Tag Archives: Project Gutenberg

Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence

Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence

The reason I haven’t posted a Big Read review in a while is that I’ve been stuck. I hate this book. Fortunately, #190 Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence is free on Kindle and from Project Gutenberg, so I didn’t have to pay to hate it.

Sons and Lovers is bleak. It’s set in a hamlet near a coal mine outside of Nottingham, in a family where no one seems to choose their life partner very well. It starts off in a gritty-family-drama sort of vein, then slips into hundreds of pages of wallowing in a young man’s confused and depressed ramblings, interspersed with coded descriptions of his sexual adventures.

Worse than a boring dinner party
Reading this book reminded me of being depressed or talking to someone with serious clinical depression. I don’t think the state is interesting, almost by definition. It’s a state of not-doing, where anxiety overrides normal actions, decisions are avoided and everything is dragged out and discussed until it’s painful. Where everything seems pointless and wishing for the end seems reasonable.

I realise there’s an idea of the artist as a tortured soul, but this book doesn’t read like that, at least for me. It’s not the late-night-party, let’s-go-to-Paris manic-pixie-dream-girl or the vibrant-but-damaged-artist. It’s like a long conversation with someone who is deeply unhappy and so anxious they can’t change anything. It’s the person who can’t get out of bed for the week, because finding clothes is too hard. The one who never smiles. And then, at certain points, it’s cruel. I definitely do not recommend reading this book if you’re grieving. At a certain moment, I stopped wanting to slap a certain character and started wanting the whole parcel of them locked up for cruelty and murder. That makes it sound more interesting than it is: you’ll wait about 390 pages for this section.

Why do people love this book?
I have no idea, and I can’t guess as I found the whole thing frustrating and tedious, after the initial pot-boiler phase. I googled around a bit, looking for clues, and found two articles that might interest other readers. One is a review published in The Guardian in 1913; the second a review published in the same paper in 2013, to mark the centenary of the book’s publication. Both are in favour, neither explains the greatness very well. Perhaps I’m missing something. Which reminds me: as a content note, it seems that I missed a physically incestuous element in Paul’s relationship with his mother, or perhaps I read the original 1913 edition which had been edited more strictly than later versions.

Help me get unstuck
When I started the year, I gave myself permission to not finish a Big Read book every week. I intended to focus on some of the longer books left on the list, like Les Misérables and David Copperfield. Instead, I’ve gotten stuck. I started Lord of the Rings and got stuck. I moved on to Tess of the d’Urbervilles and got stuck, skipped on to Sons and Lovers and got stuck. I’m starting to feel like there are no cheerful books left on the list. I’ll be travelling a lot for the next few months, so I can only read books on Kindle. I’m listing the ones I have available below. If you enjoyed any of them or they made you laugh, please let me know and I’ll read that next! You can also look at the list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed, and recommend ones I should buy.

The Count of Monte Cristo
The Wasp Factory
Lorna Doone
The Woman in White
Bleak House
David Copperfield
Crime and Punishment
Silas Marner
The Magician
The Forsyte Saga
Sunset Song
Anna Karenina
War and Peace
Far from the Madding Crowd
Jude the Obscure
The Mayor of Casterbridge
Tess of the d’Urbervilles
Les Misérables
Brave New World
Moby Dick
Vanity Fair
The Lord of the Rings 
(parts 1, 2 and 3)
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

Any suggestions?

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

The best I can say about this book is that #118 The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is free on Kindle and from Project Gutenberg. I absolutely hated the first 75% of this book, up to chapter 14. After that point, I got interested, briefly, and then ended up simply strongly disliking the rest of it. It reminded me of Perfume, in that it was unpleasant to read to the point where I wished it wasn’t on the list at all, and wondered who could possibly love this book, and also the manner of its unpleasantness.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is the story of a beautiful young man. After sitting as an artist’s model, he realises that the portrait will never change, while for him, there’s nothing to look forward to but the ruin of his good looks. A fervent prayer seems to alter the natural order of things, and the painting begins to decay…

The book is angry and bitter. The main character, Dorian, takes his tone from a friend of his, the louche Lord Henry. I can’t picture what these people would be like in person, as they’re so unpleasant to read about, yet they seem so charming, if the reactions of people about them are to be believed.

We’ve been watching Elementary and the description of an addict in that resonates with how both Lord Henry and Dorian act. They disregard the feelings and rights of others to the point where sociopath seems a good description. They are both set on following their own course, like an addict who prioritizes the next hit over anything else. They value nothing but their own continued existence, not love, friendship, money, or others’ lives. I can’t quite grasp what they’re searching for. They say ‘pleasure’ and yet, don’t seem to be enjoying much of anything. Oblivion, perhaps, when the experiments with drugs come up, but that doesn’t explain the previous decade.

