Waverley

Waverley, Sir Walter Scott, 1814

Waverley Sir Walter Scott

Waverley is an odd novel that kind of captured my heart.  Sir Walter Scott was a prominent Scottish poet before he published his first novel anonymously.   It was immediately crazy popular.  Waverley is often called the first historical novel, which I guess it might be, if you choose to ignore Gothic novels.  I suppose you could argue that Gothic novels are their own genre and Waverley launched the historic novel genre.  It certainly is not the first novel with a historical setting.

Scott set his first novel during the Jacobite Revolution.  Briefly, in 1688 England deposed King James II in favor of the much less Catholic King William of Orange.  As you can imagine, not everyone in Great Britain was on board with this decision.  The Scots mostly remained loyal to King James as he was part of the Scottish Stuart dynasty.  In 1745, James II’s grandson, who went by the adorable name Bonnie Prince Charlie, landed in Scotland and made an ill-fated attempt to take back the throne.  Waverley is set during this exciting time.

The main character is Edward Waverley and he is the silliest main character I have encountered so far.  I have so many problems with his personality, but I am smiling while I think about them.  His silliness doesn’t ruin the novel for me; it just makes me laugh.  Edward is a naïve, young English nobleman who joins the King’s army and sets off to Scotland to fight the Jacobites.  The Jacobites were loyal to the House of Stuart.  Apparently, if you were a nobleman in the army at this time, you could just take off whenever you wanted and go visit your noble friends.  Who knew?  Edward goes to visit his uncle’s dear friend the Baron Bradwardine, a Jacobite.  Baron Bradwardine.  Such a great name.

While visiting the honorable Baron, Edward learns about his arrangement with a certain Highland chief.  Get ready for the best name of any literary character ever.  Are you ready?  Fergus Mac Ivor Vich Ian Vohr.  Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay!  Oh, I love him.  I love Fergus Mac Ivor Vich Ian Vohr so much.  He is the chief of Clan Ivor.  As Edward learns, Scottish chieftains were basically mafia bosses.  Baron Bradwardine paid Fergus Mac Ivor a fee for protection from other chieftains.  Basically, if Bradwardine pays up, Mac Ivor wont steal his cows.  If another chieftain steals Bradwardine’s cows, Mac Ivor will fight them and get the cows back or he will go steal cows from one of his enemies and give them to Bradwardine.  When Edward hears about this he thinks exactly what you are thinking right now: “That’s awesome!  I want to go visit this awesome guy.”  So, he sets out into the rugged highlands to pay a visit to the local chiefs.  That is the best idea that Edward has in the course of the book, and the only decision he makes for himself.  Everything else that happens is someone else’s idea.

Edward is quite passive, like a female character from this era of literature.  Also like a female, he constantly needs assistance from men.  Every time he tries something manly, he gets injured or sick and has to be rescued and nursed.  At one point he gets a nasty letter which “filled him with such bitter emotions, that after various attempts to conceal them, he at length threw himself into Mac-Ivor’s arms, and gave vent to tears of shame and indignation.”  Adorable, right?  I would like to fling myself into Mac Ivor’s arms, cuz that guy is manly and effective.  The only emotions he gives vent to are pride and loyalty.  Like a man.  (Ok, I know, reinforcing the gender binary.  Sorry.  Whatever.)

The bromance between Fergus and Edward can only be attributed to opposites attracting.  Fergus is a man of conviction.  He believes in the restoration of the Stuart monarchs SO HARD.  I started to believe in his cause too, that’s how powerful Fergus Mac Ivor Vich Ian Vohr’s convictions are.  Edward, on the other hand, is a freaking turncoat.  Really!  No foolin.  He joins the English army, cuz, whatever, he didn’t have anything better to do.  Then he changes sides, but not because he believes in Mac Ivor’s cause.  He joins the opposing army, because his original army is mean to him.  I am not kidding.  Also, they kind of kick him out.  Then when he is fighting with the highlanders he gets all upset when they try to kill British noblemen (you know, because it doesn’t matter if you kill a commoner, but it’s just a terrible shame to spill blue blood) and tries to save them.  Make up your mind, Edward Waverley!  This may be a result of indoctrination during American history classes, but there is something in me that hates a turncoat.

