Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Manybooks.net, Miles Franklin, pre-20th Century classic, Publisher, Setting

‘My Brilliant Career’ by Miles Franklin

My-Brilliant-Career

Fiction – Kindle edition; Manybooks.net; 252 pages; 2004.

Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin (1879-1954) was an Australian feminist and writer. If her name sounds familiar it’s because she bequeathed her estate to set up the prestigious Miles Franklin Literary Award, which is given to a novel of  “the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases” every year.

Her novel, My Brilliant Career, first published in 1901, is widely regarded as a fully fledged Australian classic.

Headstrong teenager

The book tells the story of a headstrong teenage girl, Sybylla Melvyn, growing up in rural Australia in the 1890s. She shuns the conventions of her time and strives to become a woman of independent means. Her greatest dream is to become a writer, but not everything goes her way.

The eldest child of a large family struggling to make ends meet, she is sent away to live with her aunt and maternal grandmother. It is here that she first meets Harold Beecham, a wealthy young pastoralist, who proposes to her. But Sybilla, who believes she is ugly and undeserving of a man’s attentions, is reluctant to accept his hand in marriage.

Then life takes a turn for the worst, when she is sent away to work as a governess in order to pay off one of her father’s gambling debts. She finds this life exceedingly dull and monotonous, and falls into a serious depression. When Harold reappears on the scene, Sybilla is confronted with a dilemma: marry him and live a life of comfort, or fulfil her “fixed determination to write a book — nothing less than a book”.

Hiding her brains

Reading My Brilliant Career, I was struck by how angry I became on Sybilla’s behalf, forced to live her life as second fiddle to a man simply because of her gender. She is clearly intelligent and full of potential, but feels she has to hide her brains for fear of being misunderstood and shunned by society. Even her mother denies her the chance to pursue a career of her own, telling her she’s “a very useless girl for your age”.

And her grandmother, who is more kindly and more forgiving of Sybilla’s tom-boyish ways, believes her only goal is to get married:

My grandmother is one of the good old school, who believed that a girl’s only proper sphere in life was marriage; so, knowing her sentiments, her purpose to get me married neither surprised nor annoyed me. But I was plain. Ah, bosh! Oh! Ah! I cannot express what kind of a feeling that fact gave me. It sank into my heart and cut like a cruel jagged knife–not because it would be a drawback to me in the marriage line, for I had an antipathy to the very thought of marriage. Marriage to me appeared the most horribly tied-down and unfair-to-women existence going. It would be from fair to middling if there was love; but I laughed at the idea of love, and determined never, never, never to marry.

While Sybilla clearly understand’s society’s double standards (she makes reference to men being allowed to sow their wild oats while women must remain chaste and “proper”), there’s not much she can do about it except be true to her own self: determined to find happiness in work and a career rather than in someone of the opposite sex.

A romantic tale

Despite this emphasis on feminist values, the book does read very much like a classic romance — will she or won’t she agree to marry Beecham, will he or won’t he find her too difficult and pursue someone else? (Think an Australian version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.)

And it’s written in an over-wrought style, mirroring the scattered, often unformed, thoughts of a rebellious teenager, who is quick to anger and make judgements on her seniors. Sometimes it feels a bit repetitive and “flabby”, and Sybilla isn’t always easy to like, but it provides an important insight into the boom-and-bust lifestyle of life on the land and the ways in which women were expected to fall into line.

Fans of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre will find a lot to like here. Like that classic English novel, My Brilliant Career celebrates the idea that everyone should be valued for simply who they are, not what they are or how much money they have in the bank. It’s highly emotive, frank and forthright. Sometimes it’s melodramatic, but as a glimpse of life in the bush — where danger and beauty often go hand-in-hand — it’s a hugely evocative read.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Manybooks.net, pre-20th Century classic, Publisher, Setting, Thomas Hardy

‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ by Thomas Hardy

Mayor-of-Casterbridge

Fiction – Kindle edition; Public Domain Books; 400 pages; 1994.

