The First Dark and Stormy Night

Paul Clifford

Paul Clifford, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1830

This crazy book, embodies the best and the worst of early Victorian fiction.

The worst:

  • Absurdly long sentences of mostly gibberish.
  • Excessively detailed descriptions of minor characters.
  • Too many characters.
  • Too long.
  • Random, gratuitous animal cruelty.
  • Antiquated language that rapidly exhausts your attention span.

The best:

  • Biting social commentary aimed at British class structure and the justice system.
  • Pithy zingers.
  • Hilarious, sad drunks.
  • This book starts with “It was a dark and stormy night.” Yes! It originated that phrase!
  • The plot! Paul Clifford is so well plotted; it will blow your mind.

I understand why no one reads Bulwer-Lytton anymore. He was friends with Charles Dickens and almost equally popular during his own lifetime. However, his writing style is even harder to wade through than Dickens’. Even though the innumerable majority of humans cannot name a single Bulwer-Lytton title, his mark on the collective consciousness lingers in the form of three widely known phrases penned by the author:

  • “It was a dark and stormy night”
  • “The pen is mightier than the sword”
  • “In pursuit of the almighty dollar”

Impressive, huh? I had no idea those three aphorisms—ok, only two are aphorisms—were written by the same person. The latter two aren’t simply catchy phrases. They’re meaty concepts that we like to chew on with our mind teeth. They eloquently express ideas that are still useful and relevant today. Paul Clifford is full of ideas like these. While reading this book, I had the same “Damn! Social injustice!” reaction that I have to 95% of contemporary news articles.

I know you’re not going to read Paul Clifford, because virtually no one does. I, however, read everything, so you don’t have to. I will summarize the plot for you, because you need to know.

On a dark and stormy night a woman lies dying in an English tavern. She confesses the secret of her young son’s paternity to one man, Dummy Dunnaker. The old innkeeper takes pity on the boy and raises him like a son. She names him Paul Clifford.

The innkeeper pays to have Paul educated, hoping that he won’t fall in with the sordid types who frequent the tavern. Young Paul reads the biography of Dick Turpin, a legendary highwayman, but he is too moral to decide on a life of crime.

Nevertheless, Paul begins spending time in the company of “Long Ned” Pepper, a dapper young criminal. One day Paul and Ned go to the theater. Paul sees an entrancingly beautiful girl sitting with her uncle. After the play, Ned picks the uncle’s pocket and whispers “run” to Paul. Shocked, Paul does not run away and he gets blamed for the crime.

Note: Ned Pepper is also a character in True Grit. Coincidence? I think not.

Unfortunately, the uncle turns out to be William Brandon, a famously ruthless lawyer. Brandon is peeved about the loss of his watch, and sentences Paul to a stay in prison.

Another Note: Paul Clifford preceded Oliver Twist by seven years. Both feature an innocent boy who is blamed for someone else’s pickpocketing. This event is a turning point in both novels.

What does young Paul learn in prison? Well, he learns how to be a criminal. Eventually, he and an experienced thief manage to escape their confines and Paul starts his career as a “gentleman highwayman.” He is so elegant, so intelligent, that he soon becomes the leader of an illustrious band of thieves that scour the English countryside stopping carriages and robbing the nobility of their jewels.

Paul leads a double life as Captain Lovett, honorable thief who flirts, but never hurts the ladies, and as Captain Clifford, society man. He reencounters Lucy Brandon, the beautiful young niece of William Brandon. They fall in love. Twice, he professes his love, then runs away, warning her that he is unworthy of her love or her hand.

Paul is desperately in love and bitterly regrets the life that has made him an unsuitable match for his sweet, innocent lover. Distracted, his hold on his fellow thieves begins to slip. An old friend betrays the location of his secret hideout. Long Ned and another compatriot are captured. Paul risks himself to free them, and ends up in jail.

Long Ned returns to the tavern where Paul was born, to await the conclusion of Paul’s trial. While there, he reveals to Dummy Dunnaker that the legendary Captain Lovett is in fact the same Paul Clifford whose birth Dummy attended.

Meanwhile, ambitious, avaricious William Brandon has been promoted to judge. In this capacity he encounters Dummy Dunnaker, who escapes a pickpocketing charge by selling Brandon some incriminating letters.

The letters are artifacts of a correspondence between Brandon and a beautiful young woman with no fortune. Infatuated, Brandon denies his ambitious instincts and marries her. He becomes a resentful, unaffectionate husband. They have a son. He suspects that her affections are beginning to stray toward his friend. To rid himself of his misalliance, he tells the friend that she is not his wife, but a prostitute and literally sells her to the friend.

The friend only loves her for a minute. Based on Brandon’s misinformation he does not respect her. They quarrel and she ends up on the streets with no way to provide for herself, except by the career Brandon falsely ascribed to her. Angry and bitter, she vows revenge. In the company of thieves, including Dummy Dunnaker, she breaks into Brandon’s home and takes her son. Determined that he will never see his son again, she takes the boy to a shady tavern, where she soon dies. Probably of syphilis.

Brandon spends decades obsessively searching for his lost son, to no avail. Brandon’s other obsession is restoring the name of his once great family. He has amassed political power and great fortune. He wants to bestow it upon his son and heir.

Judge Brandon presides over the trial of Captain Lovett. Lovett does not deny that he has made a living as a thief. Instead he attacks the British justice system. Here are some edited highlights of his impassioned speech:

“Seven years ago I was sent to the house of correction for an offence which I did not commit. I went thither, a boy who had never infringed a single law; I came forth, in a few weeks, a man who was prepared to break all laws! You had first wronged me by a punishment which I did not deserve; you wronged me yet more deeply when I was sentenced to herd with hardened offenders, your legislation made me what I am; and it now destroys me, for being what it made me.