Anyway, Sir Walter Scott’s style is dense and often dull.  He includes many obscure references that only a highly educated British reader from the early 1800s would get.  Also, he makes the fatal flaw of writing a boring character.  Baron Bradwardine is notorious for telling long, boring stories.  Walter Scott includes many examples of those long, boring stories in Waverley.  I don’t think I need to explain to you why that’s not a good thing to do as a novelist.  Honestly, the book is pretty boring overall and the characters have incomprehensible motivations.  Waverley is basically unmotivated.  I can’t relate to Mac Ivor’s royalism.  It’s completely out of my realm of understanding to want to give up your life to make another man king of somewhere.  Just don’t get it. I do admire Mac Ivor though.   I did enjoy the book, mostly because of the incredibly romantic setting.  I got super excited about the highland Scots.  They have a loyalty to each other that I do understand.

Despite its faults, I actually enjoyed reading Waverley quite a bit.  Scott hides a unique sense of humor within all those extra words he uses.  I got swept away by his romanticized vision of 18th century Scotland.  His descriptions of Clan Mac Ivor in their cave hideout are so vivid that I could smell the damp wool of their kilts.  I never liked the main character even a little, but I fell head over heels for Fergus Mac Ivor Vich Ian Vohr.  Heeheehee.  Fergus Mac Ivor Vich Ian Vohr.  Delightful.

You might like Waverley if:

  • you went to St. John’s College or some other Great Books school and are trying to get your money’s worth out of your education by reading literature that references all those great books.
  • you yearn for tales of old Scotland so fervently that you don’t mind slogging through some incredibly dense prose.

You might not like Waverley if:

  • you have a low tolerance for pretentious literary references. 

 

Final Thoughts: Fergus Mac Ivor Vich Ian Vohr!  That is all.

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Pride and Prejudice

Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen, 1813

Originally, I wasn’t going to reread anything for this project.  However, now it would seem strange to skip over major works of literature in my chronological journey through the canon.  So, I am adding books to the list that I have already read, but I forgot to add Pride and Prejudice until after I read Emma and Mansfield Park.  Hence, my Austen chronology has gotten mixed up and my opinion of Austen got mixed up with it.

Here’s a summary of how I felt as I read the first 4 of 6 Austen novels on my list:

Before: Ugh, so much Austen.

During Sense and Sensibilty: Ugh.  Yuck.  Blergh.

During Mansfield Park: Yawn.  Why does anybody read this stuff?

During Emma: Ok, Austen, I’m not too mad.  Emma is kind of a worthless B, though.

During Pride and Prejudice: OMG, Darcy and Lizzy’s love is more important to me than my own life!  They are the best lovers in literature.  Yay, Austen!


Pride and Prejudice Cosplay

There’s a good reason for P&P being Austen’s most well-read and well-regarded novel.  It is largely absent of the flaws common to her other works.  As I see it, those flaws include excessive length, thoroughly boring characters and conversations, scanty plot and weak characterization.  Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park are the worst offenders.  Pride and Prejudice, however, doesn’t have these problems.  Despite the maxim that authors should show rather than tell, when characters are having a dull conversation, it’s often better for the author to summarize.  In Mansfield Park Austen dedicates 10 pages to a pointless conversation about shrubbery just to show the reader that a certain character is profoundly boring.  In P&P she mercifully tells us that Sir William Lucas and his daughter “had nothing to say that could be worth hearing” and moves on with the story.  That summary made me so happy.  Writer win!

I have probably read this book five times now and each time I find myself more emotionally invested in the lives of the characters.  I wonder how much this has to do with the merit of the book versus the cultural cache these characters have.  Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy transcend their novel of origin.  Am I invested in their love story because I like this book or because I like the BBC miniseries or the film starring Kiera Knightley or because I’m pretty much obsessed with Bridget Jones’s Diary?  Any way you slice it, I really care about their love.  They provide the archetype of the lovers who initially misunderstand and dislike each other, are thrown together by circumstance and grow to have a deep respect and horniness for each other.  By my estimation, 98% of RomComs and romance novels make use of this archetype.  I guess we’re all hoping that the people who dislike us just don’t “get” us and with more time and experience will see how deeply wonderful we are and propose, like, nine times.  Especially if the people that don’t like us happen to be rich and handsome.  The minor characters in Pride and Prejudice are more vivid than in other Austen novels.  The sarcastic, lackadaisical father, the frivolous, inappropriate mother and sisters, and the sycophantic Mr. Collins are literary archetypes in their own right.