When it comes to pre-20th century classics, Thomas Hardy is my man. Years before I started this blog I read and loved Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. More recently I very much enjoyed A Mere Interlude, published as part of Penguin’s Great Loves collection. Now I can safely add The Mayor of Casterbridge to my list of affections.

The novel, first published in 1886, is a sweeping drama about the life and death of a poor hay trusser, Michael Henchard, who rises to become a rich grain merchant and well respected mayor in the fictional town of Casterbridge before falling into poverty once again.

Henchard is a fascinating character, deeply flawed, who looks at the world in a glass-half-full kind of way. He’s besieged by petty jealousies and makes terribly rash decisions, which ultimately bring about his downfall. He also has a foul temper that he finds difficult to control.

The book’s opening gives us a pretty good picture of what this character is really like. He gets drunk and then sells his wife, Susan, and their young daughter to a passing sailor. Once they are gone and he sobers up, Henchard realises the horrible deed he has done. Full of remorse, he takes himself to the nearest church and makes a personal oath that he will never touch a drop of alcohol for 21 years, which is as many years as he has lived.

The story then jumps ahead by 19 years, and when we meet Henchard again he has reinvented himself as a grain merchant with a strong work ethic and financial acumen. Indeed, he’s rolling in money and is so busy that he hires a manager, a young Scotsman called Donald Farfrae, to help strengthen and build up his empire.

Henchard is also mayor of the town, and while he’s generally not well liked, the locals do respect him for the hard work he does on their behalf. What they don’t realise is his secret history, and they simply assume he is a widower. Henchard never clarifies the situation — and why should he? Life is going swimmingly and he’s learnt from his mistake — or has he?

When his wife and grown daughter reappear on the scene you know there is trouble up ahead. And when Henchard’s vow of sobriety comes to an end, you also know that his reacquaintence with alcohol is not going to go down well.

I’m not going to say anything else about the plot, except it’s a jolly good one, full of ups and downs and family feuds, business rivalries and romantic heartache. The characterisation is, as usual, superb, and despite Henchard’s incredible selfishness and mean-spirited nature, you can’t help but feel for him. Much of the time I wanted to reach into the pages of this book, grab him by the scruff of the neck and tell him to stop being so bloody stupid and impulsive!

At 400 pages, this is not a short book. But its epic scope and its fast-paced narrative makes it a real page turner. And it has certainly confirmed Thomas Hardy as my favourite 19th Century writer.

1001 books, Author, Book review, Charlotte Brontë, England, Fiction, literary fiction, pre-20th Century classic, Publisher, Setting

‘Jane Eyre’ by Charlotte Brontë

Jane-Eyre

Fiction – Kindle edition; Optimized for Kindle; 624 pages; 2009.

I might have read hundreds of modern and contemporary novels in my time, but when it comes to pre-20th century classics I am woefully un-educated.

Which is why I was slightly wary about reading Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel Jane Eyre. Surely anything published in 1847 was going to be too over-written for my modern eyes  and at more than 600 pages a real test of my endurance? Oh, how wrong one can be!

I should have known it would be a super read. So many people have recommended it to me in the past, and Simon Savidge’s review last year made me pop it on the wishlist straight away. But I didn’t get around to reading it until Christmas, when looking for something substantial to read I downloaded a 77-pence version for my Kindle.

I devoured the entire book in just two days! Turns out Miss Brontë does a mean line in cliff-hangers at the end of chapters, which meant I kept turning the pages (or clicking the turn button on my e-reader) to see what happened next. Before I knew it I had read 20 per cent of the novel and I’d only meant to read a few pages to see if I liked the style!

For those who haven’t read Jane Eyre (are there any of you out there?), it’s billed as a kind of romance, but it is really much, much more than that.

Essentially it’s the story of one woman’s life, from the age of 10 to the time of her marriage nine years later. The narrative is told through Jane’s eyes, which means you get to experience a first-hand account of her many privations and heartaches. And this also means you want to cheer her on, help her through the rough patches and give her the strength to carry on against the odds.

