2018 TBR Pile Challenge, Arthur Conan Doyle, Book Review, British Literature, Detective Novel, Fiction, Mystery

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

Plot/Story:

“The darkness was rising, but much was still hidden by the shadows.” From the Moors of Devonshire to 221B Baker Street comes Dr. James Mortimer. His aged and aristocratic friend, Sir Charles Baskerville of Baskerville Hall, has died under mysterious circumstances. It seems a vicious hell-hound has returned to the grounds, reigniting an old family curse that appears to be extinguishing the Baskerville heirs one-by-one, until only one—Sir Henry—remains. Mortimer and Sir Henry explain the family history, and a threat against Sir Henry, to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, begging for help and for answers. After spotting a bearded man following Sir Henry and Dr. Mortimer around London, the famous detective and his equally famous partner soon realize the threat is real. Holmes, too busy with a number of cases to leave for Devon, and worried that he has been spotted by the criminal anyway, elects to stay in London, asking Dr. Watson to play the role of primary observer, detective, and bodyguard to Sir Henry. But can Watson alone keep Sir Henry safe from a supernatural evil, especially when a new love enters the picture and threatens to further endanger the heir’s life?

Characterization:

Being one of the few novels in the Sherlock Holmes series, there is more opportunity to introduce multiple characters and for those characters to develop somewhat over the course of the 160-ish pages. That being said, I did not find the same depth or detail as in A Study in Scarlet. I was blown off course slightly in the early part of the book by the circumstances of one character in the Baskerville family lineage, but as it turns out that was a clever red herring, which caused me to mistake the real villain (although I was close and it became obvious not much later). Some have claimed that The Hound of the Baskervilles is a bit lazy for Doyle, that there is not as much heart or interest in it, possibly because Doyle had hoped to be finished with the series but felt pressured to continue it (pressured by a rabid fan base and by his publishers). I cannot agree with that opinion, although I do believe that The Hound of the Baskervilles is definitely different from Doyle’s previous installments. This feels a different kind of mystery, a different kind of detective story, and with a different kind of hero and villain.

Dr. Watson, for example, gets the most amount of page time. As the usual narrator for these stories, it is not unusual to get his perspective most of the time, but in this case, he is actually the first-hand protagonist, too. Sherlock is present only in the beginning and, of course, in the end, to take the credit as usual. Nevertheless, Holmes is much more genuinely complementary of his partner and even the Inspector than ever before. Could he be growing up? And the villain, who/which shall remain nameless, is both what he/it appears, and not. The secondary characters, from the crotchety old telescope man who sues everybody in town for the fun of it, to the two female characters, and the Baskerville housekeepers, are interesting and add something to the universe being created in this little moorland scene.

Prose/Style:

Something I will never get used to is how quickly I sink into a Sherlock Holmes story, and how rapidly I move through it. This one came in at 160 pages in my edition, a Bantam Classics with tiny font. And yet, I read the entire thing in less than 3 days. The reason for this is not just that the stories are always gripping, clever, and humorous, but that the writing is special, too. I think Doyle was a kind of anthropologist-philosopher who always had unique and enlightening things to say about the human race. An example that struck me came late in the book, when the speaker remarks, “[it] may have been love or may have been fear, or very possibly both, since they are by no means incompatible emotions.” What a special little insight there, unexpected and yet so wholly relevant both to the plot and to human nature more generally. As a master of pace and suspense, clever logic and word play, and good old-fashioned human psychology and emotional insight, Doyle has few peers, particularly in this genre. It makes reading the Sherlock Holmes tales both fun and meaningful.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.

SERIES SPOILERS AHEAD! If you have not read The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmesand/or “The Final Problem,” you might want to skip this next part. Understood? Well, then, if you are ready, let’s carry on:

This is the first Sherlock Holmes installment following “The Final Problem” (The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes) wherein the detective apparently gives his life to end Moriarty’s evil machinations. As it turns out, Holmes did not die, but readers will not be treated to an explanation in this first “return.” There were certainly enough reasons why one might conclude, after reading “The Final Problem,” that Holmes might still be alive. One thing I would have liked to see, here, would have been a reckoning of that particular series plot hole, even though it might not have anything in particular to do with this specific installment. That aside, the novel is filled with insights into science and mythology, superstition and the nature of evil. What I think I found most appealing about this particular installment is that it balances a history of bad luck with the opportunities that arise for a true villain to capitalize on myth and on peoples’ fears. A small castle in a small town on the moors of Devonshire seems a perfect setting for the story that unfolds in The Hound of the Baskervilles. There is the reality of daylight, where one can walk safely through the moors if one follows the visible pathways, juxtaposed against the true danger of the night, where even a lifelong resident might get lost in the fog and disappear forever. The metaphor is a treat. Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0

This is the first book completed for my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge

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Book Review, British Literature, Classics, Favorites, Thomas Hardy

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

After reading Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge in college, I certainly appreciated Hardy and was grateful to him for truly piquing my interest in the classics. Now, after reading Far from the Madding Crowd, I can absolutely call myself a fan. It is no wonder that Hardy has multiple entries on the infamous “1,001 Books to Read Before You Die” master list, including Far From the Madding Crowd. This story revolves around a love-triangle (or love-square, really) between Bathsheba Everdene, a beautiful, resourceful young woman who comes into ownership of her Uncle’s farm, another farmer from a neighboring town, Gabriel Oak, who finds himself ruined and goes to work for Bathsheba as a shepherd (after having met and courted her previously, before she became owner of the farm), a dashing young soldier, Sergeant Francis Troy – whom, had the term existed then, would have been known as a “player,” and, finally, Bathsheba’s neighbor-farmer, Mr. William Boldwood, whose mild manner and temperance masks an inner-passion and danger that only Bathsheba can unleash –unwittingly and, ultimately, remorsefully. The three men court Bathsheba in their various ways, and the town goes on around them, filled with the regular gossip, up-and-down seasons, and mild mysteries and adventures. 

The two things that first made me fall in love with Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge were its style and its characters. Far from the Madding Crowd is no different. Although the story does not move along at a rapid pace and although the majority of it is rather mild and calm in nature (though there are some surprises and moving moments, for certain!), Hardy has a way of making everyone and everything so very interesting, as if we the reader are a part of the plot, rather than an observer of it. The characters, from major to minor, are original, unique, and distinguishable from one another. The poor desolate Fanny, beautiful but tragically ruined, is a sideline character, but one of utmost importance. The workers, Jan Coggan, Joseph Poorgrass, and Cainy Ball are exactly the type of men you would hope (and assume) to find on a prosperous but familial farm. Liddy Smallbury, Batsheba’s maid, is sweet but mildly devious, and the aptly named Pennways, Batsheba’s former bailiff (accountant) is fittingly slimy. These minor characters move the story along and interplay with the primary characters and themes in a way that is subtly intricate. Most importantly, all of the characters are realistic both in their flaws and in their strengths, which strengthens the genuineness and believability of the story as a whole. 

As I mentioned above, one of Hardy’s great strength is his writing, including prose and style. He has the ability to engage his readers in stories which are interesting, but not necessarily enthralling. Although much of the story is about everyday life, with love’s toils interspersed throughout, the book is never boring. Much of this is thanks to the interestingly drawn and loveable (or despicable) characters, but the principal reason for the story’s success is that Hardy is such a fantastic storyteller. His narrative voice is interesting and distinct from the main characters’ tones; they, too, are independent of each other, and the dialogue is wonderful. The descriptions are lovely and lucid, without being overwrought (e.g. Proust, Radcliffe), so they complement the story without overshadowing it. 

Simply put, Far from the Madding Crowd is a story about love and life. It is a story about growth and maturity, and how true maturity only comes about through experience. Each of the characters in this story, excluding perhaps Gabriel Oak, have made grave mistakes, and each character must suffer in his or her way for the choices they have made. Some, like Bathsheba, do seem to learn from what they have experienced and grow into better people. Others, like Troy, seem to be so immature and self-absorbed that little growth can be expected from them. And still others, such as Mr. Boldwood, are doomed to suffer from choices instigated by the follies of others.  The themes of independence, self-worth, female leadership, and human companionship are explored.

Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0

Notable Quotes:

“It is safer to accept any chance that offers itself, and extemporize a procedure to fit it, than to get a good plan matured, and wait for a chance of using it.”