The love stories in earlier novels go one of two ways: 1: “Hi, nice to meet you.  You’re hot.  I’m hot.  Our parents are ok with it.  Let’s get married.  I’ll send for the pastor in the morning.” Or 2: “Hey, dummy, let’s elope.”  I think Pride and Prejudice resonates with modern readers, because we want lovers to get to know each other.  We like to see marriages founded on affection.  We want characters to have some experiences together before they tie the knot.  Elizabeth and Darcy do this and it helps the reader feel invested in their romance.

I didn’t like Pride and Prejudice when I read it as a teenager.  Elizabeth Bennet has grit, but you need a decent understanding of the social norms of the early 19th century British aristocracy to appreciate her particular spunkiness.  In the context of earlier novels and when compared to Austen’s other heroines Lizzy is a breath of fresh air that provided me a much needed reprieve from the swooning, confused, inactive ladies of early English literature.  Many people romanticize this era in literature, but in the past I have found it difficult to relate to the concerns and sentiments of Austen’s characters.  With more life experience relating to Austen gets easier.  I have actually spurned a lover for being ill-bred.

You might not like Pride and Prejudice if:

  • Eh hem.  If there’s one thing I’ve come to terms with as an appreciator of English literature, it’s that not liking Pride and Prejudice is not an option.  You will read it and you will like it!  If you find yourself not liking it, revise your thinking.  We, the literati, have decided that there is nothing wrong with this book.  If you don’t like it, there’s something wrong with you.  Bad wrong.
Pride and Prejudice Cosplay

This photoshoot gave me the chance to tell Simone to “Clasp me to your bosom!”

Quote:

“‘I am astonished, my dear,’ said Mrs. Bennet, ‘That you should be so ready to think your own children silly.  If I wished to think slightingly of any body’s children, it should not be of my own however.’”

You might like Pride and Prejudice if:

  • Wait, you haven’t read Pride and Prejudice yet?  That’s crazy.  Borrow a copy from a friend.  Pretty much everyone owns this book.  (My home seems to spawn copies of P+P.  Every time I purge my bookshelf I get rid of two extra copies.)  It’s a quick and delightful read that displays Austen’s unique wit at its best.  Read it now so you can read it again two more times.  It just gets better.

Sense and Sensibility

Sense and Sensibility Jane Austen

Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen, 1811

I have a lot of thoughts about Austen. I won’t lay them all on you today.  I put all five of her novels on the list, so we will get to them over the next few weeks.  I will say that Sense and Sensibility is a brilliant title.  It keys the reader in to the central concept of the novel, the contrast between the two sisters’ reactions to heartbreak, hardship and injured pride.  Elinor’s measured, restrained, self-denying response highlights the selfishness of Marianne’s effusions of grief, wallowing and lack of concern for the effect her emotions have on those around her.

I do appreciate the point that Austen illustrates about being over-emotional or perhaps excessively restrained and I appreciate the way that she makes it.  I think she presents a valuable observation about human nature.  However, I must be missing something when it comes to Jane Austen overall.  I find her a bit dull and considerably spiteful.  I know that other readers love the sharp-witted barbs she slings at her characters.  That’s perfectly valid, but I get weary of her constant enumerations of the character flaws of aristocrats.  Yes, there are people in this world who are frivolous or mean-spirited or unintelligent, but surely Austen knew some admirable people.  Right?  This really boils down to a matter of taste.  Some readers will delight in what I see as tiresome cattiness.