Clever phrases
Wilde is famous for his clever turns of phrase, and he’s very quotable. His most famous quotations tend not to come from Dorian Gray, though, as the lines are so bleak. Lord Henry is the main mouthpiece for Wilde’s famous epigrams, and these are largely vicious.

Women appreciate cruelty, downright cruelty, more than anything else. They have wonderfully primitive instincts. We have emancipated them, but they remain slaves looking for their masters, all the same. They love being dominated.

I’ve read and rather like The Importance of Being Ernest. In that, the quips are tempered. In this, the hate is palpable and all the more dangerous for being cleverly worded. Wilde seems to have a particular hate for women, and refers to them constantly as inferior, dragging men down in one way or another. The middle and working classes come in for a bashing as well, as does anyone who presumes to have some kind of morality.

Moderation is a fatal thing. Enough is as bad as a meal. More than enough is as good as a feast.

I can’t tell and don’t care enough to find out which parts of this are supposed to be Wilde’s own beliefs and which are a clever satire of the society of the time. I found the whole thing unpleasant to read, and generally wished I wasn’t reading it. As it’s easy to put a book down, the novel took under 3 hours to read, stretched over at least four months. I also fundamentally disagree with the core premise of the book:

Sin is a thing that writes itself across a man’s face. It cannot be concealed. People talk sometimes of secret vices. There are no such things.

And I don’t hold the same views on art. Sorry, that should be Art, with a capital A. Wilde treats art as something entirely separate from everyday living. He opens with a preface describing this view, which can be summed up in two of his neat phrases:

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.


The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is useless.

Latter, in a flash of insight, Dorian claims to have been harmed by a book lent to him by Lord Henry (who plays the role of the devil in this work quite effectively). Lord Henry counters:

As for being poisoned by a book, there is no such thing as that. Art has no influence upon action. It annihilates the desire to act. It is superbly sterile. The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame. That is all.

And I would say: that is bullshit. What’s the point of art, or Art even, if it doesn’t stir some emotion? And how can we expect that all emotions thus stirred will be so fleeting as to pass through a life without a ripple? My life has certainly been changed, for better and for worse, by the books I’ve read at different times. The NHS now offers books on prescription, making official something many of us have been doing for years. When I want to feel cheered, I read something cheerful. When I want to be more productive, I read a book about someone who has accomplished great things, and I’m stirred to action. As a child, when I wanted to read a scary story at bedtime I learned to follow it up with a does of Enid Blyton, and then I slept well.

Just as there are books that can help and heal, that can encourage the reader to be their better self, there are books that can harm. It’s not always obvious which are which, as some people thrive on books that are poisonous to others, but I do believe that one can be poisoned by a book. In fact, this book felt toxic to me, and I’ll be happy when it’s gone from my system.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

The War of the Worlds by HG Wells

The War of the Worlds by HG Wells

A very short book, #194 The War of the Worlds by HG Wells is free on Kindle and on Project Gutenberg. Early sci-fi, it’s held its charm and is interesting to read, particularly as humans have to fight the aliens without the power of flight, the motor car or the telephone.

A quiet suburb in Victorian London receives an unpleasant shock when a pod from Mars lands on the common. Over the next few days, the tragedy unfolds as it becomes obvious that the visitors are determined to be conquerors and humanity is in serious danger.

A link in the chain
HG Wells is famous as one of the fathers of modern science fiction, and I can see why. Published in 1898, when Queen Victoria was on the throne, it’s nonetheless strikingly similar to later books, like The Day of the Triffids, and its influence even shows through in the structure of modern zombie stories.

Wells definitely set a pattern that later writers followed. In fact, it’s very similar to the works of John Wyndham (author of Triffids) and if you like the one, you’ll probably enjoy the other. However, Wells draws on techniques used in previous adventure stories. The narrative structure is very similar to that of Treasure Island, for example. In both, the narrator puts pen to paper to recount the fabulous and unlikely tale that he has had the fortune (or misfortune) to live through, witnessing all the key events at first hand and being well-placed to prop his narrative up with second-hand reports from credible sources where required.

The book rattles along in first person, much as Treasure Island does. Interestingly, in both books, it’s clear that the narrator is writing the work some time after the events, and in The War of the Worlds, Wells seems to indicate the nature of the ending early on, within the first quarter, I’d say, if not sooner.

The future of the past
Reading The War of the Worlds was interesting at least partly because of the era it was written in. Today, alien invasions are so old hat that they’re almost a cliche. The invasion in The War of the Worlds is fresh, and it’s interesting because Wells’ society is missing some of the key technologies that we take for granted in the battles with aliens we imagine today. For example, in the earliest part of the book it takes a fair while for the existence of the aliens to be known outside the area where they’ve landed. Someone sends a telegram, but it’s dismissed as a hoax, so no one bothers to check. And pre-telephone, pre-internet, pre-smartphone, there’s no army of citizen journalists rushing to fill the void.

