Northanger Abbey | A Short Review.

I thought I had read all of Jane Austen’s novels but realised recently that I had missed Northanger Abbey and promptly downloaded it to my kindle. I wish I hadn’t; I can’t think of one good thing to say about this book. Can it possibly have been written by the same hand that gave us Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility etc?

This book was completed in 1803, the first of Austin’s novels to be completed but it wasn’t published until after she died. You might think from this that I dislike classics; nothing could be more wrong. I love the classics, especially the ones I studied at school – contrary to the experience of many people.

So, I began to read with anticipation only to be terribly disappointed. The writing is extremely wordy, vague, intricate and boring.. It’s like reading in a fog:

Compliments on good looks now passed; and, after observing how time had slipped away since they were last together, how little they had thought of meeting in Bath, and what a pleasure it was to see an old friend, they proceeded to make enquiries and give intelligence as to their families, sisters, and cousins, talking both together, far more ready to give than to receive information, and each hearing very little of what the other said. Mrs. Thorpe, however, had one great advantage as a talker, over Mrs. Allen, in a family of children . . . “

A lot of words saying nothing at all, even allowing for the utterly different style of writing in the 19th century.

Northanger Abbey itself doesn’t appear in the book until 66% has been read already (according to kindle), and is a peculiar sort of Abbey. I could get no idea of its shape and size. At this point some gothic nonsense is inserted and lasts for a couple of chapters. Some parts of the house would appear to be out of bounds, and peculiar furniture appears in Catherine’s bedroom with secret doors and drawers which give her an uneasy feeling. However this is all soon forgotten – with no explanation for the strange furniture – and returns to the main love story which is so uninteresting that the reader could not care less whether there was a happy ending or not.

The heroine is young, an idealist, and, sometimes, innocent to the point of imbecility. The hero does nothing heroic; he is just there for Catherine to fall in love with. There are a couple of female characters who could have been developed into interesting people to read about but it never happened. They remained as puppets. As this was Austen’s first book, perhaps she was simply trying out various ideas and never meant for it to be published. It reads like a very long first draft, with a little of this and that. The only thing the book does is give us an idea of society, the mores, the morals, the intricacies of class distinction, the manners and the dress code. An essay would have done that job very well.

Has anyone else read this book recently? I would be very interested to hear someone else’s view.

Quotes from “Coming Up for Air” by George Orwell

“I was trying to shave with a bluntish razor-blade while the water ran into the bath. My face looked back at me out of the mirror, and underneath, in a tumbler of water on the little shelf over the washbasin, the teeth that belonged in the face. It was the temporary set that Warner, my dentist, had given me to wear while the new ones were being made. I haven’t such a bad face, really. It’s one of those bricky-red faces that go with butter-coloured hair and pale-blue eyes. I’ve never gone grey or bald, thank God, and when I’ve got my teeth in I probably don’t look my age, which is forty-five.”

There is so much more to Orwell than Animal Farm and 1984 and I love this book – Coming Up for Air. It’s the story of a man on a day out, searching for scenes of his childhood. It’s so very readable and engrossing. I read several passages over and over again. But I’ll just add one more here.

“I bent down to pick up a primrose. Couldn’t reach it – too much belly. I squatted down on my haunches and picked a little bunch of them. Lucky there was no one to see me. The leaves were kind of crinkly and shaped like rabbits’ ears. I stood up and put my bunch of primroses on the gatepost. Then on an impulse I slid my false teeth out of my mouth and had a look at them. If I’d had a mirror I’d have looked at the whole of myself, though, as a matter fact, I knew what I looked like already. A fat man of forty-five, in a grey herringbone suit a bit the worse for wear and a bowler hat. Wife, two kids and a house in the suburbs written all over me. Red face and boiled blue eyes. I know, you don’t have to tell me. But the thing that struck me, as I gave my dental plate the once-over before slipping it back into my mouth, was that it doesn’t matter. Even false teeth don’t matter. I’m fat – yes. I look like a bookie’s unsuccessful brother – yes. No woman will ever go to bed with me again unless she’s paid to. I know all that. But I tell you I don’t care. I don’t want the women, I don’t even want to be young again. I only want to be alive. And I was alive that moment when I stood looking at the primroses and the red embers under the hedge. It’s a feeling inside you, a kind of peaceful feeling, and yet it’s like a flame.”

There, that’s enough. Has anyone else read this? Or other Orwells?

The Lady of Shalott by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

I wonder how many of you out there remember this poem – you’d have to be a very mature person (like me). I’m sure it’s not on any school syllabus today. But it was great fun to read and study, especially (obviously) for teenage girls. It’s a great story, and a love story too. I really enjoyed all those old, narrative poems. I’ll write down a few verses here to give a flavour of the words and the rhythm of this long poem.