Let those whom the law protects consider it a protector: when did it ever protect me? When did it ever protect the poor man? The government of a State, the institutions of law, profess to provide for all those who ‘obey.’ Mark! a man hungers,—do you feed him? He is naked,—do you clothe him? If not, you break your covenant, you drive him back to the first law of nature, and you hang him, not because he is guilty, but because you have left him naked and starving”

In the middle of Paul’s testimony Dummy Dunnaker drunkenly stumbles into the courtroom, insisting that he must deliver a message to Brandon. Brandon learns that Captain Lovett is his long lost son!

Stricken, Brandon must proceed with the trial. Before he makes his decision Paul reveals that Brandon himself was the person who sentenced him to prison seven years ago, thus starting his career in crime.

Brandon, guilty of unwittingly throwing his own son into a life of crime, must now be the one to sentence him. He pronounces Paul guilty, thus destroying his life’s work and cherished ambition of bestowing riches and honor upon his offspring.

So good. That plot is so good, I can’t even handle it.

Final thoughts: I have a lot of respect for this author. I mean, dang. Also, this made me think about how gross it is for cousins to marry each other. You get used to reading about that in classic literature. Somehow, the fact that I didn’t originally know that the lovers were cousins, made it much more shocking. I was like “No! Your fathers are brothers! That’s gross. Stop. Don’t get married and procreate, please.” Seriously, I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but if you have a child and your sibling has a child, don’t let those two babies mate. Please.

The Mummy: A Steampunk Adventure Story

The Mummy Jane C LoudonThe Mummy, Jane C. Loudon, 1828

I need to borrow a line from one of my favorite poets A. E. Housman. “It is in truth inequity on high” that Jules Verne is considered the father of steampunk, when Jane C. Loudon published The Mummy the same year that Verne was born. The Mummy out steampunks Verne’s entire oeuvre, and no one has even heard of it, not even fervent steampunk enthusiasts.

This book has it all. It’s a neo-Victorian, futuristic, sci-fi, political thriller, romance. A mummy steals a dirigible. A MUMMY STEALS A DIRIGIBLE. That plot element alone gives Loudon all the steampunk and sci-fi cred one can have. But if you need more proof that she’s the mother of the genre, know that steam driven technologies abound in The Mummy, including mechanisms that harness clouds to water crops and odd communication devices.

Like a lot of science fiction, this book is really silly. It takes place in the 22nd Century. Loudon’s ideas of the political climate in the future are hilarious. To summarize: the people revolt against the aristocracy and establish universal education. Once they are educated they feel like they shouldn’t have to do manual labor. With no laborers, there is no food. England is plunged into anarchy and, to escape the turmoil, the people seek out the former aristocrats and beg them to take back their ancestral homes and roles, because with no one to work for, no one will do any work. . . . So they establish a matrilineal monarchy. Now that the lower classes are educated, education is no longer fashionable. So, Loudon’s servant characters speak in unbearably pretentious monologues while the bluebloods speak plain English. Which is pretty funny the first time, but becomes wearisome.

The Mummy Jane C Loudon

The characters have amazing romantic names, including Edmund, Edric, Roderick, Elvira and Rosabella. Elvira and Rosabella engage in political intrigues; both are in line to become Queen. Roderick is the king of Ireland and the world’s most powerful imperial monarch. How hilariously Anglo-centric is that? Edric is essentially Victor Frankenstein. Obsessed with reanimating a corpse, he travels to Egypt in an airship with a galvanic battery and reanimates the pharaoh Cheops. Just like good old Victor, Edric’s success causes him to faint, and the mummy runs off. The mummy steals the airship and somehow sails it to England, where he becomes deeply involved in the dispute over the succession. I have no idea why a reanimated Egyptian pharaoh would spend his time on British political intrigues. Interestingly, everyone is afraid of the mummy, because he’s scary looking, but he’s actually a wise, benevolent character.

The book is far too long and has too many characters, but overall it’s a fun romp. I enjoyed it.

Other than prejudice against women, I can’t imagine why The Mummy is not recognized today as a pioneering work of science fiction and the beginning of the steampunk genre.

You might like The Mummy if:

· you like science fiction.

· you like steampunk.

· you don’t mind long books.

You might not like The Mummy if:

· you’re a very serious person who likes tight plots and fast action.

Final thoughts: Anyone interested in steampunk or early science fiction should read this book and give Jane C. Loudon her due.

Hope Leslie Deserves to be a Household Name

Hope Leslie

Hope Leslie, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, 1826

You know how in certain movies, when someone is so excited about the money they’ve scored, they feel the need to roll around in it, euphorically tossing bills in the air? I want to do that with the pages of Hope Leslie by Catharine Maria Sedgwick.  That’s how much I love it. You know how when a kitty or a puppy is so cute that petting it is not enough and you feel compelled to rub your face directly on its fur? I want to rub my face on this book.

Why? Because the heroine is flawed. I mean, in my eyes she’s pretty much perfect, but by the moral standards at the time the book was set (1643) or written (1826) she is very flawed. In earlier literature women are either villainous hussies or perfect paragons. Authors demonstrated the merit of their female characters by showing how very rigid their morals are and how very strictly they obey the will of their patriarchs. Well, Elizabeth Bennet is an exception to this rule. She’s a bit defiant. Hope Leslie is way more defiant.