Like all Austen novels the main concern in Sense and Sensibility is who everyone will marry.  Frankly, I don’t really care who they marry.  Recently, I was complaining about this to my best friend who said “but, you were the one who explained to me why that’s so important.”  What did I explain? Deciding who to marry was the only chance a woman had to determine the course of her own life.  Women had few means of accumulating wealth.  So, “making a good match” was their one chance to improve their circumstances; something women can now do throughout their adult lives without getting accused of being mercenary or callous too often.  I think I may have made this point in reference to “Middlemarch” in which George Eliot clearly delineates the causes and consequences of deciding who to marry.  She shows how ill-equipped Dorothea and Rosamund are to make this decision; how ill-suited they are to get along with the husbands that they choose.  Austen does not do this.  The reason I don’t feel invested in the Dashwood’s marital prospects is not that I don’t think marriage is an interesting topic for a book.  I don’t care who they end up with, because the gentlemen in question lack dimension.  I guess I want Elinor to marry Edward, but only because she seems to want to.  I can’t remember a single thing he says from the entire book, but I distinctly remember that he doesn’t do anything until he proposes to Elinor.  Not one thing.  Sorry, Austen fans, but that’s terrible.  She spent so much time establishing exactly how nasty and self-interested Lucy Steele is in her attempts to impede  Elinor’s marriage to Edward, that she failed (yes, FAILED) to give us a reason to root for said marriage.  This is supposed to be a canonically awesome item of literature.  In the 1995 Ang Lee movie they had to add scenes and plot elements to Edward’s character (remember the bit where he sends the atlas to the little sister?), because not even the irrepressibly charming Hugh Grant can make something out of nothing.

That’s enough anti-Austen rhetoric for now.  Next up, Sydney vs. Mansfield Park.  For the record, I do mostly respect Jane Austen as an author.  I just don’t enjoy her as much as everyone else in the world seems to.  Sense and Sensibility with all its imperfections is not a bad first novel and Austen’s later novels improve a bit in some areas.  She gets a bit better about showing rather than telling, for example.  A bit.

Oh wait, one more thing.  SPOILER, BY THE WAY, IF YOU HAVEN’T READ IT DON’T SCROLL PAST THE PICTURE. 

Sense and Sensibility Jane Austen

I am completely not ok with the way Austen disposes of Marianne.  She marries Colonel Brandon because her family wants her to and she feels bad about wearing on their nerves during her long mope over Willoughby?  She grows to love him eventually?  You’ve got to be kidding!  I mean here’s Austen’s explanation of why they wish for a marriage between Marianne and the Colonel:

Precious as was the company of her daughter to her, she desired nothing so much as to give it up to her valued friend; and to see Marianne settled at the mansion-house was equally the wish of Edward in Elinor.  They each felt his sorrows, and their own obligations, and Marianne, by general consent, was to be the reward of all. 

Really?  Really?  Colonel Brandon has been through so much, we should do something nice for him, like, I don’t know, give him our daughter as a prize.  Literally, a consolation prize.   You may want to make the claim that Austen is being ironic and mocking her characters.   However, Colonel Brandon and Marianne end up super happy together and in love, which is how Austen rewards the good decisions of the characters she herself has deemed deserving.  Blerf.

You may like Sense and Sensibility if:

  • you like Jane Austen, generally.

You may not like Sense and Sensibility if:

  • you need action in your novels.  I know some readers like characters to do more than loll about wondering who to marry. 

Final thoughts: I have no final thoughts.  My thoughts on Austen are to be continued. 

 

The Lady of the Lake

The Lady of the Lake

The Lady of the Lake, Sir Walter Scott, 1810

The Lady of the Lake is an epic poem set in medieval Scotland.  Surprisingly, the title is probably not a reference to Arthurian myth.  When I got to this poem on the list, I really thought I was going to have to jump in a lake in the middle of February and hold up a sword.  I would have done it too, but fortunately the titular Lady simply lives near, not in, a lake.

I had a hard time following the plot of this poem, but I’ll do my best to lay out the scenario for you.  A knight is out hunting and gets lost in the mystical Scottish wilderness.  He sees a beautiful maiden (he can tell she’s a maiden, because Scottish maidens at this time braided ribbons into their hair to indicate that they were unwed and. . .unspoilt) paddling a little boat on a lake.  She is wary of him at first, but noble ladies do not allow noble men to go without food and shelter, so she invites him back to her abode.  Don’t worry, there’s an old bard and some other servants there too.

What follows is not so much a love triangle, but a love square with three men competing for the hand of our maiden.  Oh, and hidden identities.  The knight is King James V.  The maiden is Ellen Douglas, the daughter of his former friend and advisor turned enemy.  Roderick Dhu, a bloodthirsty highland chief who has been helping Ellen’s fugitive father, thinks he’s earned her hand in marriage.  However, Ellen only has eyes for Malcolm Graeme, a lithe young whippersnapper in Roderick Dhu’s retinue.