When the story opens, Jane is an orphan living in the care of her cruel aunt. She is being constantly bullied by her older cousin, John, and life is miserable.

Eventually she is sent away to commence her education at Lowood School, a boarding school for poor girls. Here she is forgotten — or should I say abandoned — by her family, but in the long run it doesn’t matter: Jane learns to stand on her own two feet.

She then takes a job as a governess at Thornfield Hall, where she instructs a French-born orphan in the care of the landlord Edward Rochester, an ugly man with a mysterious past and a penchant for travel. When Jane finds herself becoming increasingly attracted to Rochester, you wonder where all this is going to lead… (Please, don’t let me down with a traditional romance, I kept thinking!)

But, to cut an awfully long story short, Jane’s life takes an unexpected twist and by the last page you feel as if she’s continuing to live her life on her own terms without compromising her values or beliefs.

In its depiction of a Cinderella-like rags to riches rise, Jane Eyre has the feel and flavour of a much-loved fairytale. Ditto for the morality at its heart, in which good always overcomes evil.

But as a “morality tale” Jane Eyre is slightly more sophisticated than that. Indeed, it seems to be a story before its time, because it is a remarkable account of one woman’s fight (and right) to be seen on equal terms with men, to live the kind of life she wishes to lead and not what society deems is “correct”. How I wished I’d read this book as a teenager; it might have made me feel less self-conscious about forging my own path and daring to be different.

And while there were times when the prose felt too verbose and I wanted to tighten up some of the chapters, I got so lost in the story I turned off my editor’s brain and just went with the flow. I can’t remember the last time I got so caught up in a good old-fashioned epic like this one!

Jane Eyre is a story about recognising and appreciating value in the individual, regardless of gender or circumstance. No wonder it has attained classic status and remains such a much-loved novel more than 150 years since it was first published.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Henry Handel Richardson, literary fiction, pre-20th Century classic, Project Gutenberg, Publisher, Setting

‘The Getting of Wisdom’ by Henry Handel Richardson

Getting-of-wisdom

Fiction – Kindle edition; Project Gutenberg; 209 pages; 1910.

Henry Handel Richardson was the pen name of Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson, an Australian author who was born in 1870. The Getting of Wisdom, her second novel, is probably her most famous book, and a century later it remains in print.

Its enduring popularity is probably due to the universal story it recounts: an unworldly young girl from the country goes to boarding school in the city and tries desperately to fit in — with mixed results.

The story is supposedly semi-autobiographical — aren’t they all? — and is based on Richardson’s own experiences at the prestigious Presbyterian Ladies’ College in Melbourne, where The Getting of Wisdom is set.

The protagonist, Laura Tweedle Rambotham, is a likable character but she is completely hapless and, at times, annoyingly unable to learn from her mistakes. She is 12 years old when she is sent to school from her rural backwater home.

She’s an outsider as soon as she arrives, because most of her fellow students come from well-off backgrounds. Laura, by comparison, comes from a one-parent family (her father, a barrister, has died) and her mother makes ends meet by taking in embroidery and other sewing-related jobs.

Much of the story revolves around Laura’s painful attempts to fit in. Although she is accepted socially by her peers, it is a constant balancing act to keep it going without anyone detecting the flaws in her background.

When, in “a moment of weakness, she gratuitously gave away the secret that Mother supported her family by the work of her hands”, her standing within the school community begins to slide.

Work in itself was bad enough — how greatly to be envied were those whose fathers did nothing more active than live on their money! But the additional circumstance of Mother being a woman made things ten times worse: ladies did not work; someone always left them enough to live on, and if he didn’t, well, then he, too, shared the ignominy. So Laura went in fear and trembling lest the truth should come to light.

As much as I enjoyed this novel, I did begin to wonder what the point of it was. In most coming of age stories the protagonist goes through some kind of “test” and emerges all the stronger for it, but in The Getting of Wisdom Laura merely gets sucked into the cruel games of her peers. Instead of standing up to them — defying them — she lowers herself to their standards and offers them what they want, even if that means she has to lie or carry on a charade to do so.