Sedgwick picked “Early Times in Massachusetts” as the setting for Hope Leslie, a time that was incredibly oppressive for everyone, but particularly oppressive of women and Native Americans. Yet, her main characters follow their own moral strictures. Previous heroines obey the law and their fathers against their own moral inclinations. Not Hope Leslie. Like Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther King Jr, she believes that “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. […] Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” (MLK, Letter from Birmingham Jail).

For example, Hope Leslie convinces her tutor to leave off studying for an afternoon in favor of a hike up a large hill. The tutor gets bitten by a venomous snake. Hope wants to suck the poison out, but the tutor refuses the offer, fearing that she’ll be poisoned. Anxious for the survival of her tutor, Hope asks an old Native American woman, Nelema, to help her; a very sensible idea considering that the locals had been dealing with snake bites for centuries, but Brits had no experience with venomous snakes. Thanks, St. Patrick!

Nelema cures the man. As part of the process she does some witch-doctorish dancing and chanting. Word gets out that Nelema is a witch and she is thrown in jail. We all know what happened to witches in this time period. Hope Leslie, not being a complete fool, does not want Nelema to die for her generous action. After all, she saved the man’s life. So what if her culture’s customs seem weird and heathenish? Hope sneaks away, steals the jailor’s keys and frees Nelema, because it’s the right thing to do.

Later, she frees another Indian woman, Magawisca, to save her from being executed for plotting the extermination of the Pilgrims. Magawisca is guilty, but Hope frees her anyway, because many years earlier Magawisca saved the life of Hope’s beloved. Also, the Pilgrim’s wiped out Magawisca’s village and held her captive as a young girl; so Hope feels that her animosity is justified. Check out the progressive, enlightened concepts of feminism and race relations on Catharine Maria Sedgwick! Dang!

It’s really great to read a book from this era that does not espouse the inherent superiority of white men. Of course, the book was immediately forgotten and nobody reads it anymore, because the English canon is for white guys. But I haven’t forgotten you, Sedgwick! Hope Leslie is balm for my feminist spirit. It’s an uplifting and inspiring piece of literature, not because it ignores the evils in society, but because it allows for triumph over those evils.

I want to give it an affectionate cheek rub. I just wanna lovingly nuzzle Hope Leslie.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

Here’s a quote:

Nothing could be more unlike the authentic, “thoroughly educated,” and thoroughly disciplined young ladies of the present day than Hope Leslie—as unlike as a mountain rill to a canal—the one leaping over rocks and precipices, sportive, free, and beautiful, or stealing softly on, in unseen, unpraised loveliness; the other, formed by art, restrained within prescribed and formal limits, and devoted to utility.

You might like Hope Leslie if:

  • you like Anne Shirley, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Jo March and other plucky girls who mature into wonderful women.

You might not like Hope Leslie if:

  • that quote was too old-timey for you.

Final thoughts:

Hey! Shame on generations of literati for not giving Sedgwick her due. Hope Leslie deserves a place alongside Anne Shirley and Jo March as an inspiring, revered heroine of literature.

My Last of the Mohicans Fantasy

Last of the Mohicans, James Fenimore Cooper, 1826

Last of the Mohicans is a strange beast. A classic that nobody reads. An original American adventure story that Americans love, but only in its movie version. Why do we love the film Last of the Mohicans, but disregard James Fenimoore Cooper’s novel? Both are epic, romantic adventure stories set during the French and Indian war. The trick is that in the 166 years between the book and the movie, our sensibilities changed. Our ideas of romance, heroism, racial relations, Colonists, the British and the French have all changed. At heart, both versions offer a fantasy of American origins and American identity.

Our concept of the ideal—white—man, has changed dramatically since 1826. The leading men transform almost past the point of recognition. Make of it what you will, but the movie versions of the female and Native American characters are not as altered. Here’s a breakdown of how the main characters change and what this tells us about the change in our fantasies or ideals.

Book Hawkeye/Scout/La Long Carrabine/Natty Bumppo

  • Raised by Delaware Indians
  • Misogynist
  • Has no time to love a woman
  • Perpetually rants about religion
  • Gets involved because rescuing women is the chivalrous thing to do

The Fantasy: Hawkeye is a worldly outsider. He exists outside society and is free of its restrictions. He doesn’t try to fit in, but he tries to do the right thing, based on his own concepts of morality.

For some reason he brays on and on about being a “Man without a Cross.” I don’t know what that means. It’s not made clear in the books. I haven’t found any one else who knows what this means. Maybe he’s not burdened by society? I have to mention that he never calls Cora or Alice by their names. He usually calls them “the Gentle Ones” or some other nauseatingly dismissive epithet.

Movie Hawkeye

  • Raised specifically by Chingachgook
  • Appreciates Cora’s strength and resilience
  • Would die for Cora
  • Terse
  • Gets involved to protect the interests of the Colonists against the heartless British Army

The Fantasy: Still a fiercely individualistic outsider. Still woodsy. Still has more respect for bonds between individuals than for society. But movie Hawkeye is capable of dedicated, passionate love for a woman. Movie Hawkeye cares about the little guy. He sticks up for the rustic Colonists against the stuffy Brits. Movie Hawkeye has long, dreamy hair.

6

Book Cora

  • Strong
  • Resilient
  • Self-sacrificing
  • Beautiful
  • Mixed-race (gasp!)
  • Dedicated to her family

The Fantasy: Like a good 19th Century woman, her main drive is to obey her father’s wishes and slavishly devote herself to her family. Also, she overcomes her suspicious origin to become a virtuous, wise woman who defies norms by never, ever fainting.

