The Vicar of Wakefield

Image

Yeah, I reused my Jonathon Swift photos. An 18th century Anglican is an 18th Century Anglican, right.

The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith, 1766

Notable for:

  • being very popular among Victorian authors.  This novel is mentioned in many more famous novels by authors including Dickens, Austen, George Eliot, Charlotte Bronte and Louisa May Alcott.
  • being the first 18th century novel that I like.

Good news! I finally read an enjoyable 18th century novel.  The Vicar of Wakefield is the tale of the trials and tribulations of a rural Vicar and his charming family.  They fall from fortune early on and retire to a small town and a simple life.  The pastoral setting saves the book from the inconsequential drivel of novels set at court.  I certainly prefer a story about getting swindled when selling a horse at a county fair to drama over who escorted whom into whose coach.  (Check out that grammar, y’all.  You love it.)

The narrator/title character is delightful.  The pride and esteem he feels for his family will warm your heart.  And he’s witty!  This book provided a refreshing reprieve from the constant grinding misery of the Song of Ice and Fire series.  The Vicar does suffer losses, but he faces them with resignation, faith in the goodness of man/God/life, and gratitude for all that remains to him.  I hope I’m not making it sound trite, because it is not trite.  It’s an uplifting ode to familial love and being happy with what you have, but with humor and dramatic plot twists!

I will not lie, there is some sermonizing.  Our protagonist is a vicar after all.  However, the sermonizing is minimal compared to other literature from this era and you can just skip over it.

That’s all I have to say.

Favorite Snippet:

‘Now,’ cried I, holding up my children, ‘now let the flames burn on, and all my possessions perish. Here they are, I have saved my treasure. Here, my dearest, here are our treasures, and we shall yet be happy.’ We kissed our little darlings a thousand times, they clasped us round the neck, and seemed to share our transports, while their mother laughed and wept by turns.

You might like this book if:

  • you enjoy classic literature with a rural setting.
  • you enjoy dry, British humor.  It has a Jane Austen-like way of poking fun at the characters.
  • you like happy families.
  • you like optimism.

You might not like this book if:

  • you prefer your books “gritty” and full of human failure/misery.

Final Thoughts:

The Victorians were right: The Vicar of Wakefield is a great book.  Unlike many great books, it’ll make you feel happy.  (I’m looking at you, Lolita.)

The Castle of Otranto

Castle of Otranto

The Castle of Otranto, Horace Walpole, 1764

Notable for:

  • being the first Gothic novel in English, thus initiating the tradition that includes Edgar Allan Poe, Brahm Stoker, Mary Shelley (ugh) and Daphne Du Maurier.

A while back I decided that the 18th century was under-represented on my reading list.  So, I did some digging and added some fairly obscure titles.  The Castle of Otranto, written by Horace Walpole in 1764, is one of those additions.  I was pumped to start reading it for two reasons.  Firstly, it’s short.  I am developing a phobia of long books due to reading Clarissa, Game of Thrones, Tom Jones and Clash of Kings consecutively.  All those books are too long!  I don’t begrudge an author length, if they use it well.  Those authors do not, in my humble opinion.

Side bar: I feel the need to write “in my opinion” whenever I say something negative that might offend, but I feel kind of silly about it.  Obviously, everything subjective that I write on this blog is “just my opinion.”  In real life it bothers me when people tell me “that’s just your opinion.”  Duh.  Of course it is.  Unless I specifically declare that I am speaking as certified authority on a subject or as a representative of a group of people, we can all assume that everything I say is simply my opinion.  Duh.

The second reason I was excited about The Castle of Otranto was that I was hoping it contained a fun ghost to dress as for the pictures.  At first I was concerned on the ghost situation.  For the majority of the book the paranormal menace is a mysterious—and dangerous due to crushing—giant suit of armor.  Fortunately, a skeletal ghost hermit appears!