Throughout the book, characters have to get their information from printed new sheets. Travel is by foot, by horse, by rail or by boat. Sailing ships are common in the channel. Class divides are obvious, before a person even opens their mouth, their clothes give them away. There are no planes or cars. The Martians, by contrast, are a high-tech race. They don’t need to be all that high-tech, to beat Victorian Britain, but they’re shiny and powerful, putting humanity in real peril.

There’s a lot of science in the book, and most of it strikes me as very outdated. I feel like most of the assertions Wells uses to build his story have been proven false in the intervening hundred years, but I’m not totally sure, as I’m really not a scientist. If anyone with a bit more biology, physics or astronomy would like to take a look and clue me in, I’d be very grateful!

All in all, I quite enjoyed the book. It’s like reading Diary of a Nobody crossed with Day of the Triffids. And it’s rather less grim than Wyndham gets. Wells is also deeper into the age of Empire, and there are definitely tones of British supremacy throughout the book.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Breaking out from my male protagonist rut, I’ve spent an enjoyable day in Austen land. I even went for a stroll in the countryside and had a cream tea. At #38, Persuasion by Jane Austen is available for free on Kindle and from Project Gutenberg.

Persuasion is an enduring love story. Anne Elliot, at an impressionable 19, fell in love with a penniless young naval officer. Her friends, older and wiser, counselled strongly against the match and the young couple parted. Eight years later, chance brings them together again. They are both ready to get married now, but do their feelings still hold strong?

Personal bias
Persuasion seems to be less famous than Austen’s other works, but it was my favourite as a teen so I was surprised and pleased to see it beat out Emma by two places. I don’t like Emma much (you can click through for more detail) but it’s popular and the films have been effective. Persuasion hasn’t had a Hollywood remake, so I feel like its place is based on the merits of the book, not the costumes on the screen.

I’m going to pretend to be unbiased briefly, then go back to why I enjoy this book. Persuasion is the last novel Austen finished, and both the characters and the romance are more mature. One of the reasons I don’t like Emma is that there’s a phenomenal age gap between the male and female leads. And given how close their families are, it just gives me the screaming meemies. In Persuasion, Anne and her beau have had their first Sense and Sensibility style romance, and emerged from it scarred but wiser and fundamentally unaltered. This is the story of second love, a gentler, stronger, more lasting kind.

That said, second love isn’t famous for fireworks and champagne, and this novel doesn’t have either. Although quite a lot happens, there’s less immediate drama than in works like Emma or Sense and Sensibility. Much of what happens is easy to skip over in a short summary of the plot, and yet is essential to the gradual unfolding of the novel. The book blossoms slowly, exploring every aspect of the romance without seeming to ever tackle it directly. It’s cleverly done, but I can see how people would prefer the emotional turmoil and snippy remarks in Pride and Prejudice.

Why this one’s my favourite
I can’t say Anne Elliot is my favourite Austen character. She’s thoroughly self-effacing, dedicating her life to doing her duty by her unpleasant family members to the point where I’d want to shake her if I met her, and would certainly be suggesting moving to a different city or going back to college to train for a job that would allow her to move to a different city. And yet, she doesn’t annoy me in the way that Fanny Price in Mansfield Park does, because Anne, unlike Fanny, does know what she wants. She recognises and accepts her family’s faults, tries to steer them gently towards a better life, and isn’t ashamed to step up and seize her own happiness. While Fanny is almost completely inert, Anne is simply waiting for the right moment.

Anne’s life is shaped by duty to an extent that I don’t recognise, but I respect her choices. They seem more active than Fanny’s. Anne makes a deliberate and conscious decision to not seize her happiness at the expense of another’s, to listen to the advice of her elders, even if it causes her pain, and to act when sees a way to be happy without harming another. And yet, she’s not overly troubled by duty. Her family clearly don’t care for her, and while she is a dutiful daughter, she doesn’t take it to extremes.

Perhaps what I really like about this book is that it seems realistic. Anne’s eventual happiness is down to her own strength of character, her choices. The barriers that must be overcome are all too plausible and human – things like pride, duty, lack of money. And yet there’s a lot of hope in this book. While I don’t believe in the love-at-first-sight / soul mates / destiny school of romance, I do have faith that people can work things out, whether it’s rekindling a flame long since gone dark or preserving the romance in a relationship that lasts many years. It seems like the zip and sparkle of a Hollywood rom-com could dull as quickly as the ticker tape falls, but a romance like this one will grow and grow.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

A short, rather lovely book, #16 The Wind in the Willows is available for free on Project Gutenberg and Kindle.

The Wind in the Willows tells the story of Mole, who gets fed up with spring cleaning one bright new morning and blows out of his hole and down to the riverbank, where he falls in with Ratty, Toad and Badger. Hijinks ensue, and the book reminds me of nothing so much as Three Men in a Boat.

First published in 1908, The Wind in the Willows is an Edwardian idyll, packed with evocative descriptions of the English countryside – descriptions which, in my experience, are generally more pleasant than reality – picnics, boating and a little daring-do.

