The last flight

Waterstone’s bookshop, Edinburgh (photo: C A Lovegrove)

I’ve just got thirteen titles left on my original Classics Club list of fifty classics I opted to read in, um, the Cretaceous period and which I subsequently revised to exclude books I never would read. About half of these would be rereads (RR) of works I read before this century, with at least one example — Kipling’s Kim — first completed way more than a half-century ago!

Here are those 13 laggards, in author alphabetical order.

  1. Petronius Arbiter: The Satyricon RR
  2. Frances Hodgson Burnett: A Little Princess
  3. Charles Dickens: Oliver Twist RR
  4. George Eliot: Middlemarch
  5. Hermann Hesse: The Glass Bead Game RR
  6. Charles Kingsley: Hypatia
  7. Rudyard Kipling: Kim RR
  8. D H Lawrence: The Princess and other stories
  9. Niccolò Machiavelli: The Prince
  10. L M Montgomery: Anne of Green Gables
  11. Mervyn Peake: Gormenghast
  12. Mark Twain: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer RR
  13. Horace Walpole: The Castle of Otranto RR

A fair old mish-mash this, with children’s classics, short stories, a couple of Gothick romances, a statesman’s handbook, tales set in the Roman Empire, and a couple or so written when Britain still had its own ill-gotten empire. Where to start on that final flight of literary stairs?

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Kingsley’s riddle

Linley Sambourne
Linley Sambourne

The Water-Babies:
a Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby
by Charles Kingsley.
Edited with introduction and notes by Brian Alderson.
World’s Classics, Oxford University Press 1995 (1863)

The Water-Babies first appeared in book form in 1863, more than a century and a half ago. Though I was probably aware of it when younger, I must have read it for myself in the early 1960s in one of those cheap Dent’s children’s classics editions. A decade later I was re-reading it and taking notes, spurred on by the challenge Kingsley issues in his dedication:

Come read me my riddle, each good little man:
If you cannot read it, no grown-up folk can.

Of course, The Water-Babies was written for his youngest son, Grenville Arthur, who was just five when the last chapter was serialised in Macmillan’s Magazine, but I felt that I was included amongst the ‘all other good little boys’ of the dedication. But being from a hundred and more years later I could hardly be expected to get all the references, and so began decades of intermittent desultory research.

This 1995 issue with Brian Alderson’s introduction, extensive notes, select bibliography and chronology of Kingsley’s life both confirmed and hugely expanded my understanding of the novel; but to be honest I still feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of this fascinating if flawed masterpiece. This review, therefore, can only hint at the solution to Kingsley’s sly riddle.

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The original Elizabeth Bennet?

Elizabeth Benet

A repost from 5th May 2013 for Austen in August.

Visiting Bath Abbey in April this year [2013] I chanced on this curious memorial on the east wall of the south transept.

Close inspection revealed the name of one Elizabeth Benet (sic), widow of William Bathurst Pye Benet (died May 4th 1806), who herself died at the age of 80 in 1826. Could Jane Austen, who lived in Bath between 1801 and 1805 (not to mention visits there in the 1790s), have met this real-life Elizabeth Bennet, clearly a grande dame in Bath society?

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Effie’s fairy tale

Euphemia ('Effie') Chalmers (née Gray), Lady Millais by (George) Herbert Watkins, albumen print, late 1850s
Euphemia (‘Effie’) Chalmers (née Gray), Lady Millais by (George) Herbert Watkins: albumen print, late 1850s, National Portrait Gallery

John Ruskin: The King of the Golden River, or
The Black Brothers: A Legend of Stiria (1851)
Illustrated by Richard Doyle, E.P.Dutton / J.M.Dent 1925
Illustrated by Charles W Stewart, Edmund Ward 1958

The King of the Golden River was written in 1841, at the request of a very young lady, and solely for her amusement, without any idea of publication…”

The very young lady was the twelve-year-old Effie Gray and the writer was John Ruskin, ten years her senior.

Ruskin was eventually to marry Effie in 1848 but the marriage foundered and was annulled, Effie then marrying the artist John Everett Millais. All that turbulence was in the future, however, and Effie must have been delighted with her present, along with later generations too after the tale was published in 1851.

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Classics updated

When so-called non-essential shops open

Classics date, don’t they? The archaic language can obscure meaning, contemporary references often require intensive research to make sense, and social customs can seem more irritating than quaint.

Time then to bring them bang up to date, to make them relevant to the period we live in. Here are some title rewrites suited to a time of crisis. I invite you to reimagine the texts for yourselves but, please, there’s no need to share your full adaptations here.

As before, I offer suitable cover designs for Penguin Classics and Oxford World’s Classics courtesy of this online app where you may wish to avail yourselves of endless hours of amusement or, indeed, frustration.

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Pattern seeking

WordPress Free Photo Library

Every so often I put up a post drawing together themes, or characters, or places. As we approach a turning point in the year — in this case, the end of 2019 — it is tempting to start a summative series of posts. But I shall resist that impulse, reserving such an approach for December.