“It appears that ordinary men take wives because possession is not possible without marriage, and that ordinary women accept husbands because marriage is not possible without possession.”

“There are accents in the eye which are not on the tongue, and more tales come from pale lips than can enter an ear.”

“She was of the stuff of which great men’s mothers are made.  She was indispensable to high generation, hated at tea parties, feared in shops, and loved at crises.”

Background on the Title:

“Far from the madding crowd” means, essentially, safe from the crazies. It refers to a quiet and rural place.  Hardy took the line from a passage in Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchard, 1751:

“Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.”  –Thomas Gray

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Book Review, British Literature, Fantasy, Fiction, James Hanley, Middle Grade, Modernism, Philip Pullman, R.L. Stine, Young Adult

Recent Fiction Reads: Goosebumps, Boy, and The Book of Dust

Welcome to Dead House by R.L. Stine (3.0 out of 5.0) 

Welcome to Dead House is the first book in the infamous Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine. This one tells the tale of two young siblings and their parents. The family move to a new town after mysteriously inheriting a house from some long-lost family member. The book is typical Goosebumps: fast-paced, thrilling, a little spooky, and a little silly.

I used to read this series all the time as a kid. In fact, these books and The Hardy Boys books are pretty much all I read as a kid (with some of those Choose Your Own Adventure novels thrown into the mix every so often). I was actually not much of a reader at all when I was young (shocking to consider, now!) but the R.L. Stine books always kept my attention. Although I’ve read a number of the series, I somehow missed this one, which is a shame because it is good fun and it is the inaugural tale. 

For younger readers especially, those in the Middle Grade range, this book is bound to be a favorite. At the center of the action is a pair of curious and brave siblings. The primary antagonists are also kids, so the battle of “good versus evil” in this strange new town is, for the most part, taken up by children. What could be more fun for young readers?

Boy by James Hanley (3.5 out of 5.0)

I do not even know where to begin with this book. It is some remarkable work of melodramatic modernism, which really should not work, but does. According to the book’s introduction, this book was suppressed for more than 50 years. The publisher was prosecuted for obscenity, and readers will not find it hard to understand why that would be (considering the original publication was in the 1930s). I was torn throughout reading this between loving it and hating it, between being rather enthralled and being completely bored. These feelings remain unresolved even now, weeks after having finished it. 

That being said, there are a few points that are without dispute. First, Hanley is a wonderful writer who can turn a beautiful phrase and who is far bolder than many of his contemporaries were at the time. His modernism is the bold and brass American type, tackling difficult issues in a bleak and straightforward style. This, contrasted against the British modernists, is a kind of relief. Hanley often fails, too, in his story-telling. He overloads the pathos of nearly ever situation. Yes, certainly many of the scenes should evoke pathos. The “boy” at issue in this story is, after all, raped on numerous occasions, by older boys and older men. His plight is that of the age-old plight of the lower class: he is a brilliant young man with ambition and potential, whose parents force him into near-servitude, which breaks his spirit even despite his best efforts to free himself and find a new path. Throughout it all, he keeps his awful parents in mind and tries to make it for himself, and for them. 

As a narrative, Boy, is not the most compelling read. But as a critique on caste systems, poverty, child labor, and the abuses of the poor, it is a rather remarkable accomplishment. It seems Hanley experienced a similar life and put much of his general biography into the novel, though he denies that anything that happened to “boy” really happened to him. One has to wonder if Hanley was being truthful about that. 

The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman (5.0 out of 5.0)

Having finally finished the original Pullman trilogy, called His Dark Materials and including The Golden Compass, The Amber Spyglass, and The Subtle Knife, I was thrilled to learn that Pullman was at work on a  new trilogy called La Belle Sauvage. The first book in the series, The Book of Dust, released just a month ago, and I got my hands on it as soon as humanly possible! 

What I could not anticipate about the new series, or at least this first installment in that series, is how much more enjoyable I would find it than the originals. I honestly do not think that has ever happened before, but Pullman manages it. I found Malcolm Polstead to be an incredibly interesting young narrator, and his relationship with his daemon, Asta, was as beautiful and touching as the relationship created between Lyra and Pantalaimon. 