Walpole uses the conceit that he found an old Italian manuscript and translated it into this book.  It tells the story of Manfred, the prince of a little place called Otranto.  The tale contains many Classical elements:

  • a strong male lead with tragic flaws
    • anger problems
    • prophecy problems
    • the-sins-of-the-father-are-visited-upon-whoever theme
    • ends in marriage
    • virtuous wife
    • bold, virtuous, handsome, puissant bachelor
    • surprise parentage revelations that elevate a peasant to a noble
    • tragic ending

I have been reading so much classic literature that I’ve come to have certain expectations based on oft repeated trends.  One element of Castle O stood out as odd in relation to those trends.  There are two lovely bachelorettes and only one eligible bachelor.  Later I discovered that Walpole sets this situation up so he can waste one lady and still end the story with a marriage, which is necessary according to every story ever told before the Modern Era.

 

Favorite Snippet:

“Have done with this rhapsody of impertinence,” said Matilda.

 

You might like this book if:

  • you like Poe.
  • you like ghost stories, generally.

 

You might not like this book if:

  • you prefer happy endings.
  • Really, it’s too short to be unlikable.  Anything that might irritate you won’t irritate you for long.

 

Final ThoughtsCastle of Otranto is a cute little tale you may want to check out the next time you’re in the mood for ghost story.

Tom Jones

sydneyreadseverything

I had high expectations for Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (1749), because Samuel Taylor Coleridge said “To take [Fielding] up after Richardson, is like emerging from a sick room heated by stoves, into an open lawn, on a breezy day in May.”  Sounds like exactly what I needed after my 850 page excursion into the bowels of Clarissa.  I was inclined to trust Coleridge, because someone who writes awesome poems probably has good taste in literature, right?  Wrong!  I found picking up Tom Jones after Clarissa to be like walking from a sick room heated by five stoves, into a sickroom heated by four stoves.  It is slightly more enjoyable than Clarissa, because Fielding makes use of his sense of humor occasionally.  He is not as relentlessly earnest as Richardson.  However, the farcical scenes are embedded in so much filler that the overall experience of reading the book was not great for me.

Tom Jones is the story of a foundling bastard, who is taken in and raised by a kind, old aristocrat.  He grows up to be, like, the hottest guy in England.  He falls in love with the neighbor’s daughter and develops a rivalry with the nephew of the old aristocrat.  Despite his pure, devoted love for Sophia, Tom sleeps with nearly every female character in the book.  The love scenes are actually quite funny.  Fielding’s ornate, exalted style clashes with the crassness of the rural rendezvous.  There’s a bizarre amount of cat fights.  I don’t think Fielding ever witnessed a cat fight, because he seems to believe that women’s clothing just falls apart if you claw at it a bit.  In this time period women wore linen, wool or silk, none of which can be easily ripped.  Nevertheless, the first blows in these fights invariably render the women bare breasted.

Moving on, I can’t tell you how many times I have heard someone complain that Thackeray’s habit of “inserting himself into the text” ruined Vanity Fair for them.  You just can’t have a conversation about Thackeray without someone using that exact phrase.  When I read Vanity Fair it didn’t bother me too much.  It’s kinda funny to me that Thackeray takes so much heat for mentioning himself, when post-modern authors get praised for the same device.  It’s brilliant when Vonnegut does it, right?  That being said, Henry Fielding’s pervasive presence in Tom Jones ruined the book for me.   He frequently pauses to explain his authorial decisions to the reader.  For example:

“We would bestow some pains here in minutely describing all the mad pranks which Jones played on this occasion, could we be well assured that the reader would take the same pains in perusing them; but as we are apprehensive that, after all the labour we should employ in painting this said scene, the reader would be very apt to skip it entirely over, we have saved ourselves the trouble.  To say the truth, we have, from this reason alone, often done great violence to the luxuriousness of our genius, and let many excellent descriptions out of our work, which would otherwise have been in it.”
 