And by the end of the story, as Laura gets ready to leave school for good, she feels that she still doesn’t fit in:

She went out from school with the uncomfortable sense of being a square peg, which fitted into none of the round holes of her world; the wisdom she had got, the experience she was richer by, had, in the process of equipping her for life, merely seemed to disclose her unfitness.

Despite this failing, the book is an evocative read, particularly of another time and place. It has a distinctive Australian feel — I loved the descriptions of Laura’s holidays on the beach and her excursions into the city — which ensures its place in the Australian literary canon.

And I rather suspect girls in their early teens would enjoy it, seeing as it is filled with callous, often bitchy, characters with which every girl has to contend when she is growing up. There’s also plenty about what it is like to negotiate the unfamiliar world of boys when you don’t quite know what is expected of you…

Author, Book review, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Fiction, pre-20th Century classic, Project Gutenberg, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘The Gates Between’ by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

GatesBetween

Fiction – Kindle edition; Project Gutenberg; 220 pages; 1887.

Do you ever wonder what on earth possessed you to buy or borrow a particular book? I have absolutely no memory of even downloading this one — a freebie from manybooks.net — before I left London in mid-November.

So when I started reading it earlier in the week in the hope it might cure my fictional reading slump, I hadn’t a clue what it was about (one of the most annoying things about eBooks is the lack of blurbs), but I liked the sound of the title and the author’s double-barrelled surname.

According to Wikipedia, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1844-1911) was an American author best known for her three Spiritualist novels, The Gates Ajar, Between the Gates and Beyond the Gates.

Alas, I could not find any information about Between the Gates apart from a small description on Encyclopedia.com which described it as “the afterlife adventures of an agnostic doctor”. I rather suspect that if I’d known that at the outset I would not have read this book. But however unappealing a story with Christian overtones might sound to me, I admit that once I’d begun reading the opening chapters I was hooked.

The story is told from the point-of-view of a 45-year-old doctor, Esmerald Thorne, who is the bastion of the small-town medical community in which he resides. His patients love him and he loves his patients. But if you read between the lines you also get to see that he might have a bit of a “god complex”, because he is a man of science who thinks himself slightly superior to the mere mortals he treats.

Of course, with hindsight, and knowing that the book has a strong religious message to impart, it’s clear that Stuart Phelps wants to cut her doctor character down a peg or two.

She gives him a more human side by having him fall desperately in love with Helen, a woman 12 years his junior. (“My accident held me a prisoner for six weeks. But my love put me in chains in six minutes.”) And after a short courtship the pair marry and later become parents to a son. Dr Thorne describes himself as being “chloroformed with joy”.

Then the cracks in their marriage begin to appear. Dr Thorne is an irritable man and he begins to find Helen irritating. He cannot understand why she frets so much about their poorly son. He dismisses the baby’s constant crying as nothing more than teething problems.

SPOILER ALERT

And then one day, after a tiff with his wife, he storms out and is involved in a fatal horse and carriage accident.

I had been dead twelve hours before I found out.

The rest of the book revolves around Dr Thorne coming to terms with his new life in the “afterlife”. He begins to realise that he might have been a good human doing good things in the human world, but his lack of faith has left him slightly diminished in the world of the dead. He doesn’t quite fit in and struggles to comprehend that all his success counts for nothing in this new place.

Good luck, good looks, good nerves, a good income, an enviable reputation for professional skill, personal popularity, and private happiness — these things had struck me as so wholesome that they must be admirable. […] Now it was as if, in the act or fact of dying, I had moved a step or two, and looked over the edge of the bright shield.

Further on Dr Thorne meets a young boy in the afterlife and is devastated to discover that it is, in fact, the son he insisted was healthy. Now he begins to learn about humility — and fatherhood, and what it is like to live a woman’s life in which child-rearing and domesticity is the central focus.

