Washington Irving

 

photoDid you know that Washington Irving was one of the first American prose writers to gain any respect abroad?  British readers condescended to read his book of short stories The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon.  I will review his two most popular and enduring stories Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow for you today.  Both stories are set in Dutch communities in the Catskill mountains of New York.  If you haven’t tried to read English literature in chronological order, you may not be able to appreciate how happy a story set in the Americas makes me.  Familiar landscapes!  I am from the Appalachian region in Virginia and Irving’s mention of that mountain chain in his introduction to Rip Van Winkle made my heart sing:

Whoever has made a voyage up the Hudson must remember the Catskill Mountains. They are a dismembered branch of the great Appalachian family, and are seen away to the west of the river, swelling up to a noble height, and lording it over the surrounding country. Every change of season, every change of weather, indeed, every hour of the day, produces some change in the magical hues and shapes of these mountains, and they are regarded by all the good wives, far and near, as perfect barometers. When the weather is fair and settled, they are clothed in blue and purple, and print their bold outlines on the clear evening sky; but sometimes, when the rest of the landscape is cloudless, they will gather a hood of gray vapors about their summits, which, in the last rays of the setting sun, will glow and light up like a crown of glory.

Ah, isn’t that lovely?  Irving’s description establishes the Catskills as a place of mysterious beauty.  Later, our main character will have a magical misadventure in these mountains. Rip is something of a loveable layabout.  Everyone in the town loves him, except his shrew of a wife.  Rip Van Winkle is one of the classic henpecked husbands in literature.  Can you feel a feminist rant coming?  Let’s start with a quote:

The great error in Rip’s composition was an insuperable aversion to all kinds of profitable labor. It could not be from the want of assiduity or perseverance […] The women of the village, too, used to employ him to run their errands, and to do such little odd jobs as their less obliging husbands would not do for them; in a word, Rip was ready to attend to anybody’s business but his own; but as to doing family duty, and keeping his farm in order, it was impossible.

Imagine with me for a minute that you are a small town wife in the mid-1700s.  You rely on your husband to keep yourself and your children sheltered and fed.  If your husband fails to feed you, you will starve.  There is no divorce.  Now, every day you see your partner in life shuffle off into town with his dog to sit on the bank of the river with his pole all day, but he never brings home a single fish to eat.  He puts up other wives’ barns while your fence falls into disrepair.  Your children run about in rags, because you have no money to clothe them properly and the neighbors laugh at your pathetic, ramshackle farm.  In these circumstances, would you be an affectionate, tender wife?  Would you sing your husband’s praises?  Not even for a second.  You would be a stressed out, angry, exhausted wreck of a person.  You would curse your husband out every day, because every single day that he lolled about not providing for his family, your rage would be renewed in full.  My sympathy lies entirely with the “termagant wife” not with the henpecked husband.  She is stuck in a terrible situation and it’s surprising that she doesn’t just murder him.  Rant over. Well, rant paused.

One day Rip goes off into the Catskills to escape his wife and has a strange encounter with some men wearing old-timey Dutch clothing.  As you probably know, he falls asleep against a tree and wakes up in a strange world.  His beard has famously grown very long.  Unbeknownst to Rip, the American Revolution has come and gone and that lucky dog slept through the whole thing.  Not a bad deal at all for someone of his indolent disposition. Ultimately, Rip Van Winkle is the story of a man who cannot handle the duties and responsibilities in his life. He fails to support his family and he sleeps through the turmoil of war. Loser. However, Rip’s awakening is quite surreal and has captivated the imaginations of readers for hundreds of years.

The Headless Horseman that terrorizes Ichabod Crane in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a similarly enduring character in American literature.  Briefly, large-nosed, lanky schoolmaster Ichabod Crane lives in the town of Sleepy Hollow.  He is self-interested, and superstitious enough to fear the local legend of the Headless Horseman, the ghost of a decapitated Hessian—German soldier hired by the English army.  Ichabod finds himself competing for the hand of rich and voluptuous Katrina.  His rival is a large, handsome local bully.  Tension and terror ensue.

I thoroughly enjoyed both of these stories.  Irving has a mellow, richly descriptive style and a sly, but good natured humor that made me feel like I was hearing a story told by someone’s funny, clever grandpa.  His characters are unique and so well-defined that they have become legends in their own right in American culture.  Here’s an example of how excellent Irving is with characterization and imagery:

The revenue arising from his school was small, and would have been scarcely sufficient to furnish him with daily bread, for he was a huge feeder, and, though lank, had the dilating powers of an anaconda.

Why do we read, if not to encounter phrases like “dilating powers of an anaconda?”  Ichabod Crane is an Epicurean and an opportunist.  Through his eyes we see the town of Sleepy Hollow as an American Elysium, a land of milk and honey bursting with pastoral delights.  The images Irving conjures up when Ichabod goes to dinner at Katrina’s house are out of control.