Talking animals eating animals
The Wind in the Willows is a story about talking animals, and I’m curious about the way that works out. It gets interesting, as a moral puzzle, when there are several kinds of animals talking to each other – and they’re not all vegetarian. Is it ethical to eat a talking animal if you are a talking animal?

Honestly, I suspect most of the authors never consider this sort of thing, and it’s one reason my own fiction rarely gets past the first few pages – I am too easily distracted and derailed by this sort of quandary. The characters in The Wind in the Willows are more like Edwardian gentlemen than real-life animals. It’s like Three Men in a Boat with fur, and without the dog. The food and the clothes and the boats are human, and it seems that talking animals do eat talking animals – we encounter rabbits as people, characters who talk and get scared, and yet Toad has a delicious pie which contains rabbit, and says this to a human woman, with no shudder of distaste:

‘O, never mind about the washing,’ said Toad, not liking the subject. ‘Try and fix your mind on that rabbit. A nice fat young rabbit, I’ll be bound. Got any onions?’

It’s something like cannibalism, honestly.

Vanished women
Like many of the other books I’ve read, both on this list and off, The Wind in the Willows is a boy’s club. All the animals are male – even when a group of animals move en masse later in the book there are no females amongst them. There are three human women in the story, and this is interesting – while they’re forthright, headstrong, minor characters, they’re all domestic workers or shown in a cleaning role. It’s interesting that all the females the animals encounter are well away from the animals’ native haunts (the river / the wood) and also doing domestic work, because it’s clear the animals have domestic workers themselves, probably female.

I was wondering about this for a while, as meals seemed to pop up without much effort, but then no one ever goes shopping in lots of books, and that doesn’t mean a bachelor can’t cook for himself – and the Mole did his own spring cleaning. However, late in the book, there are only two characters at home at one of their houses, and yet – they’re waiting for dinner to appear. Unseen hands, hands which never make it into the story, take care of these debonair gentlemen at every turn.

It’s not obvious, but it was disconcerting. Perhaps Grahame simply couldn’t figure out who would wait on a Toad or a Rat, and left it to the reader’s imagination or perhaps he was simply so accustomed to food and clean clothes appearing that it didn’t occur to him to write in a method – much in the way that most Regency romances have no smells, no sewage and are surprisingly well-lit.

I don’t want to be too cynical about The Wind in the Willows, because I did genuinely enjoy it. It starts with a lovely description of spring and spring cleaning and it did make me want to get outside and go mess about in a boat. It’s absolutely charming, and nothing very bad happens – I wouldn’t hesitate to read it with a child now and again, although I wouldn’t recommend it as a steady diet!

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

If you’ve been following along as I read my way through the List, you may have thought this day would never come. I’m here to tell you that I read a whole Dickens book in less than a week – and I enjoyed it. #182 Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens is available for free on Project Gutenberg and Kindle.

Oliver Twist is a pretty well-known story, what with all the movies and the hit musical, never mind TV shows, plays, tales for children and more. It tells the story of one child, Oliver Twist, who is born in a workhouse and dragged up in early 19th century England. Oliver suffers a series of reversals, and the cast of secondary characters is astonishing – not just because of the variety but because of how they take over. You don’t even see Oliver for chapters at a time, but I certainly didn’t care.

I didn’t find the story upsetting but there is plenty of grief in the book, and a lot of violence, including towards children. However, it didn’t bother me –  I can’t usually take it any more seriously than the characters do, and Dickens goes so wry at those points that I quite often had to reread a passage to realise that something quite grim indeed had just happened. But it’s worth a warning.

Somewhat implausible
Oliver has the most luck of any child in any story I’ve ever read. It’s not all good luck – far from it, most of it is dreadful luck – but honestly, if you knew Oliver you’d be tempted to send him to buy a lottery ticket because either he’d win or be abducted by aliens or fall down a hole and land in a dragons hoard, and whatever happened, it would be entertaining.

Oliver himself is of the faint and faithful, delicate and good child. I doubt Dickens invented the type, but between Oliver, Tiny Tim (from A Christmas Carol) and poor little Nell (who I haven’t actually encountered yet, as The Old Curiosity Shop isn’t on the list) he certainly added to its numbers. Thanks to his faint, faithful, goodness, he very nearly expires several times and almost vanishes from the novel entirely, shoved aside by much more vivid characters.

And, oh, Dickens is good at a character portrait, when he’s having fun. The Artful Dodger, Nancy, Sikes, the good Doctor, the workhouse beadle and the matron – the villains and quirky characters are a delight, steal every scene shamelessly and make the book. It starts with a bang and carries on with new twists and turns in every chapter – none of the waiting around I found in Great Expectations or A Tale of Two Cities. Start Oliver at the beginning and run with it through to the end.