I have to admit that the moral and religious lessons do wear thin very quickly — and that they are so bleeding obvious as to be cringe-worthy. However, I suspect the ideas presented here were new and exciting at the time of publication, and maybe even 21st century Christians and theologians will find much more to appreciate in The Gates Between than this somewhat cynical, atheist reviewer!

But the book is easy to read — provided you can forgive Stuart Phelps’ tendency towards breathless gushing and composing entire paragraphs out of questions — and it provided a decidedly different flavour to my usual reading material. Whether it got me out of my reading slump remains to be seen.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, historical fiction, Penguin Classic, pre-20th Century classic, Publisher, Setting, Thomas Hardy

‘A Mere Interlude’ by Thomas Hardy

MereInterlude

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Classics; 125 pages; 2007.

Ahh, Thomas Hardy, how I love thee! It has been far too long since I last read anything by you. I think it was probably Jude the Obscure, way back in 1996, after I had seen the heartbreaking Michael Winterbottom film Jude. But I also have fond memories of Tess of the d’Urbervilles read during my final year at school as part of my HSC (Higher School Certificate) back in 1987.

More recently, I have seen the church you helped to restore in north-eastern Cornwall and the Hardy Tree in St Pancras Old Church, a short walk from King’s Cross tube station, so I have to confess that part of me is intrigued by your life (and loves). I tend to feel guilty that I have not read more of your work, and so when I discovered A Mere Interlude in Penguin’s Great Loves collection I had a chance to rectify this a little.

I am so glad I read this slim volume — as a short story writer you are so very skilled. All three stories presented here — A Mere Interlude, An Imaginative Woman and The Withered Arm — are so very tragic. Perhaps this is why Penguin has billed this particular book as “love can be heartbreaking”.

What is it that happened in your life that allowed you to render the female heart so realistically?

In the first story I could feel the pain of the protagonist, Baptista, who is travelling home to marry her parents’ old neighbour. Enroute she bumps into her long lost lover and elopes with him. But then tragedy strikes and he dies unexpectedly. Under any circumstances this would be devastating, but Baptista has to pick herself up, dust herself off and return home as if nothing has happened. She marries the old man she has been betrothed to and then spends an inordinate amount of time worrying that someone somewhere will discover her tragic secret…

The second story is as equally disturbing, in that a young married woman falls in love with a poet she has never met. Pretending to be a male poet, she strikes up a correspondence with her heart’s desire, only to discover this form of communication is no substitute for the real thing. She tries to engineer a meeting with him, but tragedy strikes before the pair can meet face to face.

The third and final story is the closest thing to a Gothic horror story that I have read for a long time. When a local farmer marries a young woman, one of the older milkmaids feels she has been usurped. Then the milkmaid has a disturbing and incredibly realistic dream in which she grabs the arm of the farmer’s wife and “whirled it backwards to the floor” so violently that she awakes in a cold sweat. On the morning after the milkmaid’s dream the farmer’s wife discovers strange and painful marks on her arm which will not go away. Over the course of time her limb begins to slowly wither away and there seems little that can be done to stop this, until she visits a local witchdoctor who suggests a rather creepy solution…

Thank-you, Mr Hardy, for these truly memorable stories that got stuck in my brain and will no doubt stay there for a long, long time to come. I enjoyed reading them and found myself admiring — not for the first time — your talent, your skill and your imagination.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Ivan Turgenev, literary fiction, Penguin Classic, pre-20th Century classic, Publisher, Russia, Setting

‘First Love’ by Ivan Turgenev

FirstLove

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Classics; 102 pages; 2007. Translated from the Russian by Isaiah Berlin.

First Love is Russian writer Ivan Turgenev’s most famous novella. First published in 1860, it has been beautifully repackaged and republished as part of Penguin’s Great Love series.

At just over 100 pages, this is a book that can quickly be read in one sitting (I achieved it via two 20-minute train journeys), although its brevity should not be mistaken for shallowness. First Love is exactly what the title suggests: a man looks back on his first love. “I was sixteen at the time,” he writes. “It happened in the summer of 1833.”