That quote also serves to illustrate another problem I have with Fielding: always using 100 words where 12 words would do.  He often explains why he ends chapters where he does.  This drove me crazy.  I want to go back in time and tell him “Listen, end the chapters where you want to.  Your readers aren’t so delicate that they need to be warned when a chapter is ending.  If you want to leave out descriptions and conversations to prevent boring your reader, just do it.  Don’t bore them by explaining that you are doing it.”

The most aggravating element of Fielding’s style is his need to stop and ruminate on human nature in abstract terms.  ALL THE TIME.  If a character tells a lie, Fielding inserts a mini-essay on honesty.  If a character is ambitious, we get a lecture on ambition.  So tedious.  Personally, when I read a novel I like to do my ruminating on human nature myself.  I don’t want the author to do it for me.  The novel is divided into 18 books.  The first chapter of every book consists of a little essay on blah blah blah (not gonna lie, I skipped all of them after the first three) and zero references to the narrative. In Book 5, Chapter 1 Fielding states that he is sure the reader won’t enjoy reading “these initial essays” and he didn’t enjoy writing them.  So why on earth are they in there?  Did they not have editors in 1749?  I get that the book is intended to be a farce.  So, perhaps he is mocking writers like Richardson.  He did like to mock Richardson.  He even wrote a parody of Richardson’s Pamela called Shamela.  But what does he gain by writing a boring book to make fun of other boring books?  Ultimately, you end up with yet another boring, excessively long 18th century novel.

You might like this book if:

  • you are reading a brutally edited version

You might not like this book if:

  • you try to read it.

A Modest Proposal

Image

Jonathon Swift is the poster boy for satire.  Gulliver’s Travels is probably the most famous work of satire in the English language.  I read that in high school, so I put Swift’s second most notorious work on The Book List: A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burden on their Parents or their Country, and for Making them Beneficial to the Publick (1729).  You know, the one about eating children.

Swift’s parents were English, but he spent most of his life in Ireland.  He was outraged by British exploitation of the Irish people.  In A Modest Proposal Swift satirizes the barbarous treatment of the Irish by suggesting that poor Irish mothers sell their babies to the wealthy for food.  He defends his proposal in grizzly and hilarious detail: “I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust.”  I love that he gets his information on cannibalism from an American.  We were considered uncivilized barbarians at that time, I suppose.

I am not going to say much else about A Modest Proposal, because it is only about eight pages long.  So, if you are interested at all, you might as well read it yourself.  It’s worth reading simply because it is so frequently referenced, in my all-time favorite episode of Sealab 2021, for example.

Favorite Snippet:

 A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends, and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt, will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.

You might like this pamphlet if:

  • you have a dark sense of humor.
  • you liked Gulliver’s Travels.
  • you like biting political satire.
  • you like the instant gratification of reading things that are short.
  • you are interested in 18th century Ireland.

 

You might not like this pamphlet if:

  • you can’t take a joke.

 

Final thoughts: Just read it.  http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1080/1080-h/1080-h.htm

Image

Journal of the Plague Year by a million little Daniel Defoes

Image

Daniel Defoe was kind of whacky.  I didn’t know him personally, but considered from our current perception of literary genre and journalistic integrity (not that I think journalistic integrity is a thing that exists) he was wild and crazy.  In the early 1720s Defoe wrote a book about the Great Plague outbreak of 1665.  He published it under the initials H.F. and claimed that it was written just after the outbreak.  The narrator is a grown man who stayed in London for the duration of the “visitation.”  Defoe himself was five years old in 1665 and fled to the countryside with his family.  See what he did there?  He published a historical novel and claimed it was non-fiction.  Sound familiar?  Are you outraged?