Not unproblematic
If you’re familiar with the text, you’ll notice I didn’t mention Fagin. Dickens first published Oliver Twist in 1837, and it ran as a serial story until 1839, neatly covering the period when Queen Victorian became queen and was crowned. So although Oliver is often treated as a tale of Victorian squalor, it’s actually earlier than that.

Which is to say, that if you thought Victorian attitudes to certain sections of society were unreconstructed, you should see their predecessors. When Dickens wrote Oliver Twist, a hanging was a good day out, the British Empire was a brilliant scheme for dealing with foreigners and savages and people were only just starting to consider the idea that starving poor people to death might not be an appropriate punishment for the crime of being unlucky.

Fagin is a very memorable character. He’s thief-in-chief of a gang of juvenile delinquents. He’s taken up and trained each of them, looks out for them, to a certain extent, and makes sure they’re fed and kept in gin and tobacco. He’s intensely miserly, doesn’t care much about anyone but himself and is thoroughly unpleasant. He’s also Jewish. Which wouldn’t, of itself, be terrible except that it’s so rare to see a Jewish character in Great Works of English Literature before 1950 (partly because the Jewish texts aren’t considered Great Works generally, maybe Pretty Good Works or perhaps Unjustly Forgotten works, like, oh, all the rest of the Others) and Judaism is mentioned like a vice, another bad character trait when the character is already cringing, creeping, miserly, grasping and physically disgusting, like Shylock in Merchant of Venice.

Dickens tagged his characters – the ginger hair, the white waistcoat, the angel, the brute – so people would remember them throughout the months and years of reading a serial in installments. Fagin is ‘the Jew’ – he’s pretty much the only Jewish person in Dickens, so in one, narrow, sense it’s a reasonable appellation, but in another: it sucks.

Wikipedia suggests that Dickens was made aware of this problem and worked to correct it, which is interesting and – like the conversation about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory does raise the question of which edition one should read: the first (‘true’) edition? the later (‘director’s cut’) edition? an even later, even cleaner one? I, personally, tend to see this sort of change as correcting a mistake – like tweaking a story to fix a plot hole or factual inaccuracy, but one does have to draw the line somewhere, and other texts are trickier.

All in all, I enjoyed Oliver Twist. I’ve read it twice now, and think it’s a good story and probably my favourite Dickens so far. I’ve been told to look forward to David Copperfield – that and Bleak House are the last two on the list, so any words of encouragement are welcome!

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

First published in 1899, #158 The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is available for free on Project Gutenberg and on Kindle.

The Heart of Darkness is a very short book – somewhere between 60 and 120 pages depending on the edition. In it, a man named Marlowe tells the story of a period he spent working as a riverboat captain in Africa. He chronicles his own ‘descent into savagery’ and return, and that of a trader, named Kurtz, who goes too deep into the ‘heart of darkness’ and cannot escape.

I don’t recommend this book and I can’t whole-heartedly recommend this review because I simply don’t have the expertise or right through experience to cover the topic well. However, I pledged to read the book, as it’s on the list, and publish my reaction to it, which this is. To be very brief: I think this is an absolutely racist work and the only reason to read it is to bear witness to the institutional horrors of European colonialism, and its acceptance by the leading lights of society.

In this story, black Africans are, at best, described as savages. They are constantly mistreated, abused and murdered by the white characters. Although this happens largely off-screen, the language used to describe them, and the overall tone and attitude to the black characters and their country is grim.

Early on, Marlowe says:

The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.

which is one of the things I can agree with. However, he immediately continues:

What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea — something you can set up, and bow down before,and offer a sacrifice to… [Emphasis mine]

And there I’ve lost him again. Having read the rest of the book, he seems to be suggesting that this is all worthwhile, in some way, that a company, with the support of their government, invading another country, abusing and murdering and massacring the local people, destroying their forms of government and bringing disease, is all OK because of some ideal. I can’t even figure out which one he’s talking about, honestly, although I did reread the section. Patriotism? Christianity? Capitalism? Whiteness? Progress? The Company? I don’t know.

Marlowe does have flashes of insight, where he almost treats the black Africans he is surrounded by as people. For example, noting the desolation of the local area, he wryly notes:

Well, if a lot of mysterious [Africans] armed with all kinds of fearful weapons suddenly took to travelling on the road between Deal and Gravesend, catching the yokels right and left to carry heavy loads for them, I fancy every farm and cottage thereabouts would get empty very soon. [Yeah, he didn’t say Africans. You can guess what he did say or look it up]

Even when he’s describing local workers he respects, it’s not great. Here are the examples I found:

I had to look after the savage who was fireman. He was an improved specimen; he could fire up a vertical boiler. He was there below me, and, upon my word, to look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind-legs.

Marlowe has worked with this man for months on end – at least on two of the voyages and probably the three previous to that – and when he dies, he tips him overboard like rubbish and there’s no mention of anyone telling his family.