In my opinion, Scott does a poor job of introducing characters.  By the end of the poem, I had a solid grasp of the temperaments of all our main guys and gals, but it was difficult to understand who was who in the beginning.  “The Lady of the Lake” is not my favorite epic poem, but it does have some highlights.  There is an exciting battle scene involving boats sneaking up on a dear little island.  Canto IV describes a very spooky Druidic sacrifice committed by Roderick Dhu’s priest.  That canto is a strong and entertaining bit of poetry worth reading on its own.

Here’s a quote of Ellen Douglas sarcastically explaining why she does not admire Roderick Dhu:

I grant him liberal to bring,

When back by lake and glen they wind

And as in the Lowland leave behind,

Where once some pleasant hamlet stood,

A mass of ashes slaked with blood.

 

You might like this poem if:

  • you are one of those Scots who is obsessed with romanticized Scotland of yore.

You might not like this poem if:

  • following narratives in poetic form is difficult for you.

 

Final thoughts: “The Lady of the Lake” is not the greatest poem in the English language, but it’s an enjoyable romantic vision of medieval Scotland.

Belinda

Lady Delacour before the masquerade.

Lady Delacour before the masquerade.

Belinda, Maria Edgeworth, 1801

I want to wake Maria Edgeworth from the dead so I can high five her for writing Belinda.  That’s how much I love this book.  After months of slogging through the dry, dense and dull literature of the 1700s, my faith in novels has been restored!  I truly enjoyed reading this book.  This is the first novel on the list that is more entertaining than edifying.  Forgive me, but if I must learn something from a novel, I prefer a tiny kernel of knowledge or understanding swimming in a sea of delightful characters, thrilling plot, well-crafted prose and/or hilarity.

Let me tell you a little bit about this book.  Belinda is a young girl in her first London season.  She is pretty and pure of heart.  I know, I know, I have been complaining about this character prototype for months.  The title character is not what makes this book great.  Lil’ Belinda is staying with Lady Delacour, a fashionable woman who knows all sorts of potential husbands.  Lady Delacour is a complicated and relatable character with more than the 1-3 personality traits allowed to characters in earlier novels.  She is by far the most active and opinionated female character I have encountered on the Book List so far.  One of the most admirable traits for a lady in this era was “simplicity” meaning that she had no hidden designs behind her actions.  Well, Lady Delacour has all kinds of hidden designs.  She has secrets and schemes.  Belinda is not actually about Belinda, but about the rise, fall and redemption of Lady Delacour.

The male lead is also fascinating.  I know Jane Austen fans are numerous and fierce, but I am going to go ahead and compare her disfavorably to Maria Edgeworth now.  I have a hard time feeling invested in the outcome of a Jane Austen novel.  Austen tells instead of showing.  She describes a character’s traits, but we don’t get to see those traits in action much.  For example, why am I supposed to be happy about Elinor’s marriage in Sense and Sensibility?  What do I know about her husband?  Almost nothing.  Elinor’s lover does not complete a single action in the course of the novel until he proposes.  So, why on earth would I be rooting for their love?  Belinda’s lover does all kinds of stuff.  He gets in and out of trouble.  He forms friendships.  He demonstrates over and over that he is better than everyone at every possible competition, but he still has flaws.  He hatches a mind-bogglingly hair-brained scheme that I will not give away right now, because at least one person (Simone) will read this book after reading this review.  I love him and I want him to be happy, because I am invested in him as a character.

The plot of this novel kicks the pants off all preceding novels in English.  ALL OF THEM.  I actually called out in alarm during the climactic scenes.  I hope you Austenites can forgive me for the thoughts above, because I think you would really like this book.  Edgeworth was a major influence on Austen and I find their style quite similar in ways.  Check out this first paragraph:

Mrs. Stanhope, a well-bred woman, accomplished in that branch of knowledge which is called the art of rising in the world, had, with but a small fortune, contrived to live in the highest company.  She prided herself upon having established half a dozen nieces most happily, that is to say, upon having married them to men of fortunes far superior to their own.  One niece still remained unmarried—Belinda Portman—of whom she was determined to get rid with all convenient expedition.  Belinda was handsome, graceful, sprightly, and highly accomplished; her aunt had endeavored to teach her that a young lady’s chief business is to please in society, that all her charms and accomplishments should be invariably subservient to one grand object—establishing herself in the world.