His name is Vladimir Petrovich. He is 40 now, but he recalls the time he stayed in a holiday house – “a wooden building with pillars and two small, low lodges” — in the country with his parents. He would spend his days studying, horse riding and strolling through the Neskootchny Park, but when he notices a “tall, slender girl in a striped pink dress with a white kerchief on her head” in the garden next door he is immediately smitten.

[…] there was in the girl’s movements (I saw her in profile) something so enchanting, imperious and caressing, so mocking and charming, that I nearly cried out with wonder and delight. […] My rifle slipped to the grass; I forgot everything: my eyes devoured the graceful figure, the lovely neck, the beautiful arms, the slightly dishevelled fair hair under the white kerchief –- and the half-closed perceptive eyes, the lashes, the soft cheek beneath them…

Eventually he gets to meet the young woman, Princess Zasyekin, who is five years his senior, and
falls into her circle of friends –- a quintet of suitors comprising a count, doctor, poet, captain and soldier. The suitors belittle him, but he is too in love with the princess to care.

For whole days I did nothing but think intensely about her. I pined away, but her presence brought me no relief. I was jealous and felt conscious of my worthlessness. I was stupidly sulky, and stupidly abject; yet an irrestible force drew me towards her, and it was always with an involuntary shiver of happiness that I went through the door of her room.

Despite the princess’s almost penniless existence — her father had gambled all their property away and then scandalously married the daughter of a minor official — Vladimir continues to fawn at her feet, knowing full well she is in love with someone else.

As a reader I found it almost unbearable to follow Vladimir as he tries to figure out who the princess has given her heart to, because, for me at least, it was painfully obvious. But, in many ways, this is what makes this book tick so beautifully: as much as you want to protect the youthful, inexperienced narrator from having his heart broken, you want to see how he will react when the penny finally drops and so you keep turning the pages.

While First Love seems strangely naive in this day and age, it has a quiet, restrained beauty that makes it a delightful read. But be warned: this story is not just about falling in love for the first time, it’s also about betrayal and cruelty of the finest order.

1001 books, Author, Book review, Bram Stoker, England, Fiction, horror, pre-20th Century classic, Publisher, Romania, Setting

‘Dracula’ by Bram Stoker

Dracula
Fiction – paperback; Wordsworth Classics; 352 pages; 2003.

The horror genre isn’t my normal genre of choice. I spent my teenage years working my way through Stephen King’s (then existing) back catalogue, dabbled with some Dean R Koontz and a little James Herbert, before giving Anne Rice a shot. I read Interview with a Vampire, The Vampire Lestat and The Queen of the Damned and that’s about the sum total of my exposure to horror/vampire fiction.

But Dracula was always one of those books I intended to read at some point, if only because I wanted to understand how one nineteenth century novel could have such an influence on the popularity of vampires in modern day literature and films. I put it off for years and years, but during a visit to Whitby, on the north east coast of England earlier this year, I finally decided it was time to read the book. I had been to Whitby before, but this time around its connection with Dracula seemed to resonate more, perhaps because I’d seen a BBC TV production and recognised the Abbey and the Yorkshire coastline on the screen. (In truth, during my first visit in 1998, I was more interested in the “Australian connection” — Whitby is where Captain James Cook embarked on his famous Pacific voyages.)

Whitby is, of course, the fishing village where Bram Stoker sets some parts of the novel — where one of the main characters, Lucy, meets Dracula for the first time, in fact. But it’s also the place where Stoker began taking notes for the book while on holiday in 1890. It is a beautiful village nestled by the River Esk — and Stoker’s description, told through the eyes of Mina Murray, remains unchanged more than a century later:

This is a lovely place. The little river, the Esk, runs through a deep valley, which broadens out as it comes near the harbour. A great viaduct runs across, with high piers, though which the view seems, somehow, further away than it really is. The valley is beautifully green and is so steep that when you are on the high land on either side you look right across it, unless you are near enough to see down. The houses of the old town — the side away from us — are all red-roofed, and seem piled up one over the other anyhow, like the pictures we see of Nuremberg. Right over the town is the ruin of Whitby Abbey, which was sacked by the Danes […] It is a most noble ruin, of immense size, and full of beautiful and romantic bits; there is a legend that a white lady is seen in one of the windows.