Movie Cora

  • The same, except that there’s no mention of her having a mulatto mother.
  • In love with Hawkeye
  • A shameless hussy by 1820s standards, but we don’t mind if unmarried couples passionately make out in a burning fort these days.

The Fantasy: Rich aristocrat chooses LOVE and an exhilarating life of adventure over money and society.

Book Alice

  • Meek
  • Swooning

The Fantasy: Delicate, innocent young lass needs protection from smarter, stronger males.

Movie Alice

  • I hate to say it, but she doesn’t really change.

The Fantasy: Whoops, same fantasy. Some of us still want to see big strong men protect useless females. I’m looking at you, Twilight.

Book Heyward

  • Plucky, handsome young chap
  • Loves Alice
  • Brave Virginian, but loyal to the crown.
  • Surprise! He’s the hero of the book.

The Fantasy: Loyal British Colonist disregards prejudice, teams up with noble savages to save women from evil savages.

 

Movie Heyward

  • Plain looking.
  • English
  • Uptight, entitled, stuffy.
  • Loves Cora.
  • Has his moment of heroism, in spite of being a patsy for most of the film.

The Fantasy: Americans are way manlier and attractive than Englishmen. Stupid imperialist Englishmen with your shiny pewter buttons and linen suits; in America men only wear buckskin. Keep sitting there with your fancy tea cups, drinking fancy tea. Meanwhile, Daniel Day Lewis is standing in front of some trees, leaning on a long rifle, looking like a man. A man with dreamy hair who runs around a lot with his dreamy hair streaming behind him.

Book Uncas

  • Young
  • Sexy
  • Capable
  • In love with Cora

The Fantasy: Smokin hot noble savage.

Movie Uncas

  • The same, except he’s in love with Alice.

The Fantasy: Smokin hot Native American is smokin hot. Runs around with Daniel Day Lewis, both with dreamy long hair blowing behind them. So determined, so quiet. Watch Cora tend to the wound on his thick, strong leg.

So, the movie turned Hawkeye into a romantic lead and he ends up with Cora, the superior woman, which leaves Alice for Uncas. The book’s pairing of Cora with Uncas and Heyward with Alice makes more sense. Uncas lives in the wilderness, he respects Cora’s strength under pressure. Heyward’s ideal of femininity was passed down from English parlors, where women are meant to be fluffy confections of ribbon and lace. Alice is right up Heyward’s alley; it never made sense to me that Uncas would be drawn to her.

 

Book Magua

  • Evil
  • Seeks revenge against the Munro girls’ father, because he once had Magua whipped for public drunkenness.
    • Wants Cora to be his squaw

The Nightmare: Sneaky, evil Indian antagonist, pretends to be your friend while setting up a sabotage. Magua has legions of loyal Mohawk Indians and other allies that help him with his brutal revenge plans.

Movie Magua

  • More evil
  • Wants to kill Munro’s daughters, because Munro’s troops killed his children.

The Nightmare: White guilt, plain and simple. The wrongs we inflict on Native Americans turn them into powerful enemies. The crimes of the white patriarchs are visited upon everybody, complicit or not.

I could watch Last of the Mohicans every month. The filmmakers did an excellent job of capturing the excitement and danger in Cooper’s novel. Cooper himself kind of bungled his material. He frequently mars the drama of a scene with comedy or excessive dialogue. To his credit, he does create great drama before he destroys it. For example, he establishes the urgent struggle of our desperate and capable heroes as they attempt to evade gunfire from a pursuing canoe. Very scary and tense. Meanwhile, our heroes discuss their situation and strategy in long paragraphs of dialogue. Please. If Copper had ever taken even a leisurely paddle in a canoe, he would have known that you have to keep your conversation brief, because hearing is difficult over the sound of the river and the splash of the oars. Also, you literally need to save your breath.

At one point in the book, Hawkeye infiltrates Magua’s camp by putting on a bear skin and waddling around on all fours. Really. Consider how many absurd premises are necessary here:

  • Indians are so earthy and close to nature that they let bears wander around their villages.
  • Indians are so earthy and close to nature that they let ANY bear wander around their village, even if they have never seen that particular bear before.
  • Despite their extensive knowledge of the natural world and familiarity with bears, Indians can’t tell the difference between a bear and a man wearing a bear suit.

I can tell the difference between bear and a person draped in a bear skin, and I don’t spend a lot of time around bears. I’m all for bears in literature. This was kind of my favorite part of the book, but it does make the scene ludicrous instead of suspenseful.

Cooper also inserts humor into the middle of battle scenes, which is not how comic relief is done. It works better to cut from a battle to a lighthearted moment between different characters in a different setting. Jokes in the middle of a brutal massacre trivialize the violence and distract from the action.

That being said, I cried my eyes out at the end of this book. Cooper writes an elegy given by Native American women to two fallen characters and it’s so beautiful and poignant. That piece of writing is so great; it made me want to believe in an afterlife.

You might like Last of the Mohicans if:

  • you’re very interested in early American literature and early American history.
  • you can wade through irrelevant religious arguments to get to the action and comedy.

You might not like Last of the Mohicans if:

  • you love the movie and you don’t want to see it altered.
  • you are like most people.

Final thoughts: My boyfriend looks like Uncas. I’m basically living out my personal Last of the Mohicans fantasy all the time. Hooray.