You might like these two short stories if:

  • you love America.  Not the nation, but the geographical region.
  • you are like me and excellent descriptions of pastoral scenery really rev your engine.
  • you are interested in American folklore.
  • you like some surrealism, mysticism, humor or horror mixed in with your classic literature.

You might not like these two short stories if:

  • you’re foolish.

Final thoughts: Both of these stories are delightful.  If you haven’t read them or haven’t read them in a while, they are definitely worth your time.  Also, you can read them free online.  Rip Van WinkleThe Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is more fun, so if you’re only going to read one, pick that one.

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Frankenstein

Frankenstein

Frankenstein's monster murdering his wife.

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, 1818

I am glad Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein.  Without Frankenstein the book there would be no “Frankenstein” movie, no “Bride of Frankenstein,” no “Young Frankenstein.”  I shudder to think of my childhood without “The Addams Family” in all its formats.  What I’m getting at is this: when Mary Shelley literally dreamed up Frankenstein and his monster she generated concepts that captivated the imagination of other writers.  Those writers took her ideas and transformed them into the mad scientists and their reanimated inventions that have become so ingrained in our culture.  What Mary Shelley did not do when she produced Frankenstein was write a good book.

I want to enjoy Frankenstein.  I really do, but I have so many problems with it. I will enumerate them in detail.

Style

Shelley kills herself with clauses. Her prose is no fun, because she interjects so many clauses that her meaning becomes convoluted. Her odd syntax also interrupts the flow of her sentences to the point that I sometimes got so irritated that I wanted to throw the book across the room. Take for example this abject failure of a sentence:

I returned home, not disappointed, for I have said that I have long considered those authors useless who reprobated; but I returned, not at all the more inclined to recur to those studies in any shape.

Agh! I guess if you read it a few times you begin to make some sense of it, but it doesn’t get any more enjoyable with multiple readings.

There are a few lovely little phrases buried in Frankenstein. I even found this one sentence that is acceptable in its entirety: I had worked hard for two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body.

 

Plausibility and the Monster

If it’s going to bother you that I expect some measure of plausibility from this early 19th century pillar of sci-fi and horror, go ahead and skip this section. Also, spoiler alert, I guess. I am going to divulge much of the plot before the end of this post.

I know that we must suspend our disbelief to enjoy most literature. I am really good at suspending my disbelief. For example, I am absolutely ok with Frankenstein using electricity to give life to inanimate flesh. What Shelley never explains is why he needs to “prepare a frame for it, with all its intricacies of fibres, muscles and veins.” Why doesn’t he just take a recently deceased corpse and electrify that? Well, Jesus brought the dead back to life and we simply can’t go around giving mortals the sacred abilities of Christ, you know? Also, this is horror. If you can think of a reason, however flimsy, for your character to poke around in cemeteries, you better let him do it. If he stitches corpses together, even better.

So far I am willing to accept that Frankenstein steals sinews from corpses to create a human body from scratch, more or less, and brings the body to life using lightning. What I cannot believe is that the creature he made was so jacked up ugly that he could not be tolerated in human society. Victor Frankenstein spends months hunched over his creation, laboring over every minute detail, but fails to notice that his creation is so vile looking that people will start trying to murder it the instant they see it. Really?

Understand that Shelley’s original Frankenstein monster is not the shambling, lovable dunce you know from movies and TV. He is faster, taller and stronger than humans. He learns the English language in a couple of months. And not just “me hungry” either. Frankenstein’s monster uses language far above the comprehension level of the average American adult. (Sorry, average American adult. It’s not you; it’s our political system!) Here is an example of Frankenstein’s verbal abilities: “Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us.” Clause-y, but impressive for someone who used to be corpse parts. So, Victor Frankenstein is capable of turning a junk heap of dead bodies into a super smart super human. The monster has a unique identity.  He is not a pre-existing person brought back to life. Implicitly, Victor Frankenstein built a human brain. He    built    a    human   brain.    But he couldn’t make cheekbones? He couldn’t slap some soft, smooth skin on this guy? If only he had given him a handsome face! Frankenstein’s monster is only a monster because he isn’t good looking.

Victor Frankenstein

Victor Frankenstein’s first big mistake is that he neglects to make his creation pleasing to the eye. Now, let me explain to other ways in which dear Victor is a useless, negligent git. Bear in mind that Shelley frequently cues the reader to pity rather than condemn Victor for his faults. Shelley seems to offer the understanding that Victor’s only error was scientific hubris, not the million other errors he makes throughout the book.