At one point, he realises that a good part of his crew are starving – the white men have thrown their rations overboard because they smell (Marlowe supports this) and as they’ve seen few villages and stop more rarely, the crew have had no opportunity to replace the lost food, despite their generous pay of 27 inches of brass wire per week. And yet they haven’t rioted. Marlowe can’t figure out why – he’s been hungry himself, and knows how grim it is:

Why in the name of all the gnawing devils of hunger they didn’t go for us — they were thirty to five — and have a good tuck-in for once, amazes me now when I think of it. They were big powerful men, with not much capacity to weigh the consequences, with courage, with stength…

For a moment – bracketed by a comment about how he was feverish and a little ill – he says:

I looked at them as you would on any human being.

Then he goes back to wondering why they didn’t eat him – they’re indiscriminate cannibals, you see, would eat anybody:

Restraint! What possible restraint? Was it superstition, disgust, patience, fear — or some kind of primitive honour? No fear can stand up to hunger, no patience can wear it out, disgust simply does not exist where hunger is; and as to superstition, beliefs and what you may call principles, they are less than chaff in a breeze…It takes a man all his inborn strength to fight hunger properly. [emphasis mine]


Why, Marlowe, I think that’s the nicest thing you’ve said. Bit of a reluctant compliment, but we’ll take it.

Conrad: wrong about everybody
If you ever complain about racism, sexism and other forms of ass-hattery in the ‘Great Works’, someone will generally turn up to point out that the author ‘is only a product of their time (so stop complaining)’, that they, personally, ‘didn’t notice that (so it doesn’t exist / isn’t that bad)’ or ‘it’s a brilliant example of something and beautiful and wonderful in every other way anyway (so shut up)’. I have a little sympathy for these people (at least when they start talking) because what they’re usually saying is: I love it, don’t ruin it. And I’ve done that: I’ve been the insensitive one trying to defend something deeply flawed against reasonable criticism. It’s not a pleasant feeling when something you’ve enjoyed turns out to be rotten.

Conrad’s work seems to me to be rotten through and through. He’s got this major distaste for anyone who is not a white man from a (short) list of acceptable nations. Everyone else gets short shrift, while even the despicable white dudes get a more nuanced description than the rest of us. Let’s hear Marlowe on women. His aunt has just got him a job he really, really wants, so he’s probably pretty pleased with her and the world in general, right? Here he goes:

It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there has never been anything like it, and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset. Some confounded fact we men have been living contentedly with ever since the day of creation would start up and knock the whole thing over.

I… what? Which women? All women? Working class women? Black women in Africa? I can only assume he means white, middle class women – you know, the ones who are almost human, apart from the delusions and incompetence. Handily, if you replace a few words, you have an apt review of the book:

It’s queer how out of touch with truth CONRAD is. He lives in a world of his own, and there has never been anything like it, and never can be. If he were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset. The confounded fact the rest of us have been living (and thinking) ever since the day of creation would start up and knock the whole think over.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

I am clearly missing something about Dickens novels, as the ones I like the most appear the lowest down the list. I should probably search out the ones panned by critics and fans alike, the ones rarely mentioned, and I’d love them. Anyway, #106 The Pickwick Papers is available for free on Project Gutenberg and is the second lowest on the list. Oliver Twist trails at #182, and I’ve read and enjoyed that one.

The novel follows the adventures of Mr Pickwick and three of his protégés as they venture forth from London to the provinces, hoping that travel will broaden the mind and improve their spirits. They plan to report back to the rest of the Pickwick Club, left behind in London, regularly with news of their scientific and social discoveries.

The Pickwick Papers has a somewhat annoying conceit which is that the story has been reconstructed from the papers left behind by the eponymous club. It’s useful to the author, no doubt, as it allows him to steer away from things he doesn’t want to talk about. It also means that Dickens shouldn’t be able to recount things certain people would prefer went unrecorded or wouldn’t have known, but he doesn’t let the conceit constrain him, and gives up mentioning after about the first ten chapters.

Better than Great Expectations
All in all, I found The Pickwick Papers to be the easiest of Dickens’ novels I’ve read. The story starts straight away and rattles off, shifting locations and plots in a pleasing, if episodic, manner. It was published – and probably written – in installments, which actually works quite well as the whole is enormously long – over 750 pages, depending on the edition – but each chapter is about the same length and contains a complete incident.

Unlike some of Dickens’ other novels, there are relatively few characters – although I would applaud anyone who could keep them all straight reading it in monthly installments as some characters must have vanished for a year or more before popping up again and throwing themselves into the action.

I did struggle with a few elements though – I had trouble keeping the characteristics of Mr Pickwick’s three friends apart, as they all seemed very similar. They did have certain traits which stood out, but on the whole it was a bit of a blur. I also couldn’t tell how old people were supposed to be – particularly the three friends – as Dickens frequently exaggerated for comic effect, and I just got confused. At one point he described someone as ‘single young lady of 53′, obviously satirical but the other descriptions are as much in doubt. Add in the different standards of the day and I wound up feeling faintly – or not so faintly – horrified any time one of the characters made a pass at a woman as the ladies all seemed to be about 17 and the men all sounded about 60.