 

Percy Shelley’s Gender-bending Pagan Fantasy

witch of atlas

The Witch of Atlas, Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1820

Shelley dedicated this poem to his wife and the ungrateful sow told him it was no good, because it “contains no human interest.” More evidence that Mary Shelley knew nothing about literature. She didn’t like that the poem has no plot. Shelley simply describes his character, her home, and gives a few examples of how she spends her time.

The unnamed witch lives in a cave illuminated by magic baubles. She is beautiful and compassionate. All the creatures in the forest, including the dryads, naiads, satyrs and so on want to live with her and dedicated their lives to following her. She refuses, because she knows she’ll grow affectionate towards them and mourn them when they die.

What does she like to do with the endless days of her immortality? Well, her mystical ancient forefathers left her a supply of magical trinkets and tools; she uses their power to amuse herself. She starts off by making herself a non-gendered flying creature to ride around on:

Then by strange art she kneaded fire and snow
Together, tempering the repugnant mass
With liquid love—all things together grow
Through which the harmony of love can pass;
And a fair Shape out of her hands did flow—
A living Image, which did far surpass
In beauty that bright shape of vital stone
Which drew the heart out of Pygmalion.

A sexless ting it was, and in its growth
It seemed to have developed no defect
Of either sex, yet all the grace of both,—
In gentleness and strength its limbs were decked;
The bosom swelled lightly with its full youth,
The countenance was such as might select
Some artist that his skill should never die,
Imaging forth such perfect purity.

From its smooth shoulders hung two rapid wings,
Fit to have borne it to the seventh sphere,
Tipped with the speed of liquid lightenings,
Dyed in the ardours of the atmosphere

 

Soon, she decides she doesn’t want to live in a cave anymore. She summons a troop of minions to build her a dome carved of ivory and hung with silks. But, her favorite pastime is messing with sleeping humans. She has the ability to mingle her souls with the souls of sleeping mortals and she uses this power to play pranks on them, such as making a king abdicate in favor of his pet monkey. Pretty neat.

Mary was right; the poem doesn’t have a plot. It’s not a story, but a detailed fantasy. It’ll go straight to the pleasure centers of those who like the sorcery part of the sword and sorcery genre.

You might like The Witch of Atlas if:

  • you love fantasy.
  • you love witches.
  • you love hermaphrodites.

You might not like The Witch of Atlas if:

  • you, like Mary Shelley, need everything you need to have a plot.

Final thoughts:

I enjoyed this poem. I picked it out of Shelley’s oeuvre, because I like witches, fantasy and magic. It certainly delivered the witch. Best of all, she’s a powerful woman with mystical powers who, for once, is not portrayed as an evil, corrupting influence on the hearts of men. Shelley was a loud, proud atheist. So, he could just write about a magic woman without stipulating that she was under the influence of Satan. Shelley wasn’t exactly a model human, but I appreciate the chance to read a 200 year-old piece of literature with no trace of Christian patriarchy.

Byron’s Don Juan: Origin of the Rap Battle?

Haidee finding Don Juan

Don Juan, Lord Byron, 1820

In his long poem “Don Juan” Byron reimagines the legendary Latin Lover as a luckless young man, tossed about by circumstance in 1820s Europe. Highly susceptible to feminine charms, he falls in love over and over again. We tend to think of Don Juan as a scheming seducer. Byron turns him into a well-intentioned, affectionate chap who inspires consuming passions in the opposite sex. Those passionate females create a lot of trouble for Juan.

As you might imagine, Don Juan has a number of lovers. Byron describes intimate scenes with more detail than previous poets dared to use. The poem was declared immoral by many critics. Byron’s publisher often hesitated to publish new installments and some of Byron’s friends begged him to stop writing it. However, many of his fellow poets declared it a work of genius and it was popular with the public.

I agree that it has elements of genius. When Byron manages to stay focused on his plot, the poem is amazing. His passages about falling in love are breathtaking. I read from one of them during my brother’s wedding ceremony:

     They look'd up to the sky, whose floating glow
       Spread like a rosy ocean, vast and bright;
     They gazed upon the glittering sea below,
       Whence the broad moon rose circling into sight;
     They heard the wave's splash, and the wind so low,
       And saw each other's dark eyes darting light
     Into each other—and, beholding this,
     Their lips drew near, and clung into a kiss;

     A long, long kiss, a kiss of youth, and love,
       And beauty, all concentrating like rays
     Into one focus, kindled from above;
       Such kisses as belong to early days,
     Where heart, and soul, and sense, in concert move,
       And the blood 's lava, and the pulse a blaze,
     Each kiss a heart-quake,—for a kiss's strength,
     I think, it must be reckon'd by its length.

He really captures the gigantic, encompassing feelings born of little, intimate moments between two people. No?

Byron very successfully describes these things too:

  • The bittersweet feeling of leaving your home behind to go on an adventure.
  • The charms of Middle Eastern women.
  • Don Juan’s courage in battle or when sparring with a lover’s huband/father.
  • Petty jealousies.
  • Scenery.
  • Unhappy marriages.

Haidee finding Don Juan

 

Unfortunately, he grants an enormous number of lines to insulting other poets, insulting social institutions and rambling on about his personal philosophy. I think satire is most effective, not to mention entertaining, when contained within the plot. When Byron directly attacks society, the quality of his poetry diminishes. Fact: philosophy is boring. Don Juan is over 16,000 lines long, but to me it only drags when Byron goes off on philosophical tangents.