Boom!  Sounds Austen-y, right?  We know so much about the situation and disposition of these two characters already, huh?  You want to read the next paragraph, don’t you?  I know you do.  Here it is:

Mrs. Stanhope did not find Belinda such a docile pupil as her other nieces, for she had been educated chiefly in the country; she had early been inspired with a taste for domestic pleasures; she was fond of reading and disposed to conduct herself with prudence and integrity.  Her character, however, was yet to be developed by circumstance. 

OMG, she likes reading?  Me too!  What is going to happen to her undeveloped character when her prudence and integrity are tested by her aunt’s pressure to please society and marry rich?  Read Belinda to find out!

I can’t get over how much I love this book.  Two more points and I’ll stop raving.  Edgeworth uses doubling really well, which is a device well-loved by Russian authors in which characters have doppelgangers who represent alternate fates.  Actually, the more I think about it, Edgeworth doesn’t exactly use doubles.  You could say that Lady Percival and Harriet Freke are doubles for Lady Delacour, but that would make Lady Delacour and Lady Percival doubles for Belinda.  (Yeah, I know “triples” would be more accurate.  Whatever.)  More precisely, Edgeworth creates a web of characters that represent the possible life choices for women during this era.  She uses this web to illustrate and analyze the influences, traits and decisions that make a woman into either a domestic goddess or a dissipated lady of fashion.

I should note that Belinda was controversial for depicting an interracial marriage.  This was edited out of later versions.  Edgeworth’s treatment of race is complicated.  The interracial marriage is progressive, but there’s a clownish African servant minor character and some not so progressive minor Jewish characters too.  A Jewish fan wrote to Edgeworth complaining about her depiction of Jews and Edgeworth responded by writing Harrington, which has the first sympathetic Jewish character in English literature.  So. . .yeah.

You might like Belinda if:

  • you like George Elliot. 
  • you like Jane Austen.
  • you like British humor.

You might not like Belinda if:

  • you are not into classic literature at all.  In which case, you are probably not reading this sentence. 

Final thoughts: I am stumped as to why I was forced to read Pride and Prejudice twice in school, but no one even told me about Maria Edgeworth.  This book is wonderful.  You should read it.

Lyrical Ballads

Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner

Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1798

Notable for:

  • initiating the Romantic Era in literature. 
  • containing the first known Public Service Announcement about albatross curses.

In 1798 Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth wanted to go on a walking tour of the Lake District in northern England.  Their conversation went something like this:

Wordsworth: Would you like to go on vacation?

Coleridge: Yes, but I haven’t any money.

Wordsworth: Hmm.  Shall we write some poems?

Coleridge: That will surely provide the necessary funds.

So they each wrote some poems and published a little volume called Lyrical Ballads.  The publication funded their walking tour and launched a new era in English literature.  Jealous?  Are you wishing you were a Romantic poet and this was your life?  I wish that.  Almost every day.

IMG_0365

In 1800 Wordsworth produced a second, highly modified, version of Lyrical Ballads.  He removed the best poem in the original volume, Coleridge’s “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.”  I read both versions.  “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” is a ballad about a sailor who shoots an albatross. Why? Why!  Killing the bird dooms the entire crew.  Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that they spend some time undead and the mariner must spend eternity spreading the message “Did you know that the gods love the albatross?  Well they do, so don’t mess with them!”  It is creepy and wonderful and one of my favorite poems.