This time I shall merely attempt to summarise what the last few books I’ve read have, or indeed don’t have, in common. Why? Because, like all of us, I am a pattern-seeking animal and like to check that life isn’t just a random sequence of events, with no meaning or significance at all.

Or so I’d like to believe!

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Real, cool and solid

Calm your expectations; reduce them to a lowly standard. Something real, cool and solid lies before you; something unromantic as Monday morning.

Reader, I promised one last post on Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley and here it finally is. This discussion will attempt to tackle structure and history, so do please still your beating hearts if you’re hoping to read about unalloyed romance.

Historical background

First, a bit of history. 1848 had been a year of upheaval in Europe, with attempted revolutions in several countries — only that in France achieved anything — and including Chartist agitation in Britain. The Chartism movement sought to widen suffrage and reform representation in Parliament, and this year saw demonstrations in England and a monster petition delivered. In the wake of these events Charles Kingsley, best known now for his ‘fairytale’ The Water-Babies (1863), published Alton Locke in 1850, an early novel of his which underlined the clergyman’s sympathy for the working man, for Chartist principles and Christian socialism.

After the relative success of Jane Eyre (1847) Charlotte Brontë also contemplated a novel based on Chartist agitation, determined to produce something as “unromantic as Monday morning”. In the event she revised her plans which were ultimately to result in Shirley.

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A wondrous catalogue

salute

Italo Calvino: Invisible Cities
Le città invisibili (1972)
Translated by William Weaver
Vintage 1997

In my late teens or early twenties I imbibed the notion of ‘holiday consciousness’ from something I’d read, I’m not sure what but it may have been from Colin Wilson’s The Occult, published in 1971. The concept I understood to be this: we become so familiar with personal rituals in the everyday places we inhabit that we become not only a bit jaded but in fact almost sleepwalk our way through existence. Holiday consciousness however involves the trick of seeing the familiar as though visiting it for the first time, as a tourist.

After this I took to travelling regular bus journeys and walking daily routes pretending I was not in my home town but in a different city, perhaps in a different country. I noticed new things that I hadn’t before: architectural details, pedestrian behaviours, the quality of light, a different awareness of spaces. It was like being on holiday while staying in one place, and awoke my tired senses and heightened my perception without the need of artificial stimulants or expending money on overseas travel.

I was reminded of this holiday consciousness when recently reading Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

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Lost and found

“It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.”
— from the Parable of the Prodigal Son

I’ve written before and at length about that sense of bereavement when a treasured book is lent out, who knows when to who knows whom, and is then seemingly forever lost to view.

I felt this about Graham Anderson’s Fairytale in the Ancient World (Routledge 2000), a study which I was certain I’d lent to one friend or other but couldn’t for the life of me remember who; and all enquiries led down dim cul-de-sacs.

Great was the joy when on a recent visit to friends (no names, no pack drill) the long lost volume was discovered sitting snugly between studies on art, architecture and psychology. I can tell you that I did indeed make merry and was glad!

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Remember my name

Clay mask of Huwawa/Humbaba depicted as a coiled intestine: British Museum, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license

The Epic of Gilgamesh
English version by N K Sandars
Penguin Classics 1971 (1960)

It’s extraordinary and rather humbling that the core of a story over four thousand years old, large parts of which have miraculously survived in the form of sunbaked tablets, can still be deciphered by scholars and translated into modern language for the edification and enlightenment of all.

The fact that it tells the kind of story we’re familiar with from our own fairytales, novels and film is both surprising and yet reassuring, surprising given its age and reassuring because human frailties and virtues clearly haven’t changed much over three or four millennia.

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No power upon the hour

My 1918 Pocket Library edition of Stevenson’s Jekyll & Hyde

Fables, by Robert Louis Stevenson,
in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with other fables.
Longmans, Green, and Co. 1918 (1896).

THE PENITENT
A man met a lad weeping. “what do you weep for?”
“I am weeping for my sins,” said the lad.
“You must have little to do,” said the man.
The next day they met again. Once more the lad was weeping. “Why do you weep now?” asked the man.
“I am weeping because I have nothing to eat,” said the lad.
“I thought it would come to that,” said the man.

First published bundled up with Jekyll and Hyde by Longmans, Green and Company two years after Stevenson’s death, and then together in a pocket edition in 1906, this collection of literary fables ought to be better known than they are.

Some, like ‘The Penitent’, are short, barely a page or two long, while others run to almost a dozen sides. Some are enigmatic, others cynical, others yet are Aesopian in that they feature animals, as in ‘The Tadpole and the Frog’:

“Be ashamed of yourself,” said the frog. “When I was a tadpole, I had no tail.”
“Just what I thought!” said the tadpole. “You never were a tadpole.”

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Hispaniola ahoy

Treasure Island map
Map of Treasure Island, as first published

R L Stevenson: Treasure Island
Facsimile edition Fabbri Publishing 1990 (1883)

There and back again:
pirates, gold and adventure!
The sea-cook’s the star.

