Will people never learn? I’m beginning to despair.
Will people never learn? I’m beginning to despair.
‘London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.’ The stunning, strangely modern introductory sentences of ‘Bleak House’, the novel many consider to be Dickens’ masterpiece, grabbed my attention straightaway. Not only that, but they set the tone for the rest of the book faithfully: unorthodox in style, rambling in parts, amusing but ultimately concerned with the grim repercussions of the cases in the law court at Chancery.
‘Bleak House’ follows the interlinking stories of such diverse characters as the proud, bored Lady Dedlock, the lowly crossing-sweeper Jo and the flamboyant law clerk Mr Guppy. It is narrated partially in the form of a memoir told through the eyes of the dutiful orphan Esther Summerson and partially in the present tense from the perspective of an omniscient narrator. When I first learned of the structure, it sounded so unusual that I thought I would become thoroughly confused, but somehow Dickens made it work and I can only admire the way he played with the rigid conventions of Victorian novel-writing. The book transcends so many different genres – social satire, legal drama, romance, comedy, murder mystery, coming-of-age – that it is no wonder it takes up over 800 pages in most editions.
It was an enjoyable read; I appreciated both the serious critique of the corrupt legal system, demonstrated most forcibly by the unravelling of Richard Carstone, and the comedic passages, such as Mr Guppy’s unprecedented proposal to Esther. However, the finest parts of the novel were those in which social criticism and comedy were blended, for example in the characters of Mr Skimpole, who judged every external event by its effect on his wellbeing, and Mrs Jellyby, who was so obsessed with her missionary work in Africa that she neglected her own children to the point of abuse.
‘Bleak House’ was not perfect: sometimes the strings of coincidences connecting the characters were difficult to accept, and there were several passages which could easily have been cut out. The fact that I watched the BBC mini-series before reading the novel also removed much of the mystery. However, I would still recommend it as a stunningly innovative and engaging example of Victorian fiction.
Emily Pickles is breathless with excitement. Tonight is the big night, the night when she will finally venture into the forbidden kingdom of the boys’ school across the road. In the term that has passed since she left primary school, she has been shut up in a girls’ school the equivalent of a feminist nunnery and has read an awful lot of Cathy Cassidy, so can be forgiven for having completely forgotten how to talk to boys. Her memories of boykind are so addled and hazy that she holds high hopes of this being the most romantic and passionate night of her life. She fully expects at least one smouldering slow dance, if not a kiss. She has already spent a small fortune on a sparkly dress from Debenham’s, and is now getting ready in her room with her new friend Ella, who is pretty cool. Emily knows she should be grateful because Ella has curled her hair and even shared her mascara (contraband in the Pickles household) but she can’t help eyeing Ella’s Topshop skirt and heels with envy.
The girls are dropped off by a tearful Mrs Pickles, who makes Emily promise to ring her every half hour and whispers in her ear as she hugs her goodbye, “Remember: you can just say no.” Emily rolls her eyes at Ella upon receiving this cryptic message; mums are so embarrassing. As they enter the school, the girls’ voices are swallowed up by a deafening blast of Tinie Tempah. Emily has no idea what ‘frisky’ means, but she thinks it sounds extremely cool.
The darkened hall is almost unrecognisable as such, save for the old photos lining the walls. Emily feels vaguely uncomfortable at the notion of notable alumni watching as she attempts her first bust-thrust. Once her eyes have adjusted, she becomes aware that the hall is a remarkable, perhaps unique, example of voluntary gender segregation. The girls dance in one corner, the boys, high on rainbow dust, in another. As Emily joins her peers in an awkward circle, she tries a seductive glance at the nearest group of boys but she is not wearing her glasses so all she can really see are the glow-sticks festooning their arms, which they wave around wildly to the beat of ‘Get Hyper’.
As the evening wears on, disappointment gathers in the pit of Emily’s stomach. The Hermione-Granger-at-the-Yule-Ball moment she’d envisioned never materialised, and her seven years of ballet lessons have done nothing to prepare her for dancing of this kind (namely stepping from side to side and occasionally jumping up and down with one hand in the air in the unlikely event of a decent song playing). She becomes even more upset when Ella plucks up the courage to talk to a boy. Never mind that he is shorter than her, wears glasses as thick as double-glazed windows and has a retainer which makes his speech little more than an unintelligible slurping; the green beast of jealousy is eating Emily up as she stares in their direction.
Perhaps if she could actually hear their conversation, she would not feel quite so jealous. Ella makes the first move with a coy smile and flick of her side fringe, asking in husky tones: “So, what primary school did you go to?”
“Coronation Park. You?”
“We always beat you at gym, innit.”
After a short awkward silence, Ella ventures, “So…where did you come in the eleven plus?”
“281st. I didn’t get in at first. I had to be on the waiting list,” he says with a jaunty Bieber flick. Ella’s heart flutters. She always did have a thing for the bad boys.
They exchange numbers, then each retreats, slightly relieved, to their own groups. Maz (short for Magnus) is greeted with a round of hearty back-slaps and Charlie, whose mum lets him play GTA, is ousted from his current position as Top Lad of the group, a role not dissimilar to that of Alpha Male in a pack of mandrills. Ella is already planning the wedding.
Sadly the relationship will not last that long – three weeks of texting ‘Wuu2’, ‘Nm u?’ and ‘Luv u bb’ and the novelty will soon wear off – but the promise of such romance in which she will not share is enough to have reduced Emily to tears in the loos, where she is being comforted by the reassuringly dull Katie. Her voluntary confinement means that she is not there to witness the stunning entrance of the Year Nines, the queens of the disco. Dressed from nipple to crotch in Jack Wills, their eyebrows have been drawn on with the skill of a Grand Master and their skin is the colour of fresh orange juice. They are everything Ella aspires to be, and inevitably will become (though by Year Nine she and Emily will no longer be friends, Emily having entered her ‘emo phase’, which will involve a dubious fringe, lots of whiny ‘80s music and many angry feminist rants on Tumblr).