This new series seems to have a bit more action than the originals, and it still walks that delicate walk between fantasy and realism. There are witches and magic, mythological creatures and underworlds; there are also lovely relationships between Malcolm and a science professor, and Malcolm and Christian Nuns who live across the river. This book, like those in the original series, continues to explore themes of physics and theology, philosophy and science, humanism and myth, and it is, like the originals, a good old-fashioned coming-of-age tale. According to Pullman, this series specifically tackles the idea of consciousness, and what are we, underneath it all. Matter? Spirit? Neither? Both? I look forward to seeing how the rest of the series continues to address the questions posed by this first installment, which tackles highly relevant and topical issues of totalitarian theocracies, the right to free thought and speech, and the dangers of a militant religious force in control of government and politics. It is reported that the next book in the series is titled The Secret Commonwealth. All I can say is, bring it on, please!

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Book Review, British Literature, Charles Dickens, Classics, Fiction, Literature, Mystery

The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens

Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood is Charles Dickens’s last and unfinished novel. It was inspired, supposedly, by Dickens’s brush with death while riding aboard a train with his wife. The train derailed, and Dickens and his wife literally watched as people were flung from a bridge, to their watery deaths. The early draft of Dickens’s second-to-last novel, Our Mutual Friend, was imperiled in the cabin ahead of his own, and that cabin was hanging over the edge of the bridge; Dickens risked his life by climbing into that cabin to retrieve the manuscript and bring it back to safety. He was reportedly haunted for the rest of his life by a dark shadow (Drood) which is said to have been the ghost of a murdered man seeking resolution/vindication from the mortal world. The back-story and history is enough to get anyone interested; but the novel itself, though unfinished, is also quite extraordinary. The prose is the most natural and flowing of any Dickens novel I have read. The situations are believable and the sometimes fanciful or caricatured personalities are done away with. The novel’s eponymous character, Edwin Drood, disappears about mid-way through the completed portion of the story. A suspect is brought in, but the readers are led to suspect another. Whether Drood is murdered, however, and, if so, who the actual culprit is, has been left to speculation because the narrative never reaches its conclusion. My edition of the book contains the famous “Trial of John Jasper” play, which was staged by some of the literary giants of the time, following Dickens’s death. Writers and critics such as George Bernard Shaw, Arthur Waugh, and G.K. Chesterton, took parts in the play, which developed extemporaneously and was one of the most popularly watched events of the day. As it is not a portion of the original book, however, I am not including it in the review (though it is highly interesting – so if you are intrigued by the story and the history around it, it is not to be missed). Lastly, the dangers of opium addiction begin to be clearly established – and Dickens’s own personal experiences with the drug in later life, including a possible self-consciousness about his own use of it and his witnessing the addiction of his good friend and fellow writer, Wilkie Collins – are brought into play. This makes the novel, though incomplete, rather powerful to me, due to its honesty and sensitivity.

Characterization:
3 – Characters well-developed.

As I mention above, Dickens seems to have developed a stronger sense of true characterization in his later career. His earlier novels employ many literary devices, such as grotesques and caricatures, which are in a way cutely identifiable as “Dickensian” but which are, to me, sometimes rather annoying. While Dickens does lash out vehemently against the Philanthropists (as he does in other works) here, he is blunt and direct in the approach; he does not exactly employ a character and warp that character into representing Dickens’s vision of “The Philanthropist” but, instead, just bashes the group as a whole. There is a Philanthropist in the novel, and he does embody many of the elements which Dickens has stated in the narration are deplorable, but he is more a character than a caricature. Dickens does a great job of differentiating the many different characters, even those who come in near the “end” and are not well understood because the story is cut off prematurely. The characters are described in such a way as to be identifiable, with familiar ticks or physical quirks. Their slang and dialects are distinct, as are their mannerisms and features. What would have perhaps enhanced the characterization further, other than having completed the novel, would be a bit more time spent on development. Drood, for instance, who we pretty much understand, is not really missed when he disappears. This is a shortcoming, since he is the crux of the plot and the one person (aside from, perhaps, his “Pussy” – Rosa) whom we should care about. Similarly, Neville, the supposed antagonist, is relatively underdeveloped compared to the minor players – like Durdles and The Deputy. John Jasper, Mr. Crisparkles, and Mr. Grewgious, however, are all very well done.

Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

I mentioned previously how impressed I am with Dickens’s apparent growth from his earlier works to this one, in terms of his prose and style. I am easily annoyed by some of his trademark characterizations and burlesques, but seeing what he does here in Edwin Drood makes me extremely interested, and much more compelled, to read more of his late works, like Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House or Hard Times. This was also visible in Great Expectations, though I think it is most prominent here. Dickens employs a rather straightforward style, and his prose is much more conversational and accessible, though still beautifully wrought. He introduces snippets of letters and song or poetry to break the monotony of prose, which advances the story quite well and adds a welcome and entertaining level to the story. This edition also includes original illustrations which are beautifully done and allow the reader a pictographic point of reference, as it were – an image of the scene, with characters drawn in the style of the times, wearing the clothes and expressions of the period. I was highly receptive to their inclusion.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
3 – Additional elements are present and cohesive to the Story.

What I found most intriguing about this novel is the personality which Dickens gives the work overall. I am deeply saddened that the book was never completed, because I truly believe it may have been one of his crowning achievements. Dickens was always a writer who exposed social injustices, particularly in regards to poverty and religion, having experienced a childhood of nearly absolute deprivation; but he gets even more personal with this work. Many believe the character, John Jasper, to be a re-imagining of Dickens’s feelings toward his embarrassment of a son, Sydney, who racked up enormous debt in Dickens’s name and was ultimately banished from the Dickens home. Also, it is believed that one of Dickens’s great regrets was marrying so young – which is clearly expressed in the tormented relationship of Edwin and Rosa, which is eventually broken off, mutually, by the two. And, of course, as I mentioned above – Dickens’s mental anguish and torment since his brush with death, intensified perhaps by his (likely) use of opium, are all present within the text. The amount of “self” which Dickens exudes in this work is touching and painful, like a scarred wound, unveiled at last by an old writer to his loyal but ignorant readers. It is almost as if Dickens was writing his own eulogy – a farewell in swan’s song, putting his mind at rest before the long, terrible, and permanent final rest.

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

Notable Quotes:

“The cramped monotony of my existence grinds me away by the grain.”

“Circumstances may accumulate so strongly even against an innocent man, that directed, sharpened, and pointed, they may slay him.”

“Stranger, pause and ask thyself the question, canst thou do likewise? If not, with a blush retire.”

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2013 B2tC Challenge, 2013 Challenges, 2013 TBR Pile Challenge, Adventure, Arthur Conan Doyle, Book Review, British Literature, Classics, Classics Club, Detective Novel, Fiction, Mystery

Thoughts: The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

1065804The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
YTD: 55

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes is the third in the Sherlock Holmes series, following two novels (A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four) and a collection of short stories (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes). It contains eleven stories, in total, which, much like the previous titles in this series, tackle a range of social, political, and ethnic topics, all the while entertaining the reader with witty narrative and engaging, sometimes surprising mysteries and detective work.

My edition is, unfortunately, true to the revised original American edition of the collection, which edited out a story called “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box.” The story is now printed in American editions of the collection titled “His Last Bow,” which I do have, so I’ll get to it eventually. Of course, I’m a purist, though, so it irks me very much to have to read stories out of the order of original publication or author intention.

That being said, the collection is a good one. I particularly enjoyed “The Yellow Face,” which was a story of ahead of its time, in my opinion. This one tells of a young American woman who meets a young British man, they marry and move to England together. Soon enough, the woman’s secret history is uncovered, and the revelations are (for the time) shocking. As a modern reader, however, there is a certain delight and admiration for the risk Doyle took, here, and for the stance that the narrative takes on issues of equality and human decency. It was a pleasant surprise.

Others in the collection which I rather enjoyed include “The Gloria Scott” and “The Musgrave Ritual,” both of which had interesting elements of darker, Poe-esque mystery; also, “The Reigate Puzzle” and “The Naval Treaty,” both of which had elements of heightened daring, danger, and suspense. Finally, of course, there is “The Final Problem,” which is not only a wonderful short story, but, knowing the history of the series, a moving read. It adds a very deep, personal element to the character of Sherlock Holmes, a human side which his character sometimes (intentionally) lacks. Even knowing that the series continues, it was a difficult read and a sad ending!

