept that gladly,’ she said. ‘So do I,’ said Manawydan, ‘and God reward the man who gives me such true friendship.’ Before the feast ended, then, the couple slept together. (Manawydan son of Llyr)

Now this most probably is a reflection of a woman’s life and position in medieval Wales, but it’s not just the wife-giving, there are other instances as well, where people blythely accept whatever their ruler ordains for them and my 21st century sensibilities had a hard time stepping past that. The pacing was also peculiar, again due to the oral origin of the stories I think. We’d have a bunch of scenes and then boom in one sentence a whole year had gone by. This makes sense if you’re telling a story, you don’t want to spend hours telling your audience what John and Jane Doe did, travelling the countryside for a year, but for an audience used to written storytelling “Return in a year and a day.’ At the end of the year…” is a bit of a leap.

What is interesting to see though, is how many classic story elements can already be found in these tales. The classic triangular relationship, in the vein of Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere (though surprisingly not that one), the Fisher King figures, the fact that everything happens in threes or multiples of three and the story told as a dream among them. These are truly as old as time, or at least as old as storytelling.

So where’s the speculative in all this? Well apart from the obvious (myth, magic and  Arthuriana etc.) I can’t really say. But then maybe in the case of the Mabinogion, it isn’t so much the text itself that’s important. What’s fantastical today, was normal in stories then. Maybe what makes these stories important to the speculative is the tradition they belong to and the influence this has had on the development of the fantasy genre.

The Mabinogion are part of the rich tapestry woven from Celtic myth and history and as such should be required reading for any student of early English literature or lover of Arthuriana. While not an easy read, it’s definitely well worth the effort.