For now, though, the disco is over. The DJ plays ‘Sweet Caroline’ as the lights come on and the students stagger out, their ears ringing, the boys’ football shirts stained with Pepsi, the girls’ feet blistered and aching. The teachers left behind stare at the filthy hall with sinking hearts as they contemplate the magnitude of the task ahead. They don’t really mind, though; the Year Thirteen prom is the real killer, the guts of party poppers and nuclear-waste-like juice from glow-sticks being infinitely preferable to empty cans of lager and canisters of laughing gas.
(This may or may not be based on my own experiences at a girls’ school the equivalent of a feminist nunnery)
Slow burn, slow burn
You burned me through
For two long years
I was thinking of you
The touch of your hand
Like the spark of a flame
Nothing sweeter on my lips
Than the taste of your name
You were a steady candle
In the back of my mind
But when I came too close
I was repelled by your light
We came achingly near
To a date, then a kiss
I thought we’d spend forever
Going on like this
We thought we liked each other
Then we changed our minds
I found you funny, lame, ugly,
Clever, boring and kind
I wasted my life
In expectation of change
But here we are together
And it’s just the same
Now the fire’s burned out
And I’m done with you –
Slow burn, slow burn
You burned me through.
‘Middlemarch’ is a novel comprised of a series of interlinked sketches of provincial life in 1830s England. The plot revolves around three major characters: Dorothea Brooke, who struggles to express herself in the constricted world afforded to women at the time; Tertius Lydgate, whose dreams of groundbreaking medical research are complicated by the demands of his marriage; and the dissipated Fred Vincy, who strives to be worthy of the love of his childhood sweetheart, Mary.
I can see why ‘Middlemarch’ is considered a ‘great’ novel; it blends big ideas with acute social observations, and one can only admire Eliot’s power of psychological insight. Virginia Woolf once referred to it as ‘one of the few English novels written for grown-up people‘ and I understand what she meant; instead of stopping at the fairytale wedding, ‘Middlemarch’ conducted a warts-and-all examination of marriage in the 19th century. However, I can’t deny that it was heavy going – for a book of eight hundred pages there was very little in the way of plot. Thrilling, emotionally intense scenes, such as the reading of Mr Featherstone’s will, were interspersed with dry digressions populated by various lawyer/doctor/vicar characters, many of whom had little to differentiate them. On the other hand, there were some characters who did not feature nearly enough, such as the delightfully savage Mrs Cadwallader. I also loved the relationship between Fred Vincy and Mary Garth, which was playful and surprisingly modern. I was less fond of the Lydgates, since I was fairly sure that Rosamond, with her conceit and emotionless vanity, was an undiagnosed psychopath. However, I found the famous final chapter, in which the reader learns the fates of all the characters, moving and poignant in spite of this.
Overall, I am glad I have read ‘Middlemarch’, if only so that I can smugly discuss it in intellectual circles and feel like a truly ‘accomplished’ woman.
Spot the mistake – so wrong on so many levels.
Recently my friend and I took our yearly trip to the big Waterstones and Hatchards stores in London. Unfortunately, as we are both preparing to become poor students, we weren’t anywhere near as extravagant as normal. However, I still came away with some good purchases, bought almost entirely using book tokens (hooray):
Both of these volumes of poetry are on my reading list for university. They weren’t cheap, but I think they’re a good investment as they each contain hundreds of poems, providing a rich and comprehensive introduction to these great Irish poets.
I was lucky enough to read this novel in its unfinished form several years ago when I was doing work experience with a literary agent. It tells the story of a group of gay men imprisoned on a remote Italian island during Mussolini’s regime. I was impressed with the powerful storyline and unusual subject matter even then, so I can’t wait to see how it’s turned out now!
‘Jane Eyre’ is the well-loved story of an orphaned girl who is engaged as a governess on behalf of the mysterious Mr Rochester. She and her employer fall in love but the situation is complicated by the dark secret Mr Rochester is hiding in his attic.
I recently read this book for the second time after a gap of about six years, and I still loved it and couldn’t put it down. All the characters seemed so vivid and real; Jane was a truly modern heroine and one with whom I sympathised strongly. I admired her independence and self-respect, and I appreciated Brontë’s inclusion of proto-feminist lines such as ‘I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will’ and ‘It is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal, – as we are!’ My absolute favourite quote, however, is: ‘I care for myself. The more solitary, the more unsustained, the more friendless I am, the more I will respect myself‘ – a pertinent message even for modern-day readers. I know that some schools of thought argue that Jane loses her independence at the end of the novel, when she effectively becomes Mr Rochester’s nursemaid, but I feel that this is missing the point. He does not force her to stay with him; it is a choice she makes, and it is what she feels happiest doing.
Aside from a strong lead character, Jane Eyre has the added bonus of being one of the great books in the Gothic tradition. I particularly liked the contrast of folklore and magic with Christian morality, reflecting a conflict which I also noted in Tess of the D’Urbervilles and, to a lesser extent, Wuthering Heights. After re-reading Jane Eyre, I can say that in the Charlotte vs Emily war I am firmly in Charlotte’s camp. Jane Eyre was more engaging, better-written and felt more real than Wuthering Heights, for all the two novels share with regards to lonely moors and crumbling mansions.