Bryon dedicated Don Juan to Robert Southey. Sounds nice, right? I like Southey. Byron didn’t. The caustic, ironic dedication sets the tone for Byron’s other acerbic digressions. Byron’s good friend Shelley escapes his harsh pen, but the Lake Poets take a beating, in verse of course. He tears into Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats. As far as I’m concerned, he can have at Wordsworth, but Coleridge? Keats? Back off Byron; those guys are paragons. At first, the idea of viciously attacking other artists in your genre seemed really odd to me. Also, it’s a precarious perch for Byron, who was far from perfect. Then I thought of rap battles. We certainly have a contemporary equivalent of abusing your artistic competition in rhyme. Let’s pretend that Byron originated the rap battle, shall we?

You might like Don Juan if:

  • you want to read beautiful verse about the misadventures of a dashing young man as he’s tossed across Europe by Lady Fortune.

You might not like Don Juan if:

  • you don’t want to dig through Byron’s philosophy, social commentary and bile to get to the adventure story.

Final thoughts: I loved/hated Don Juan, but mostly I loved it. When it is good, it is very, very good. When it is bad, it is boring. The story is gripping and told so incredibly well, that I got really annoyed with Byron for all his digressions. I am very glad I read it. To me it was worth the long slog. However, I hesitate to recommend it. Realistically, most readers will not have the requisite patience

Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen, 1817

Catherine Morland starts life as a plain, tomboyish child not at all suited to the life of a romantic heroine.  Nevertheless, she blossoms into a not unattractive young woman with a “mind about as ignorant and uninformed as the female mind at seventeen usually is.”  In this precarious state of naiveté she sets off for Bath to be introduced to society.  Sounds like every single previous novel with a female main character, huh?  Well, yes, excepting Austen’s other books.  The most common premise for early English novels is the young woman’s first season in town, an excellent setting in which to portray the corrupting and confusing influence of society on the female character.  Austen typically breaks away from this model to focus on familial relationships, typically in a rural setting.  Think about it, all of Austen’s other characters have experience in society prior to the time when Austen begins chronicling their stories.  In Northanger Abbey she uses this more common premise in order to parody other novelists.

When Catherine arrives in Bath she starts reading The Mysteries of Udolpho, my least favorite book in the history of literature!  Austen continually contrasts her relatively mundane and realistic character, setting and plot with the exaggerated romanticism of Udolpho and other Gothic literature.  Catherine becomes so obsessed with Udolpho that she interprets her surroundings as if they were part of a Gothic mystery.  She expects danger at every turn.  She even begins to suspect that the father of the young man she admires is a villain on par with Montoni of Udolpho.  Her absurd fantasies almost ruin her chances with the young man in question.

Northanger Abbey is not Jane Austen’s most popular novel, probably because the narrative relies on knowledge of a book that most modern readers have not read.  I found Northanger Abbey simply delightful.  The element of satire adds complexity and extra humor to Austen’s work.  It is really funny to see a literary heroine get so swept up by the ideas and ideals of another novel that she almost ruins the plot of her own book.  The constant contrast between the Gothic literary tradition and Austen’s own literary style serves to highlight Austen’s merit.  I love that she interrupts her narrative to give a spirited defense of the novel form.  In Austen’s time it was perfectly acceptable for a young lady to read poetry, but novels were considered trifling and perhaps even dangerous.  She defends Catherine’s habit of reading novels by saying “if the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?”  A bit rich, considering that Austen is raking fellow lady novelist Ann Radcliffe over the coals, but a cute statement nonetheless.

Northanger Abbey stands out to me, because in it Austen comes closest to social commentary.  In her other novels she delineates the flaws in her characters and explains how their upbringing allowed their undesirable traits to emerge and flourish.  The blame falls soundly on the parents every time.  Emma is vain and self-important, because her father is over-indulgent.  Lydia Bennet is silly and boy-crazy, because her mother is silly and boy-crazy.  Fanny is unassuming, because she is treated as a second class member of her own family.  Austen does not aim her arrows directly at the effete, indulgent Regency society very often, but in Nothanger Abbey she constructs the argument (if you look for it) that Catherine is so very silly, because social norms prevent her from accumulating any wisdom.  Well, that might be a bit of a stretch, but she fairly clearly demonstrates that the social practice of “retirement from the world” for young women, makes them silly.

Thank goodness an author finally makes that connection.  All the naïve, bumbling Charlotte Temples, Evelinas and Catherines get into trouble, because they have no experience of the world. Early English novelists just loved to show how dangerous entering society is for a young woman.  Well, duh!  If you were shut away from people for your entire youth, it would be dangerous to send you to a debutante ball.  People have to learn how to interpret human behavior.  If women are locked away from men, they will have no idea who is a decent, reasonable person and who is philanderer or potential murderer.  It’s not shocking that Catherine can’t tell fiction from reality.  There’s almost no reality in her life.  Experience makes humans wise and she has had no experiences.  She comes off as incredibly foolish, but is it really surprising that someone who was only allowed to experience the world through books would interpret their surroundings as if they were the setting of a novel?  I think not.

You might like Northanger Abbey if:

  • you have read Mysteries of Udolpho or at least one Gothic novel written before 1820.
  • you love Jane Austen.
  • you like satire.
  • you like meta-fiction.

You might not like Northanger Abbey if:

  • you haven’t read Mysteries of Udolpho or at least one Gothic novel written before 1820.
  • you just can’t stand it when the author inserts her own voice and opinions into the narrative.  I must insert my voice here to give the opinion that readers everywhere should ditch this particular pet peeve.

Final thoughts: Northanger Abbey is an atypical Austen novel, which I like.  I rank it second after Pride and Prejudice. 