I have always thought readers these days are too hung up on what things are “true” or “real” and what things are “fiction.”  I heard Tim O’Brien read at Arlington Public Library.  He said he is confused by all the people who ask him which parts of The Things They Carried are true.  Yes, the book is about Vietnam.  Yes, he was there.  But it’s all fiction and he says it is closer to the “truth” about his experience in Vietnam than any factual account could approach.  Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is published as non-fiction these days.  There is exactly a 0% chance that the events of that book happened just the way Thompson described them.  However the speech about the wave, you know, the one that starts with “San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run… but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant.…’ has got to be the truth, as he felt it.  It gives you more “truth” about that generation and that place than any doctoral thesis on the counter culture in the ‘60s could, in my humble opinion.

Swinging back around from my tangent, Journal of the Plague Year does contain plenty of facts and statistics (“But, Sydney, statistics hadn’t been invented in 1722.” I know, shut up.) about the Great Plague in London.  Defoe lists the number of people that died in each borough during each week of the plague.  He peppers in incidents from H.D.’s personal experiences.  Overall, he creates a very detailed if somewhat fictional account of the lives of the people of London during the “distemper.”  I know what you’re thinking: that sounds really boring.  You’re right.  This book was boring.  Fortunately for you I am going to tell you all the most exciting tidbits.

What I learned:

·         To ward off plague write this symbol on a piece of cloth and pin it to your clothes:

ABRACADABRA

ABRACADABR

ABRACADAB

ABRACADA

ABRACAD

ABRACA

ABRAC

ABRA

ABR

AB

A

Congratulations!  You are now plague proof.

  • Each ward elected Examiners to go into houses and determine whether the inhabitants were infected.  If they refused to perform their duty, they were thrown in jail.  I would pick jail.
  • The Mayor of London issued an order to kill all the animals in the city.  Yep.  “That no Hogs, Dogs, or Cats, or tame Pigeons, or Conies, be suffered to be kept within any part of the City, or any Swine [. . .] and that the Dogs be killed by the Dog-killers appointed for that purpose.”  Can you imagine?
  • He also prohibited plays, bear-baitings (ugh), games and singing of ballads, to discourage people from assembling and infecting each other.

You might like this book if:

  • you are very morbid.
  • you like to read about dead bodies.
  • you have a particular passion for the plague.

You might not like this book if:

  • you are a human.

 

Final thoughts: The plague sucked.  Hooray for soap, epidemiology and microbiology!

The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel DefoeImage

Notable for being:

  • a genre starter.
  • one of the first novels in English.
  • appallingly racist and colonial.
  • continually in print since it was first published in 1719.

Yeah, that’s right, I made it to 27 without reading Robinson Crusoe.  Generally, I’m not drawn to novels with no female characters.  Despite its fame, I didn’t know much about this book going in.  I didn’t know that Crusoe is marooned more than once and I was shocked by the boldly racist and colonial attitudes portrayed in the novel.  It’s as if Defoe is so certain of the superiority of British nobility that he thinks natives of other countries are just sitting around hoping that a glorious white nobleman will show up so they can serve him forever.  Who doesn’t dream of a life of servitude?

First the rudiments of the plot, Crusoe starts out as a headstrong youth, determined to go to sea despite the tearful pleas of his father who begs him not to forsake his easy middleclass setup in England.  Regardless, he sets sail on a ship that gets attacked and captured by a “Turkish rover of Sallee.”  Crusoe’s captors sell him into slavery.  He contrives to escape and takes a Moorish boy, Xury, with him as he can’t sail his escape vessel all by himself.  Xury is a charming companion who helps Crusoe remain safe and fed until a Portuguese ship picks them up.  Crusoe then sells Xury to the Portuguese captain!  He feels conflicted, “not that I was not willing to let the captain have him, but I was very loath to sell my poor boy’s liberty, who had assisted me so faithfully in procuring my own,” but the captain offers to “set him free in ten years, if he turned Christian.  Upon this, and Xury saying he was willing to go to him, I let the captain have him.”  Ugh.  I don’t feel that I even need to go into how horrible that is.