The majority of the remaining poems are by Wordsworth.  It took me a long time to get through this volume, because I have a limited attention span for Wordsworth.  He was dedicated to making poetry more accessible to the Joe Plumbers of his time by using simpler language than his predecessors with their predilection for ornate style, classical references and sporadic Middle English phrases.  Ironically, I don’t find Wordsworth all that relatable.  In poems such as “The Female Vagrant,” “The Complaint of a forsaken Indian Woman” and “Song for the wandering Jew” Wordsworth writes from the perspective of common people, but ends up romanticizing and dramatizing their experiences so thoroughly that the poems feel disingenuous and bizarre. I mentioned before that I think his attempts to emulate Robert Burns failed.   Wordworth wanted to write about being a poor farmer, but he was not a poor farmer so his odes to poverty and rural living lack Burns’ sincerity and vitality.  Wordsworth is much better when he writes about his own experiences, as in “Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey.”  You can probably tell that good old WW is not my favorite Romantic poet (Keats! Coleridge!), but I found myself enjoying “Tintern Abbey” immensely.  I was actually inspired by the sentiment contained in the poem, and I can definitely relate to Wordsworth’s description of himself recalling scenes of natural beauty to ease his mind whilst in the city.  I do that.

C

You may like Lyrical Ballads if:

  • you love Romantic poetry.
  • you are interested in the origin of the Romantic movement.

You may not like Lyrical Ballads if:

  • you are not a huge fan of William Wordsworth.

Final Thoughts: This is an incredibly important work in the history of English literature.  If you’re a literature nerd, you should read it.  If you’re more casual in your poetry reading, you would probably prefer selected poems by these two authors.

The Mysteries of Udolpho

Mysteries of Udolpho

The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe, 1794

Notable for:

  • providing the prototype for the Gothic novel.
  • influencing later authors including Jane Austen and Edgar Allan Poe.

I am the only one who will suffer if I turn out to be wrong about this, so I’m gonna go ahead and say it: this is the worst piece of literature on the Book List.  This has to be the nadir of my journey through the English canon.  I just don’t understand how Poe and Austen could have taken this as an influence and gone on to write anything worthwhile.  It’s so bad in so many ways! Ughghghghgh.

Radcliffe does one thing (only) well.  Her descriptions of European scenery are lovely.  As a young reader I was always tempted to skip over descriptive passages.  Who cares about the sunset; get back to the plot.  As a mature reader, I could read that stuff all day.  Tell me more about the shadows on the mountains!  Dear author, please continue surveying the shrubs that grow in the region you chose for the setting of your novel.  If you don’t have infinite patience and appreciation for details of landscape, there is nothing for you in The Mysteries of Udolpho.  Everything else sucks.  Plot, pacing, characterization all suck.  So much.

I just tried to summarize the plot for you, but I got too filled with rage.  These bullet points on why I hate this book will have to suffice:

  • Plot movement is stiflingly, exhaustingly slow.  So many scenes and plot lines could be eliminated with no effect on the overall story.
  • The protagonist, Emily St. Aubert sucks so much.  Every time something happens to her she faints.  Which means that every scene takes three to a billion times longer than necessary, because Radcliffe pauses the action every few sentences to inform the reader that Emily has yet again fainted and been revived.  Here’s an example of how a scene in this book might go:

Random Character: I have bad news.

Emily: *Swoons.  Revives*

RC: Your father has died.

Emily: *Swoons.  Revives*

RC: He asked you to burn all of his journals.

Emily: *Swoons.  Revives*

RC: He asked to be buried in the monastery nearby.

Emily: *Swoons.  Revives*

  • Swooning is not an acceptable response to danger.  Very ineffective.  This would be a better story if the first time Emily swoons she gets eaten by a wolf.
  • Radcliffe’s idea of mystery and suspense is to withhold all of the interesting information until the last 20 of 600 pages.  For example, Emily sees something really scary and of course passes out.  Radcliffe waits another 300 pages to explain what she saw.  That would an acceptable literary device if those 300 pages contained anything else compelling enough to hold the reader’s interest.  But they don’t.
  • Characterization is weak.  Radcliffe just tells you that the villain, Montoni, has a mean look in his eye.  She does nothing else to make him seem scary.  He doesn’t actually do anything too frightening until about page 400.  Yet, Emily swoons 50 times from fear of him before page 400.
  • All the supernatural phenomena are explained in the end.  Just like an episode of “Scooby Doo,” the ghosts turn out to be dudes in costumes.  I like my ghosts to be scary ass ghosts, not just regular guys wearing cloaks.  I liked “Scooby Doo” as a kid, but I always hoped that just once the swamp monster wouldn’t take of his scales and confess to being a local businessman.
  • I have to stop.  This book fails in many other ways, but I’m losing interest so you must be too.

Final thoughts: Don’t read it.