Emma

Emma and Harriet

Emma and Harriet

Emma, Jane Austen, 1815

I have three more Jane Austen books to review and I’m running out of deep thoughts to share about this author.  This post is going to be brief.  As far as Austen’s oeuvre Emma is solidly middle of the road.  The characters are better developed than in Sense and Sensibility, but not as vivid as in Pride and Prejudice.  The dialogue and plot are both more engaging than Mansfield Park, but not nearly so tight and exciting as P+P.

Austen spends a lot of time enumerating and illuminating her characters’ flaws.  Fortunately for her leading ladies they inevitably realize the error of their ways in time to win back the hearts of their beloveds.  Emma has more personality defects than her compatriots, including a massive ego that slows down her self-reflection and self-improvement.  Hence, Emma is one of Austen’s longest novels.

Emma "fixing" Harriet

Emma “fixing” Harriet

My favorite thing about Emma is “Clueless.”  Still holds up after all these years.  Reimagining frivolous, useless Regency aristocrats as 90s Beverly Hills teens works so well.  The changes to the central love story make it more adorable and less. . .creepy.  By turning the male lead into Cher’s step-brother the writers retained the somewhat familial relationship between the lovers, but decreased the age difference.  The love between Emma and Mr. Knightley is bizarre.  Mr. Knightly is something of an uncle to Emma.  He is sixteen years older, has known her since she was very young and openly admits to trying to mold her character.  He constantly criticizes and lectures her.  Essentially, he has been raising her in lieu of her dead mother and over-indulgent father.  Then she grows up to be a hottie and he decides to marry her.  Gross.  The union doesn’t make sense for either partner.  Knightley shouldn’t want to marry her, because she has a crappy personality.  In his own words “she will never submit to anything requiring industry and patience.”  Who wouldn’t want a lazy, impatient wife?  Emma shouldn’t want to marry him, because he will clearly make a terrible father given that he raised her and she did not turn out well.

You might like Emma if:

  • what you enjoy about Austen is her sharp-witted critiquing of her characters.

You might not like Emma if:

  • what you like about Austen is romance.

 

Final thoughts: Emma, the character, is an annoying, self-righteous, lazy, useless busybody, which is what Austen intended.  She didn’t necessarily want her readers to like Emma or to root for her romance with Mr. Knightley.  That’s a perfectly valid choice for an author to make.  For me, that choice makes Emma, the book, less lovable than certain other works by Austen.  Emma is tedious and Emma is tedious.  It’s not bad, it’s just not very fun.

Mansfield Park

Fanny Price, Jane Austen

Mansfield Park, Jane Austen, 1814

Mansfield Park follows the early life of Fanny Price, a young girl whose mother has made an imprudent marriage and consequently ended up with too many children and not enough money.  Fanny’s rich aunt and uncle decide to help her mother by bringing Fanny to live with them.  They instantly begin a campaign to prevent Fanny from thinking of herself as the social equal of their own daughters.  Hence, she grows into an unassuming young lady with a distinct lack of self-confidence.  Then, you know, all the young ladies and gentlemen must figure out whom to marry.

I have said it before, but it bears repeating, I have a hard time relating to the circumstances that Austen’s characters inhabit.  “First World Problems” doesn’t begin to cover how trivial their problems are.  The most dramatic moment of the first half of Mansfield Park occurs when Fanny gets a headache.  Really.  In complete disregard of her congenitally weak constitution, Fanny’s aunt sends her out to cut roses in the midday sun.  Consequently, Fanny feels a somewhat unpleasant sensation in her head.  Her cousin Edward gets enraged at the aunt’s lack of consideration.  Words are exchanged.  Not so much sharp words as slightly pointed words.  That’s it.  That’s pretty much the most heated exchange in the whole novel.  I’m sorry, but a problem that can be solved by taking a quick nap doesn’t register as a problem to me.

Fanny Price, Jane austen

Throughout her novels Austen often takes care to establish that her characters’ behavior is a product of their environment and the way they are treated by those around them.  Fanny is an unassuming wallflower, because she was brought up by an aunt and uncle determined to keep her in her place by constantly reminding her of her inferior station relative to their own daughters.  Her aunt, Mrs. Bertram is indolent, because as a wealthy aristocrat very little is required of her.  Fanny’s rival, Miss Crawford, has a disdain for the clergy and a lack of respect for certain family members that are attributed to her upbringing by a crude uncle and bitter aunt.  To give credit where credit is due, Jane Austen does a fantastic job of establishing the social factors that influence the development of human understanding.  (By the way, “understanding” was used in this time to mean intelligence and method of relating to the world.)  In itself that is a terrific accomplishment.  However, I would love to see a character transcend those influences.  Yes, it is somewhat rare for an individual to reach beyond the limitations of their upbringing, but it does happen and I would love to see more of that grit and defiance in Austen.  Imagine that IN SPITE of her family’s constant reminders of her inferiority, Fanny developed a sense of self-worth independent of the opinions of others.  IN SPITE of their continual derision, she becomes an assertive, young woman with a vibrant personality.  Imagine that IN SPITE of the judgmental attitudes of her aunt and uncle Miss Crawford becomes a compassionate woman who judges others by their actions and not their membership in a given group.  For me to love a Jane Austen novel or character I need to see a little more IN SPITE.  That’s why Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice is the best of Austen’s heroines.  There’s a lot of in spite in Lizzy.

Mansfield Park is my least favorite of Austen’s oeuvre.  It’s too long.  Fanny is too dull.  Too many boring conversations are included.  Weirdly, the romance that is ostensibly the driving concern of the novel is confined to a few brief paragraphs at the end of the book.  Why tell us so much about shrubbery and not give the lovers any dialogue, Austen?  Why?