Crusoe ends up in Brasil, where he starts a plantation.  He has a nice thing going for him, but feels that seafaring itch again and, seeking cheap labor, sets off for Africa to capture some slaves.  That’s right folks, the ship that wrecked and marooned Robinson Crusoe was a slave ship.  I didn’t know that.  Seems like a significant detail that should get more attention, huh?  They certainly changed it for the Pierce Brosnan movie.   So, the slave ship wrecks and Crusoe is the only survivor. He lives on that island for 28 years.  No joke.

The meat of the narrative consists of detailed description of our leading man’s efforts to build and fortify his shelters; hunt, gather and eventually farm.  We also, of course, get frequent updates on his emotional state featuring plenty of fear, loneliness, paranoia, pride in his ability to provide for himself, newfound religious faith, acceptance, contentment and gratitude.  A bumpy ride that leads to some wise-sounding philosophical ruminations on the value of having everything you could want and no possibility of gaining anything further.  Crusoe decides it’s desire and reaching for more than you have or need that lead to evil.  Pause and ruminate on Capitalism if you wish.

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Crusoe lives in solitude for many years before Friday arrives.  For the sake of those who haven’t read it, I won’t relate the most exciting event in the story.  I’ll just say that Crusoe saves Friday from very imminent danger and let Crusoe tell you the rest: “At length he came close to me, and then he kneeled down again, kissed the ground, and laid his head upon the ground, and taking me by the foot, set my foot upon his head.  This, it seems, was in token of swearing to be my slave forever.”  Come on, Friday, there are two people on this island, there is no need to give up the power struggle so quickly or so thoroughly.  Yes, Crusoe saved Friday’s life and has scary guns, but seriously, he did not need to do that.  I guess the idea of a white man and a “savage” being friends, companions and—God forbid—equals would never have occurred to Defoe.  However, it seems to me that companionship is exactly what Crusoe would be wanting at this moment.  Also, I would think that the complete subjugation of another person is only possible when you have the muscle to reinforce it, which comes not only through superior arms, but by having a social system in place that supports the subjugators.  I find it inconceivable for two entirely isolated people to live as master and slave.  However, the way Defoe writes it, Friday immediately begins laboring to ensure their mutual safety while Crusoe sits back and watches.  Ugh.

Defoe does try to make Friday out to be a lovable savage.  He is energetic, athletic and friendly.  Not to mention “the colour of his skin was not quite black, but very tawny, and yet not of an ugly yellow nauseous tawny, as the Brasilians and Virginians, and other natives of America are, but of a bright kind of dun olive colour, that had in it something very agreeable, though not very easy to describe.”  Apparently, the skin color of Native Americans makes Robinson Crusoe feel like he is going to barf.  Do you kind of wish he had died slowly of malaria?  He converts Friday to Christianity, but mentions that even though he had not the advantage of a Bible, he was way better at Christianity than any of Crusoe’s English buddies.   In other words, he was already a good person without Christianity while many Christians were not such compassionate people.  I have to admit, I skipped approximately three pages of Crusoe converting Friday, because the concept of converting the heathen makes my skin crawl.

Now I have gone on too long about Robinson Crusoe.  I have much more to say about Daniel Defoe and his style and contribution to literature, but I’ll leave that for the next post on Journal of the Plague Year.

You might like this book if:

  • you like survival stories.
  • you like to read about farming, hunting and making things.
  • you are interested in 18th century colonialism.

You might not like this book if:

  • you need your novels to have female characters.
  • you don’t want to think about 18th century colonialism.
  • you like stories to have social interactions and are easily bored by a character pondering his own situation.

Final thoughts: I think Crusoe’s emotional development as he reacts to his isolation on the island is the most compelling element of the story.  I can see how people might enjoy reading about his home improvement projects, basket weaving and making a grindstone for example.  I have no beef with Defoe’s writing style.  He can compose a compelling sentence.  However, if you are seeking entertainment, the book is too long and the plot points too far between.