Revisiting a classic first encountered half a century ago is like going back to a place first known in childhood: there are mixed hopes and fears, expectations and unknowns. Will it be as you remembered? Will you be disappointed? Above all, will you like it as much?

Treasure Island (and Treasure Island, the place) lived up to those memories and, with hindsight and experience and maturity, was even richer and more (there, I’ve said it) awesome. I was awed by Stevenson’s easy command of words (he was only just 30 when he began the novel) and his ability to re-imagine a world that existed 120 years before the 1880s, when the novel that sealed his reputation was published. And I was filled with real wonder that it came across exactly as I recalled: the language, the descriptions, the personalities; and the whole was made so much more vivid by a closer reading of the sections that I had passed over in a more desultory fashion: the action around the stockade and the passage of the Hispaniola around the island.

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Of blunders and pardons

The manor house at Steventon (where Jane’s father was rector) — perhaps a model for Hartfield.

Following a review I’ve discussed the who, when and where of Jane Austen’s Emma, and then intimated I’d get onto the what. In this post I plan to briefly discuss the novel’s structure before bringing out some themes, chiefly by means of what the characters say. Needless to add, this is not meant to be an exhaustive or detailed analysis, merely a sketch of what has struck me about this superbly crafted novel.

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Of Highbury, in Surrey

I promised some musings on the subject of Jane Austen’s Emma, based on notes taken while reading it for the first time, and so here is my offering … while it is still fresh in my mind. As regular readers will be familiar from previous musings on novels that have caught my fancy, I’ve mainly based my thoughts on the four ‘W’s — who, what, when and where.

Here comes the customary warning of spoilers.

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Rereading revisited

bookshop
A corner of a secondhand bookshop in Brecon, Powys

I’ve touched on the pleasures of rereading a couple of times before, notably when I was contemplating a mammoth weeding out of books prior to moving house. I trust it’s something all us bibliophiles do, a delight like that of listening again to a well-loved piece of music or taking a favourite walk for the umpteenth time. As with that walk, different perspectives can present themselves depending on changing seasons, or moods, or circumstances.

A recent article by Julian Barnes focused on how maturity often ensured that rereading a book after some time — or maybe even reading for the first time a work by an author you’d assiduously avoided reading in your youth — caused you to think of it rather differently, sometimes for the better.

reading

Being young frequently involves the seeking out of novelty, of stimulation and so on, while older minds may well consider more, weighing things up in the light of experience. Human beings have the propensity (though they may not often use it) of retaining their youthful ways, of somehow staying young, sometimes because it’s in their nature and sometimes from a deliberate effort not to stultify. The best thing, of course, would be to retain the advantages of both youth and age in one’s approach to life, the universe … and literature.

rereading

I went through much of my youth and teens in a rather befuddled and bemused state. I suspect that a lot of it stemmed from being on the autism spectrum as much as being of that particular, and peculiar, age. One of things I stumbled into doing before the age of 16 was the study of dead languages: Ancient Greek and Latin. I failed an O level in the former and scraped a pass with the latter, heaven knows how. If the past is a foreign country (“they do things differently there,” opined the first-person narrator of Hartley’s The Go-Between) then I was the archetypal innocent abroad. What I do recall is some slight acquaintance with two war campaign classics, Caesar’s De Bello Gallico and Xenophon’s Anabasis.

Now, I neither have nor had the slightest interest in battles, nor, at that time, familiarity with more than the southwest corner of France, and still less — none in fact — of Mesopotamia. These battles were not only in the past (“old, unhappy, far-off things” I’d have thought, as Wordsworth might have put it) but also took place in foreign countries, fulfilling both of Hartley’s paradigms in one; and they certainly did things differently there. The study of these set texts was limited to extracts, with synopses of whatever action went on in between. I failed to gain insights into anything other than a very distant bird’s eye view of the overall narrative, and could never raise up any enthusiasm for the events depicted, especially after struggling through vocabulary, syntax, conjugations and so on.

Jump half a century: I’ve just completed a whole read of Xenophon’s narrative, translated as The Persian Expedition, and my older self has experienced both the shock of recognition and the dropping of scales from the eyes. Events in Europe and the Middle East — from the two Gulf Wars to the eruption of Daesh, the conflict in Syria and the refugee crisis — have heightened my appreciation of events in 401 BCE, which is when a bunch of around ten thousand Greek mercenaries invaded the region, marching through what is now Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan and Armenia before heading back towards the Mediterranean end of Turkey. Some of the parallels are enlightening, as are the differences, a few of which I may bring up in a future review.

It’s been a similar experience with many of my other rereads: fresh perspectives and fresh delights, not to forget appreciations and occasionally criticisms. It’s never ever been a waste of time. I agree with Barnes: rereading is definitely both a pleasure and a necessity of age. And I would in many cases emphasise the latter.