Here’s a creepy quote:

“Loving, guiding, protecting her, as he had been doing ever since her being ten years old,her mind in so great a degree formed by his care, and her comfort depending on his kindness, an object to him of such close and peculiar interest, dearer by all his importance to her than any one else at Mansfield, what was there now to add, but that he should learn to prefer soft light eyes to sparkling dark ones.”

There’s an element of “he loves her because he raised her himself and made her in his image” in this quote that I’ll discuss further in my review of Emma.

You might like Mansfield Park if:

  • you are an Austen enthusiast.
  • you like awkward, unlovable main characters.

You might not like Mansfield Park if:

  • you like action, plot and intrigue.

Final Thoughts: Mansfield Park is the most skipable of Austen’s novels.

The Corsair

The Corsair, Lord Byron, 1814

For a swashbuckling good time try Lord Byron’s The Corsair, a truly epic epic poem about everybody’s favorite type of outlaw: pirates!  If you like your pirates tall, dark and angsty you will love Conrad, the leading man.  Lord Byron kind of invented tall, dark and angsty.  No, really, he developed a new literary prototype inspired by himself.  Gone is the valiant, morally righteous young whippersnapper/knight errant.  Enter the Byronic hero!  He’s a smart, moody outcast.  He’s mysterious, cynical and sexy.  He’s an introverted rebel who scorns social norms and society generally.  Most importantly, he has a dark, guilty past that torments his conscience.  Yum.

Byron introduced this self-modeled hero in the epic poem Childe Harolde, a semi-autobiographical travelogue that I started reading and then was all “naw.”  I found it boring and obscure.  If you’ve been following this blog for a while you know that boring and obscure is right up my alley, but I am definitely not the perfect reader of Childe Harolde.  I am not familiar with the ins and outs of world events circa 1814 or with the landmarks of continental Europe.  When Byron refers to Colonel Thus-and-Such by some nickname, the allusion goes right over my head, because I’ve never heard of said Colonel or his diminutives.  So, I skipped Childe Harolde and moved straight on to The Corsair.  Whooeee, so much more fun.

Our anti-hero, Conrad, inspires extreme loyalty in his band of followers despite his dour demeanor.  One day he’s sitting in his pirate hideout feeling a little glum about the troubled past that got him rejected from society.  He decides to distract himself with his favorite occupation: piracy!  It’s going to take a big victory to get him out of this funk, so he sets his sight on the home city of his arch nemesis.  Enemy #1 is Seyd, a higher up in the Ottoman Empire.  Conrad says goodbye to his beloved, sneaks into his rival’s palace and sets that place on fire!  He’s feeling pretty good about himself when he sees that Seyd’s harem is burning.  Oh no!  Conrad will kill men left, right and center in the name of. . .robbing them, but no women.  Ok?  No women!   He orders his men to run into the flaming harem and carry out a flaming lady.  They prove their loyalty by following him into that burning building.  Amid the smoke Conrad blindly clutches for a lady and runs out with her.  Turns out she’s Seyd’s lead sex slave and she has such lovely charms.  Her name is Gulnare, which is unfortunate, but I guess it rhymes with stuff.

Gulnare

Turning back to rescue the women costs Conrad the battle.  He gets captured.  Fortunately (?), Gulnare has fallen in love with Conrad, duh.  Inspired by her love, she sneaks into Seyd’s chambers at night and assassinates the bejesus out of him, thus enabling Conrad’s escape.  Conrad had been feeling some uncomfortable sensations of attraction toward the lovely Gulnare, but now that she’s a murderer he is completely repulsed by her.   This guy kills people professionally and steals their lucre.  But girls are supposed to be sweet and innocent, ya know.  I can’t get over what a stinking hypocrite Conrad is.   If murder is ever justifiable, and I’m not exactly saying that it is, killing the man who has made you his sex slave has got to be near the top of justifiable slayings.  Way more morally correct than killing someone because they have money and you want it.  Uhhhhhhhhhhgh.

Gulnare

Warning: feminist rant commencing now.  If you are a patriarch it makes sense to perpetuate the idea that women should never dirty their hands.  I know that I am probably about to make the error of conflating Byron with his character.  In my defense, Byron typically tells the reader when he thinks his characters are making an error of judgment.  I really thought he was going to point out how ridiculous Conrad is being when he scorns Gulnare’s crime.  But he doesn’t.  So, he perpetuates the patriarchal precept that if a woman is in a terrible situation she should just stay in it rather than lift her hand to free herself.  Rage.  Remember ladies, if you are feeling oppressed, don’t ever fight back.  It’s unfeminine.

Anyway, aside from this giant glaring flaw, I really loved this poem.  Byron is a fantastic poet.  He really made me feel zeal for the open ocean and other piratey emotions.  Let me supply you with a quote:

Oh, who can tell, save he whose heart hath tried,

And danced in triumph o’er the waters wide,

The exulting sense—the pulse’s maddening play,

That thrills the wanderer of that trackless way?

 

You might like The Corsair if:

  • you love swashbuckling.
  • you like The Three Musketeers.
  • you are looking for “Pirates of the Caribbean” in epic poem form.

 

You might not like The Corsair if:

  • you have no interest in the Romantic Era or epic poetry.

 

Final thoughts: I really enjoyed this poem.  If you are curious about epic poetry and want to see if you have the appetite for it, The Corsair is a good starting point.  It’s not too long and it has a lot of spirit.  As far as long poems go, this one is easy to love.