All this taken into consideration, I still prefer, over all, the first collection in the Holmes series. I was bothered by the very close similarity of “The Stock-broker’s Clerk” to an earlier Sherlock Holmes story (“The Red-headed League”). The two stories seemed like the reworking of a very similar plot. Of course, Doyle wrote from a standardized formula of sorts, but even still, it felt to me much too similar, in this case. Perhaps to Doyle, too, considering where he tried to go with “The Final Problem.”

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes collection is an interesting piece to the overall Holmes collection. As in the previous works, this one is narrated by Watson, but many of the stories find Watson specifically trying to point out just how unremarkable Sherlock Holmes is – how lucky he sometimes gets, how even he can be stumped, at times. The purpose of this is probably two-fold; first, to set up readers’ expectations for the last story in the collection and second, to round out and make more realistic the Sherlock Holmes character in general. Perhaps there had been some instance that Doyle make Sherlock Holmes seem less of a superhero – how interesting can a character with no flaws be, after all?

Ultimately, I continue to be pleased with these stories and every time I revisit the next book in the collection, I find myself wondering what took me so long to get back to it. These are always some of the most fun, entertaining, and engaging reading experiences, and it rarely takes me more than a few days to get through the entire book. Doyle’s writing, in Memoirs, remains fresh and accessible, and he continues to push certain boundaries, which adds depth and intrigue to books which might otherwise be simply light, “pleasure” reading.

One final note: I may or may not have known this (though I certainly didn’t remember), but the title from another favorite book of mine, by Mark Haddon, actually seems to have come from one of these stories! In “The Silver Blaze,” Colonel Ross asks Sherlock Holmes, “Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?” and Holmes replies: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” Wow!

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: 13+
Interest: Mystery, Detective Stories, 19th Century Britain, Social Justice, Crime, British Fiction, Short Stories, 1,001 Books.

Notable Quotes:

“Of all ghosts, the ghosts of our old loves are the worst.” (“The Gloria Scott”)

“Any truth is better than indefinite doubt.” (“The Yellow Face”)

“It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.” (“A Case of Identity”)

“It is stupidity rather than courage to refuse to recognize danger when it is close upon you.” (“The Final Problem”)

“I never can resist a touch of the dramatic.” (“The Naval Treaty”)

“It’s every man’s business to see justice done.” (“The Crooked Man”)

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Book Review, British Literature, Essay, Favorites, Gender Studies, Literature, Modern March, Modernism, Non-Fiction, Virginia Woolf, writing

Thoughts: A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

340793A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Wolf
Final Verdict: Perfection
YTD: 22

I finished reading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own two days ago, and I have been thinking about it ever since. I imagine that I will be thinking about it for quite some time. It, like the last two Woolf books I read, was not what I expected it to be. Yes, I knew the book developed from lectures she gave on “Women and Fiction” to students at Newnham and Girton in 1928. Yes, I knew that Shakespeare’s infamous sister originated from these lectures, and I knew that Woolf’s renowned declaration that a woman must have “money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” (4) was the primary theme for the lectures and papers which eventually became this book. So, why was I caught off-guard by this book? What did she give me that I wasn’t expecting? Was there something missing – something I expected to see but didn’t?

I was caught off-guard, first, by the lecture style. I have been reading quite a bit of nonfiction, lately. Essays and lectures about writing, theory, and criticism, as well as histories of sexuality and gender, in literature and other mediums. Most of these, aside, perhaps, from E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, are relatively straightforward nonfiction. But Woolf tells a story with her lectures – in fact, she creates a fictive world and fictive experiences to relay the message she intends to deliver to these young women. Typically, I look for a writer’s genius in their fiction, because, first of all, I’m a reader of fiction and because, secondly, I believe it is more difficult to get one’s point across in a creative way than it is to deliver it face-forward in an essay or lecture, where one can simply state what they mean, give examples, and move on. Fiction is harder – it is more subtle, delicate, and complex. You have to develop it in order to deliver it effectively. Nonfiction, while still taking great effort to make it “worthwhile,” and readable does not necessarily require story, too. But Woolf gives us the story anyway, and she gives us history, and she gives us visions of the future. It is, to put it plainly, simply stunning.

