BR: ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ by Thomas Hardy

Contains spoilers!

Rating :8.5/10

This novel tells the story of the hot-tempered Michael Henchard, who rises in the world after selling his wife at a fair, yet ultimately cannot escape his past and brings about his own downfall. The book also charts the changing fortunes of his family, friends and enemies. Some people have branded it as depressing but I agree with Michael Irwin’s introduction, which notes that ‘Too often overlooked, however, is [Hardy’s] regular escape from melancholy reflection on “life” at large to a counter-balancing insistence on what can be the passionate excitement of living.” From what people had told me, I assumed that the denouement of the book would result in devastation on the scale of Hamlet, yet for many of the characters it ended reasonably happily.

However, the novel did remind me of Hamlet in other ways – for example, on the many occasions when Henchard agonised over whether or not to kill Farfrae. The lower-class characters provided brief comic interludes and a different perspective on the story, like Hamlet’s clowns, or perhaps the players in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I would certainly agree that the novel was ‘Shakespearean in its tragic forcethe way one unfortunate event led seamlessly to another as the story drew to its dramatic conclusion was masterful.

I also really admired Hardy’s use of language. Some passages of description were beautiful and thought-provoking, such as when Henchard was looking at the sleeping Elizabeth-Jane and observed that ‘In sleep there come to the surface buried genealogical curves, dead men’s traits, which the mobility of daytime animation screens and overwhelms.’  Or the simple but effective description of her hair: ‘the rays streamed into its depths as into a hazel copse.‘ I also liked Hardy’s use of black humour: ‘pitchforks of prongs sufficient to skewer up a small family’ certainly livened up the descriptions of farming equipment! Many of the words used were archaic, but interestingly some, such as ‘volk’, ‘burghers’ and ‘leery’ were close to the German, so I was able to work out their meaning. I was also amused to stumble upon the colloquialisms ‘dumbledores’ and ‘hag-rid’!

The four main characters were believable and three-dimensional. I liked Elizabeth-Jane with her warm heart and quiet determination to do her best. I also liked Farfrae (though some of his dialogue was written phonetically to show his Scottish accent, which I found jarring and inconsistent). I did not warm to Lucetta, who seemed fickle and was blind to Elizabeth-Jane’s feelings for Farfrae even though she was supposedly her friend. For much of the book I was ambivalent towards Henchard, not sure whether the sincerity and strength of his feelings outweighed some of his impetuous actions, but in the end I pitied him.

If you’re looking for a light read, this is probably not for you, but it is certainly compelling, dramatic, and not quite as miserable as everyone says!

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The Pain-Free Rounders Survival Guide

The summer term is upon us. With it comes the promise of long sunny days, ice cream, tourists who look like boiled lobsters and of course…rounders.

Am I the only one who hates this supposedly ‘fun’ activity? I cannot think of anything worse than standing in a field with the sun in my eyes, dreading the moment when a ball flies towards me and everyone screams ‘CATCH IT!’ If they’re so bothered, why don’t they catch it themselves? Don’t try the ‘it’s good exercise’ excuse on with me either. Those mild bursts of running juxtaposed with hours of standing in a field heightening my risk of skin cancer are not going to benefit me at all.

Luckily, after suffering through so many torturous PE lessons, I have picked up a few skills that make playing the game just about bearable. So if the sight of a wooden bat makes you shudder, if your nightmares involve a PE teacher yelling ‘catch it, butterfingers’ and if you would find cataloguing the contents of your fridge more interesting than a game of rounders, then I salute you as a kindred spirit. This is the guide for you!

Fielding:
1. ‘Deep field’ in a very obscure position (preferably one that is rarely touched by hedgehogs, let alone rounders balls).

2. Stand in a position that looks vaguely as if you are about to catch a ball (ie not with your arms crossed). This gives the teacher one less reason to yell at you.

3. In the unlikely event that the ball comes within ten metres of you, pretend to suffer from Delayed Reaction Syndrome then jog towards the ball painfully slowly. Flail your arms around a lot and it doesn’t matter how fast you run; the teacher will be mildly impressed.

4. When someone else picks up the ball, put on a disappointed face and shuffle back to your original position.

Batting:
Get out. This is a double whammy because not only does it save you from having to run round the whole pitch, but you are also banned from batting for the rest of the game. The genius who invented this rule deserves a medal.

There are two ways of getting out, both equally low exertion:

1. Be run out. This involves a technique you are already familiar with – the Painfully Slow Run. Just apply this technique until the person behind cannot help but catch you up. What’s more, it is they who are yelled at, not you. Bonus!

2. Ensure that the ball reaches the post before you. The Painfully Slow Run comes in handy yet again here. You can run as far as you like with this method, but why you might want to is beyond me.

Bowling:
Run and hide.

BR: ‘The Moonstone’ by Wilkie Collins

Contains spoilers!

Rating: 8/10

‘The Moonstone’ is the story of a diamond, said to be cursed, which is bequeathed to Rachel Verinder on her 18th birthday and stolen the same night. What follows is a dramatic and scandalous series of events, told from the perspective of multiple narrators. For a work of Victorian literature, I found it surprisingly funny, open-minded and easy to read. There were some lovely, atmospheric descriptive passages and the action took place in a wide variety of places including rural Yorkshire, Brighton, London and India, which kept it interesting.

The characters were idiosyncratic and amusing, if a little one-dimensional. Miss Clack, the religious fanatic who distributed tracts with appealing titles such as ‘Satan under the Tea Table‘, made a particularly interesting narrator. I was also amused by the faithful, Robinson-Crusoe-obsessed servant Gabriel Betteredge, who decided with regards to his housekeeper, ‘it will be cheaper to marry her than to keep her’. Then there was Caroline Ablewhite, whose idea of exercise was looking at ‘an invalid going by in a chair on wheels […] If it’s air you want, you get it in your chair. If it’s fatigue you want, I am sure it’s fatiguing enough to look at the man.’ The female characters were almost all strong and interesting, especially considering the time at which the book was written. However, although Sandra Kemp’s introduction to my edition said that Rosanna Spearman was a ‘memorable’ and ‘vivid’ character, I disagree: I found her drippy, and her ‘love at first sight’ and subsequent suicide were melodramatic and unbelievable. Sergeant Cuff was also a pretty poor detective – I kept waiting for him to pull a trick out of the bag but in the end it was the civilian characters who put all the hard work into solving the mystery.

‘The Moonstone’ is not a quick read – if it was a modern detective novel, it would have been half the size. But it is certainly a worthwhile read, with an unusual and surprising mystery at its core.