The story is told as a series of diary entries and letters from a divergent cast of characters — and there’s a few “news clippings” thrown in for good measure. The result is a well-rounded and fast-moving narrative that feels incredibly modern, almost as if the book had been penned in recent times and not in 1897.

The storyline is a familiar one, but for those who don’t know it it begins with Johnathan Harker, a young English solicitor, travelling to Transylvania to meet a client — Count Dracula —  about a property sale he wishes to undertake in England. Despite Dracula acting as a gracious host, Harker soon discovers he is being kept prisoner in Dracula’s remote castle and makes plans for escape.

Some time after a Russian ship runs aground on the Whitby coast, but all on deck — save for a dog, which leaps onshore never to be seen again — are presumed dead. The ship’s log reveals some uncanny experiences on board during the journey, and the hull is found to be carrying a strange cargo of earth from Transylvania.

Harker’s fiance, Mina, and her friend, Lucy, are in Whitby at the time. Lucy is a sleep walker and during one of her nocturnal strolls meets a strange man —Dracula — on the cliffs overlooking the town. Shortly after she mysteriously begins to waste away.

Dr John Seward, who has proposed marriage to Lucy, is very concerned by her deteriorating health. He calls in  in his old teacher, Professor Van Helsing from Amsterdam who begins administering blood transfusions — all to no avail.

Eventually — and I don’t think this is much of a plot spoiler — Lucy becomes a vampire, and the finger of blame is being pointed in Count Dracula’s direction.

The action then moves to London, where the Count has been seen out and about. It turns out — by a strange twist of fate — that his house, on Picadilly, is right next door to Dr Seward’s. A band of vampire hunters is then brought together, including Harker, Mina, Seward and Van Helsing among others, to put Dracula’s rampage across London and England to an end…

The story of Dracula was a familiar one to me, but genuinely thrilling in places. Some of Stoker’s descriptions were also incredibly vivid and chilling, such as this scene in which Harker, trapped in Dracula’s remote castle, sees the Count’s head coming out of a window:

I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings. At first I could not believe my eyes. I thought it was some trick of the moonlight, some weird effect of shadow; but I kept looking, and it could be no delusion. I saw the fingers and toes grasp the corners of the stones, worn clear of the mortar by the stress of years, and by thus using every projection and inequality move downwards and with considerable speed, just as a lizard moves along a wall.

The book also poses some interesting questions about science and faith, religion and folklore, topics that were been debated at the time in which it was written. Interestingly, the role of women in society is another theme, with Lucy representing the “traditional” weak-willed woman who succumbs to Dracula’s charms, and Mina, who is strong enough to fight him off and plays a pivotal role in his eventual destruction, representing the “new” female.

On the whole, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Dracula. The prose style was easy-to-read and apart from some clunky elements — Stoker’s inconsistent depiction of Van Helsing’s Dutch vernacular, for instance, was woeful  — felt incredibly contemporary. And there was plenty of suspense to keep me turning the pages long into the night. A truly great read and one I’d recommend, even if your tastes don’t normally venture into classic literature or the horror genre.

Ambrose Bierce, Author, Book review, Fiction, Penguin Classic, pre-20th Century classic, Publisher, satire

‘The Enlarged Devil’s Dictionary’ by Ambrose Bierce

EnlargedDevils

Humour – paperback; Penguin Classics; 336 pages; 2001. Review copy courtesy of publisher.

The Enlarged Devil’s Dictionary, written by 19th century journalist Ambrose Bierce, is not something you would normally sit down and read cover to cover, unless, of course, you have a penchant for reading dictionaries in their entirety. As much as I love using dictionaries — I couldn’t do my day job or the majority of my blog posts without access to one — I’m not so nerdy about words that I would take something like this to bed with me for a little light reading. That would feel too much like hard work, right?