A Room of One’s Own is about the inequalities of sex, certainly. When she talks of needing £500 and a private room, with a lock, she is being quite literal. But she’s also going beyond that – she’s not just talking about women and she’s not just talking about the creative process. She’s talking about brilliance and genius and what it really takes to get there. This is a book as much about class and economics as it is about sexual politics. The great writers throughout most of history have been men because men have been privileged with wealth of their own, property of their own, space of their own. They had access to education and travel, to training and experience. Jane Austen, her ultimate exception to this rule, was brilliant despite this lack and, even so, her works, brilliant as they are, have their limitations, because Austen’s own experiences were limited. Woolf is a feminist, whether or not she would admit it, and that comes across at times in these lectures, but what is really interesting is that she is not speaking to women in general –she’s not really concerned with that population; she is speaking to women of genius.

Where does all this leave me? It is nearly 100 years later and the one theme at the heart of Woolf’s theory still seems to hold true: one needs time, space, and money in order to reach greatness. One must be granted the ability to spend time with one’s self, to give him or herself completely to their craft, to not be distracted by anything else, if he or she is to succeed. Of course, this makes sense and it is something I have thought about for more than a decade. If only I had time, I would say to myself, I could get this book written, that project completed. Or, if only I had the money, I would think, I could travel to Europe, investigate what I need to, experience what I must, and learn what I should, in order to write what I feel. So, knowing this, and reading it in blunt delivery from one of the greatest literary minds to grace history, what do I do with myself? Time? Money? I work 45-50 hours per week. I’m pursuing my Ph.D. full-time, which adds 6 hours of class time each week plus who knows how many hours of research, homework, and assigned reading, not to mention the additional 6 hours spent commuting to and from campus. Sleep factors in there, sometimes.

Woolf, you see, has made me seriously doubt the way I’m going about my life. She says one needs free time and privacy from distraction – but aside from winning the lottery, how does one support a (brilliant) writing life? She says one needs an education – but how far is it necessary to go, and how do you focus on your own work when completing the “required” education? These are the questions she raises and leaves unanswered for me. I don’t consider myself to be a genius, so it’s probably true that Woolf doesn’t intend her lectures for me; still, I do consider myself to be a writer and one who is very concerned with the requirements of time, space, and security. So, it’s a hard book for me. It’s a hard book, I think, for any writer who finds himself in a hard place. But it’s a life-changing book and it has left me with more thoughts than I know what to do with, more doubts than I can afford to deal with, and more desire than I can bear to let go of.

Notable Quotes:

“It is a curious fact that novelists have a way of making us believe that luncheon parties are invariably memorable for something very witty that was said, or for something very wise that was done. But they seldom spare a word for what was eaten” (10).

“And thus by degrees was lit, halfway down the spine, which is the seat of the soul, not that hard little electric light which we call brilliance, as it pops in and out upon our lips, but the more profound, subtle and subterranean glow, which is the rich yellow flame of rational intercourse” (11).

“One does not like to be told that one is naturally the inferior of a little man” (32).

“Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband” (44).

“Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman” (49).

“When people compare Shakespeare and Jane Austen, they may mean that the minds of both had consumed all impediments” (68).

“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind” (76).

“It is fatal for any one who writes to think of their sex. It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly” (104).

“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters” (106).

A Room of One’s Own is Book 2 completed for the Modern March event.

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Book Review, British Literature, Classics, Comedy, Drama, Gender Studies, Homoeroticism, Homosocial Relationships, Pastoral, Play, Shakespeare

Thoughts: As You Like It by William Shakespeare

386383As You Like It by William Shakespeare
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
YTD: 14

I have been away from Shakespeare for far too long. I have taken two courses in Shakespeare, one in college and one in graduate school. In both cases, we spent the majority of the time studying his histories and tragedies (Titus Andronicus, Hamlet, Henry V, etc.), as well as the history of the period, his contemporaries (Marlowe, Jonson, Lily, Nashe, etc.) and some of the sonnets. In only one class did we read a comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I firmly believe we only read this one because a) the instructor felt it necessary to include at least one example of Shakespeare’s comedic work and b) the instructor was also interested in mythology. So, I went into this play not having read any Shakespeare in more than 4 years and having very little experience with his comedies, though I’ve read quite a bit of his oeuvre.