All of Victor Frankenstein’s mistakes:

  • Victor bestows life on his creation without noticing that it is horrifying to look at.
  • Victor is so fixated on bringing his creature to life, that he doesn’t have a plan in place for handling his creature once it is alive. Most of Frankenstein’s problems stem from this initial lack of foresight.
  • He doesn’t tell anyone what he is working on. No scientist has ever completed an experiment, especially a large scale experiment, without consulting other scientists. That’s just not how it works. Also, Victor is working on something potentially dangerous and feels no need to warn anybody that he may be releasing a powerful psychopath on the world.
  • When he sees his horrifying creature brought to life, he passes out of consciousness and into a nervous condition that incapacitates him for MONTHS. The monster is left to just wander freely, doing whatever pops into its brand new brain. He sets this creature loose, without providing for its safety or happiness. It goes on to have a really terrible experience while out in the world and develops some serious rage problems. As you would if you were born a horribly disfigured orphan that no one loved.
  • When Victor finally comes to, he doesn’t tell anyone what he has done.  He doesn’t try to find his monster.
  • The monster murders Victor’s little brother. An innocent young woman is suspected of the crime. Victor thinks that no one will believe him if he tells them about his monster. Instead of trying to make them believe, he just lets them execute that poor lady.  Come on! That has to rank among the shittiest things that a literary character has ever done.
  • The monster murders pretty much everyone else in his family. Instead of fighting back, Victor has more nervous fits. Just loses consciousness for extended periods of time, exactly like the storied heroes of lore. Precisely the kind of thing Hercules or Sir Lancelot would do when troubled.
  • The monster asks Victor to create a mate for him. Victor refuses. I won’t say that he absolutely should have created another “monster,” but this is an example of his continued rejection of his responsibility to provide a reasonable life for his creation.
  • He’s oblivious to the very clear indication that the monster plans on killing Victor’s bride on their wedding night.

I could keep going, but I think I covered the most important parts. I am not a fan of Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein. I get the feeling that she wants me to admire him, but I think he’s an ineffectual, reprehensible dummy. By abdicating responsibility for his actions, he unleashes a maelstrom of tragedy on anyone around him.

You might like Frankenstein if:

  • you are writing a thesis on the origin of genre literature.

You might not like Frankenstein if:

  • See above.

Final thougts: I am going to come right out and say it: Mary Shelley made it into the canon based on the strength of other artists. Without her husband she probably wouldn’t have been published in the first place. Without “Frankenstein” the movie, Frankenstein the book would be long forgotten. That’s just my opinion, man.

Persuasion

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Persuasion, Jane Austen, 1818

Here it is, the last Jane Austen novel on the list.  Persuasion is the last book that Jane Austen wrote.  It was published posthumously very shortly after her death at age 41.  Some scholars consider it her most autobiographical book, because the love interest is a sailor, just like Jane’s real life love interest.  Our leading lady, Anne Elliot, is the younger daughter of an aristocrat who possesses more land and ostentatious pride than sense.  Anne, however, is a mellow, obedient, sensible young woman who tries to rein in her father and sister’s excessive spending. She fails because those swine don’t appreciate her pearls of wisdom or her pearlescent personality for that matter.  Anne is mortified by her relation’s lack of grace.  They are imperious and awkward socially, and their extreme sense of entitlement prevents them from doing anything to prevent their financial ruin.  Only Lady Russel, the bosom companion of Anne’s deceased mother, recognizes Anne’s true value.

Persuasion holds no surprises for the Jane Austen fan.  It contains the typical Austen elements:

  • the frivolous relatives of Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park paired with an obedient, sensible, long-suffering daughter; Jane and Fanny respectively and Elinor from Sense and Sensibility.
  •  the silly, flirtatious, social-climbing rivals of S+S, P+P and Mansfield.
  • the disposal of said rivals in unexpected marriages.
  • the delayed romance of every Austen novel except Northanger Abbey.
  • the chronic misunderstanding between lovers caused by social conventions that require women in particular to be extremely reserved.
  • a moral about the consequences of abstract elements of human nature.

The abstract element in question is persuasion or being persuadable.  At a tender age, Anne allows Lady Russel and her father to dissuade her from marrying Captain Frank Wentworth, a dashing young sailor.  They object to Wentworth’s lack of name or fortune.  Anne would have married him for love and with hope and faith that he would improve his circumstances by distinguishing himself in the Royal Navy.  He does earn fame and fortune and turns up in Anne’s part of the country again.  Tension ensues.

Anne is a serene character and the tone of Persuasion is correspondingly tranquil.  I found it a bit dull at first.  Austen spends a good while setting up the Elliot family dynamic and describing the personalities found in their neighborhood before the men arrive.  This being said, I was happy with the pacing overall.  The novel has a maturity not found in Austen’s earlier work in terms of tone, material, plot and even character.  Anne is the only Austen heroine past her prime marrying off years.

I suppose I should summarize my feelings about Jane Austen now.  That’s a large unwieldy task, though.  I reviewed all six of her novels on this blog, so if you want my thoughts on her, they are available.  Instead here is my ranking of her books from my favorite to my least favorite:

Pride and Prejudice

Northanger Abbey

Persuasion

Emma

Sense and Sensibility

Mansfield Park

 

You might like Persuasion if:

  • you love Austen.
  • you are ready for a heroine who is out of her teens.
  • you like a maritime setting.

You might not like Persuasion if:

  • you are bored of/by Austen.

Final thoughts: I liked it.

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.