19th century life displayed and dissected
The Pickwick Papers is written to be amusing – it’s droll in parts, wry in others and often satirical. As a result it’s focus is typically on ordinary events, the kind which don’t make much of an appearance in other works. So we see, for example, the process of hiring a cab, paying a fare, travelling by stage, taking a room at an inn – minutiae of early 19th century life which just don’t appear in many books or period dramas but which help bring the era to life.

The Pickwick Papers first appeared in 1836, the year before Queen Victoria ascended the throne.Victorians tend to seem prudish, with their 14 pounds of underwear and stories of covering the ‘limbs’ of pianos to protect nice young ladies from thinking about legs – either it was a late-Victorian phenomenon or the Pickwick Club don’t move in such elevated circles, because they come across as a collection of fairly randy drunkards. A The Pickwick Papers drinking game would be to match the characters drink for drink, and have any drinking team with a sporting problem looking for a basin to throw up in pretty quickly.

I won’t say I took a wild shine to any of the characters, but I did enjoy the stories and one part, where they go pigeon shooting, almost made me laugh out loud (it’s Chapter 7, to save you reading the other 56) and I enjoyed their trips to some of my old haunts – they visited Bath, Bristol and perhaps Ely or Norwich, although the description there wasn’t as vivid. In fact, one of our favourite pubs in Bath – somewhere you can get a good pint and hear yourself talk – is named after one of the characters: it’s Sam Wellers on Upper Borough Walls.

The Pickwick Papers also links through to plenty of other books – it was clearly popular at the time and seems to have been considered wholesome reading for children, which seems slightly odd with all the drinking, kissing serving maids and whatnot. For example, the altogether more puritanical Little Women devotes the whole of Chapter 10 to the Pickwick Club and the Marches own version thereof.

While I wouldn’t start a fan club, I did enjoy The Pickwick Papers overall – although it’s got little in common with the rest of Dickens’ oeuvre, so if you’re wondering if you’ll get on with the rest of his works, don’t start here.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Emma by Jane Austen

Emma by Jane Austen

Back on the list and the last Austen novel in my mini-challenge, #40 Emma by Jane Austen is available for free on Project Gutenberg.

I hadn’t been looking forward to reading Emma – I’ve read it before, seen the films and all that and didn’t take to the main character. However, I was pleasantly surprised, and though I didn’t much care for Emma at the start, and didn’t love her at the end, I enjoyed the book more than I thought I would. Don’t expect me to reread it for another 15 years though – there are so many other books to enjoy.

Emma tells the story of Miss Emma Woodhouse. At 21 she’s as charming, accomplished and pretty as she needs to be. She’s the highest-ranking female in the village society, so she doesn’t need to do much to charm and is sure of always having a secure home – something which can’t be said for her contemporaries. The story follows about a year in the lives of Emma, her friend, Miss Harriet Smith, and her neighbour, Miss Jane Fairfax, as all three young women struggle to find a safe – and hopefully happy – place in the world.

Yes, it’s about marriage
As the novel makes clear, there aren’t a lot of choices for a gently born young woman of the time. One can live on an inherited fortune; depend on relatives; make a pittance as a governess; or marry. Honestly, if those were my choices, I would have married imprudently years before I met K. Not that I don’t love my family, but how else is one to get out the house?

Emma, fortunately, has her father’s household to run, visiting in the village and charity projects – but I can see why she might be a bit bored. When a she is introduced to Miss Smith, she takes her under her wing and immediately begins trying to find her a husband.

Class and social commentary
Perhaps just by showing her world as it was, Jane Austen can shock us like no one else. Miss Smith is the ‘natural daughter’ of unknown parents – that is to say, all that is known about her is that her parents weren’t married and someone cares enough to pay for her schooling at an indifferent school in a small village. It’s the school-owner’s responsibility to introduce Harriet to the local society and hopefully get her set up in some way.

The contrast with Emma’s secure, valued, high-status position is obvious and deliberate. I struggled to untangle the various social strata but the difference between Emma and Harriet is clear. The levels of society Emma can expect to reach through marriage are much higher than for Harriet, and Emma’s refusal to admit this fuels much of the drama in the novel.

The whole thing is really rather sad as Emma says – and knows and is right – that if Harriet marries a certain level of person, the best her teacher might have hoped for, then their friendship will have to end. While Emma can visit the homes of those a few rungs down to socialize or those at the bottom to offer charity, the vast middle is unavailable to her so Harriet would be swallowed up and vanish if she marries into it.