While it is impossible to know just how much of As You Like It is still in its original form (this play, like all his others, was changed multiple times to suit stage needs and audience feedback, prior to having been printed for the first time), it is clear that it was likely written around 1599 (near the end of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign) and that it fits into the genre of the pastoral, which is inspired by ancient Greek literature. As in other pastoral stories, this one includes high-ranking members of society who must flee from court and hide in the countryside, for fear of imprisonment or execution. They abandon their princely lives to become shepherds, farmers, shopkeepers, etc.

As the play begins, we learn that Sir Rowland de Bois has died and his power and property have passed on to his eldest son Oliver. Oliver is charged with taking care of his brother, Orlando, but the brothers are not friends and Oliver instead completely neglects Orlando, leaving him without education, without property, and without any training which might allow Orlando to advance in the world and make a life for himself. There is a wrestling match at court, which Oliver attempts to “fix” so that the master wrestler, Charles, will kill Orlando during the match – but Orlando wins and during the match catches the eye of the beautiful Rosalind (who is the daughter of Duke Senior, who has been usurped by his brother, Frederick). After the match, Orlando learns that he must flee for his safety, so he heads for the Forest of Ardenne, where Duke Senior happens to be hiding, and is soon followed there (unknowingly) by Rosalind and her bosom friend Celia, both of whom are disguised (Rosalind as a boy, Celia as a darker-skinned peasant).

fraynglobeUltimately, Duke Frederick orders Oliver to find Orlando and bring back Celia (Duke Frederick’s daughter), and threatens him with destruction and poverty if he fails. In the Forest of Ardenne, Orlando meets Rosalind as Ganymede (that name should ring some bells!), who says he will pretend to be Rosalind so that Orlando can practice courting her. This is some of the most elaborate gender-bending in literary history and is somewhat shocking to find in a 17th Century play. Rosalind will eventually become the mastermind of a community wedding, where four couples get married, after agreeing to her terms (given as Ganymede) the day before. There was a woman in love with Rosalind (as Ganymede) who agrees to marry another man, if Ganymede can convince her not to want to marry him (which he does by revealing himself to be a woman) and an agreement from her father, Duke Senior, that he will allow his daughter, Rosalind, to marry Orlando, if only they could find Rosalind (which, again, comes true after Ganymede takes off his disguise).

It gets even more complicated when we recall that, at the time, women’s roles would have been played by boys. So, here we have a boy playing Rosalind, who then – in the play- pretends to be a boy (so a boy playing a girl playing a boy), who then reveals himself to be a girl (all the while still a boy in real life). Talk about a sense of humor!

The primary theme of As You Like It seems to be the complexity of life and the tongue-in-cheek spoofing of conventional romances, where men are love slaves to their ladies and where love itself acts like a disease, disabling its sufferer. This play is littered with arguments, possibilities, choices, and dichotomies, all of which are presented as realities of life, without much (if any) preaching on Shakespeare’s part. There are plenty of binaries, but few didactic absolutes – it is as if Shakespeare is saying, “these are the many ways man and woman can live, the many choices they could make, and who are we to say which is right or wrong?”

My thoughts are all over the place on this one, because there is so much going on (within the play) and so much being said (by Shakespeare, through the play). That being said, the plot and story are surprisingly easy to follow, despite the play’s complexity. It is also highly entertaining and enjoyable because of the novelty of the story, for its time, and also because of its farcical nature and its ability to laugh at the ridiculousness of love, all the while being a love story. Enjoyable, interesting, thought-provoking, and funny. Classic Shakespeare.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School +

Interest: Gender Roles, Primogeniture, Patriarchy, History, Comedy/Drama, Identity, Homoeroticism, , Cross-dressing.

Symbols/Motifs: Ganymede, Poetry (Orlando), Cuckoldry; Exile, Artifice, Homoeroticism.

Dichotomies: City (Court) vs Country; Nature vs Fate; Realism vs. Romance; Old vs. Young; Noble Birth vs. Social Advancement; Reason vs. Foolishness.

Notable Quotes*:

“The more pity that fools may not speak wisely what wise men do foolishly.” (11)

“And this our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.” (25)

“I shall ne’er be ware of mine own wit till I break my shins against it.” (33)

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.” (44)

“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” (89)

*Page numbers correspond to the 2000 Pelican Shakespeare edition, ed. by Frances E. Dolan.

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