However, The Enlarged Devil’s Dictionary is not your usual run-of-the-mill dictionary. It’s a full-scale satire — and despite being written more than 100 years ago it contains some very funny entries as Bierce makes light work of religion, marriage, politics and society. Here are some of my favourites:

Brandy, n. A cordial composed of one part thunder-and-lightning, one part remorse, two parts bloody murder, one part death-hell-and-the-grave, two parts clarified Satan and four parts holy Moses! Dose, a headfull all the time. Brandy is said, by Emerson, I think, to be the drink of heroes. I certainly should not advise others to tackle it. By the way, it is rather good.
Christmas, n. A day set apart and consecrated to gluttony, drunkenness, maudlin sentiment, gift-taking, public dullness and domestic behaviour. Dentist, n. A prestidigitator, who puts metal into your mouth and pulls coins out of your pocket.

See what I mean about it still being rather relevant?

But the best bit about this book is the story of how it came about: the introduction by Ernest Jerome Hopkins explains how Bierce’s work, largely written between 1881 and 1886 when he was one of the most powerful journalists working in America, came to be published in one volume.

The original idea for a satirical dictionary was born in 1869 when Bierce was working as a columnist for a small financial magazine in San Francisco called the News Letter. He normally filled ‘The Town Crier’ page with satirical comment and criticism, but during one particularly “dead” week in which topics seemed to have dried up, Bierce penned a piece about the Webster’s Unabridged dictionary and how a comic dictionary would be much more fun to read.

Fast forward a few years and Bierce began writing that dictionary and publishing various instalments in whatever newspaper he happened to be editing at the time. It wasn’t until he was editor of William Randolph Heart’s Examiner that he finally managed to compile all the entries that he could find into a book for publication.

This Penguin Classic version of the dictionary, first published in 1967, brings together a whole host of entries that were lost or forgotten (hence it is subtitled With 851 Newly Discovered Words and Definitions Added to the Previous Thousand-Word Collection).  It will delight anyone who appreciates wit, rather than humour, and revels in word play and doesn’t mind the odd bit of poetry (Bierce was also an accomplished poet). In fact, Bierce himself said it would be ideally suited to those “enlightened souls who prefer dry wines to sweet, sense to sentiment” — and I tend to agree.

While a little long-winded and trying-too-hard-to-be-clever in places, I know this book is going to be one of those titles I will dip into whenever I’m in search of some much-needed cheer. I defy anyone to read it without smirking at least once.

Alexandre Dumas, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Holland/Netherlands, literary fiction, Penguin Classic, pre-20th Century classic, Publisher, Setting

‘The Black Tulip’ by Alexandre Dumas

BlackTulip

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Classics; 288 pages; 2004. Translated from the French by Robert Buss.

Set in Holland during the 1670s, this short, cinematic story is essentially a love triangle between two people and a flower – the much sought-after black tulip, tulipa negra.

The opening scenes, bloody and gruesome, put the reader in the thick of the action right at the outset, but this is deceptive: the story is not the ghastly violent one the first chapter may lead you to expect. Instead, it is a gentle, well-plotted romance interwoven with real life events from Dutch history. But on a slightly deeper level it is also a tale about righting wrongs, fighting tyranny and seeking justice.

When Cornelius van Baerle, a humble tulip grower, is (wrongly) thrown into jail it looks like he is going to lose his life — at worst — and lose his chance to grow the perfect specimen of the tulip negra — at best. His tulip-growing rival, the “evil” Isaac Boxtel, sees this as the perfect opportunity to thwart van Baerle’s chance of winning the top horticultural prize.

But then Rosa, the jailor’s beautiful and headstrong daughter, finds a way to help van Baerle achieve his heart’s desire despite the odds and the looming figure of William of Orange.

The Black Tulip might sound a little soppy, but the plot is very good and moves along with great momentum. The writing could do with a little judicious editing here and there, and the ending is wholly predictable, but overall this is a simple tale, relatively well told and a fascinating insight into a time known as “tulipmania”.