It’s a strange thought, but not an entirely alien one – I’m sure everyone has experienced the way friendships can drift apart when one person takes on a new role, gets a promotion at work which sets them apart, becomes a parent or moves away. And yet, with such limited society and so little to do, it seems a shame for either woman to give up a close and pleasant friendship simply because of who they’ve married.

The husbands aren’t bound by these problems, and whoever Miss Woodhouse marries, he will be perfectly able to continue meeting whomever he likes ‘for business’.

Now, I don’t say that Emma and Harriet are as close as Jane and Lizzy are in Pride and Prejudice, or that the era wouldn’t have allowed sisters to visit, under any circumstances, but it is A Real Shame, I think, no less because it’s probably being enacted in houses around the world, right this minute.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

While Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen is free on Project Gutenberg, it isn’t on the Big Read list. Despite numerous full-costume adaptions, the novel didn’t make it into the top 200.

No, dear reader, S&S is not part of my main reading challenge – it’s part of my latest challenge. Before you recoil in horror, I should say that this challenge is mini indeed: it’s to read All Roads Lead to Austen by Amy Elizabeth* Smith alongside the three Jane Austen novels it covers. Which I thought matched the three on The List exactly, but they don’t. So I’ve been reading S&S rather than Persuasion but if AJS helps get me through Emma, I’ll be well pleased.

S&S is an important book – it’s taught in schools, it’s been made into countless full-costume dramas, and has been rewritten to include sea monsters, a clear sign of modern relevance in a classic work.

The novel tells the story of two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. It starts just after the death of their father: the estate has been left to their half-brother, so the female Dashwoods have to move out. They have very little money, and would normally stay put, I should think, or live in smaller house on the estate but the brother is grouchy, his wife is worse, and their mother’s cousin offers them a cottage in Far Awayshire, so they go, leaving behind the man Elinor hopes to marry. Marianne immediately falls in love with a handsome stranger, but naturally it’s not as easy as that.

I have mixed feelings about this book – if it was a modern romance, set nowadays, I would have thrown it at the wall. If it had been written by a modern author, I may have given it shorter shrift, too. The problem is that I liked one of the sisters (Elinor) and found the other deeply annoying. I enjoyed one romance (Elinor’s, again) and found the other unsatisfying.

Selfish and self-effacing
Marianne and her mother are all about feeling – Marianne is 17 when the story opens, with all the arrogance, melodrama and selfishness that entails. She says things like:

A woman of seven and twenty…can never hope to feel or inspire affection again

which got my back up slightly, and constantly tells her sister, who is quietly nursing a broken heart and painful secrets she mustn’t share for much of the novel, that her silence means she can’t be feeling anything.

One always brings one’s personal perspective to a novel, and being in the process of wading through a deep sadness, I’m more than ever on Elinor’s side and more than ever furious with Marianne. If anyone is to have breakfast, someone has to stop weeping long enough to make it – a fact that Elinor accepts and Marianne ignores. Her behaviour is thoughtless, selfish and cruel to her sister – and she glories in it as right, just and romantic. It’s bloody infuriating.

So why didn’t I give up on the book entirely? Well, dear reader, it’s the writing and the firm knowledge that Austenn is on my side. After all, she describes Marianne’s trials as

that violent sorrow which Marianne was in all probability not merely giving way to as a relief, but feeding and encouraging as a duty.

which is just right. I’ve seen that – have you?

Elinor is only 19, as far as I can tell, when the book starts but her chance to be young and carefree is sucked away by the behaviour of her mother and sister. I don’t really see what else she could have done, but I could wish a bit more backbone for her occasionally, if only because Marianne would so benefit from a short, sharp shock. But there again, that sort of thing was known to send a delicate girl into a decline – I struggle to suggest any suffragist actions for Austen’s characters as they are so bound about by respectability.

Romantic and pragmatic
I mentioned in my review of Pride and Prejudice that I was surprised by how pragmatic everyone in the novel is about marriage. S&S shows what could happen when people weren’t so pragmatic – on two levels, minor flaws and major falls. Like P&P it has a moral warning, in the shape of a young girl (two, in this one in fact) seduced and abandoned by a rogue. The rogue, one discovers, is fairly quickly forgiven while the young woman – if she survives at all – can be glimpsed only from afar as a cautionary tale. I’m sure it was the reality at the time, but I find it disgusting.

The minor fall is almost more interesting – Marianne, seems to almost ruin herself merely by hankering after a man who has made her no promises, longing for him and – most shocking – writing to him. As he is a cad of the first water, she has a lucky escape. Naturally, she’s duly grateful and gets tidied away neatly.

This tidying away of Marianne, who is somehow soiled before she’s even 20, just by falling in love with the wrong man, annoyed me no end, and I can see why the marriage seemed a good one on paper, but it seemed a soul-crushing punishment for a spirited girl – and I use the phrase deliberately, she’s part of a long tradition. I don’t like Marianne, but I don’t want her destroyed, and those seem to be the only options.

*Apologies for getting the author’s middle name wrong initially.