“Four gray walls, and four gray towers,

Overlook a space of flowers,

And the silent isle imbowers

The Lady of Shalott.

But who hath seen her wave her hand?

Or at the casement seen her stand?

Or is she known in all the land,

The Lady of Shalott

The story tells of this poor lady who has been cursed. If she looks out of her window, down to Camelot, a curse will fall upon her; she doesn’t know what the curse is, and so she continues to sit in her room and weave.

And moving thro’ a mirror clear

That hangs before her all the year,

Shadows of the world appear.

There she sees the highway near

Winding down to Camelot.

Well, gentle reader, the inevitable happened –

His broad clear brow in sunlight glow’d;

On burnish’d hooves his war-horse trode;

From underneath his helmet flow’d

His coal-black curls as on he rode,

As he rode down to Camelot.

She left the web, she left the loom,

She made three paces thro’ the room,

She saw the water-lily bloom,

She saw the helmet and the plume,

She look’d down to Camelot.

Out flew the web and floated wide;

The mirror crack’d from side to side;

The curse is come upon me, cried

The Lady of Shalott.

When she goes down to Camelot she finds a boat and floats down the river singing to her self, and as she sings she dies. When she was found, no one knew who she was, but the knight was moved to comment.

But Lancelot mused a little space;

He said, She has a lovely face;

God in his mercy lend her grace.

The Lady of Shalott.

No one knows why this lady was cursed. According to google, it wasn’t important! I wish I could write it all down here but it is indeed very long. I’m glad to have read it again myself – after so many years!

Five Best Endings . . .

I got the idea for this post from Stephen Writes at Top Five Memorable Endings I Read In 2020 – Stephen Writes (wordpress.com) and he kindly allowed me to use his idea. For me the ending of a book, the last sentence, indeed the last paragraph, is very important. Often, especially in thrillers, the last few pages are long-drawn out and boring. So when you love a book, and are approaching the end, it’s great when the last words are just as good – and just as important – as the beginning.

No. 1. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick de Witt

The story is about two brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, who are sent by their boss to kill someone. They have various adventures on their journey. The younger of the two is tired of the harsh life they lead and wants to go home. Here’s the wonderful last paragraph:

“I dropped into sleep but awoke with a start some minutes later. I could hear Charlie in the next room, washing himself in the bath tub. He was saying nothing and would say nothing, I knew, but the sound the water made was like a voice, the way it hurried and splashed, chattering, then falling quiet but for the rare drip, as if in humble contemplation. It seemed to me I could gauge from these sounds the sorrow or gladness of their creator; I listened intently and decided that my brother and I were, for the present at least, removed from all earthly dangers and horrors.

And might I say what a pleasing conclusion this was for me.”

No. 2. The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

When Quoyle, discovers that his wife has been unfaithful, he heads for his ancestral home on the wild coast of Newfoundland with his two small daughters. He secures a job on the local paper, reporting on the shipping news. This book is the story of his life there, and the characters he meets. It finishes thus:

“Quoyle experienced moments in all colors, uttered brilliancies, paid attention to the rich sound of waves counting stones laughed and wept, noticed sunsets, heard music in rain, said I do. A row of shining hubcaps on sticks appeared in the front yard of the Burkes’ house. A wedding present from the bride’s father.

For if Jack Buggit could escape from the pickle jar, if a bird with a broken neck could fly away, what else might be possible? Water may be older than light, diamonds crack in hot goat;s blood, mountaintops give off cold fire, forests appear in mid-ocean, it may happen that a crab is caught with the shadow of a hand on its back, that the wind be imprisoned in a bit of knotted string. And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.”

No. 3. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

I’m sure everyone knows this story of the Joad family, and their trek through the Oklahoma dust bowl during the great depression of the 1930s in America. At the end of the book they take shelter in a barn where they find a man dying of hunger, and his small son. The daughter of the family, Rose of Sharon, (Rosasharn) has just given birth to a still-born child, and sharing a deep look with her mother, agrees to breast-feed the dying man:

“For a minute Rose of Sharon sat still in the whispering barn. Then she hoisted her tired body up and drew the comforter about her. She moved slowly to the corner and stood looking down at the wasted face, into the wide, frightened eyes. Then slowly she lay down beside him. He shook his head slowly from side to side. Rose of Sharon loosened one side of the blanket and bared her breast. ‘You got to,’ she said. She squirmed closer and pulled his head closed. ‘There,’ she said. ‘There.’ Her hand moved behind his head and supported it. Her fingers moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.”

No. 4. The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien

From the blurb on the back of this book – It is a murder thriller, a hilarious comic satire about an archetypal village police force, a surrealistic version of eternity, and a tender, brief, erotic story about the unrequited love affair between a man and his bicycle.

“We saw, standing with his back to us, an enormous policeman. His back appearance was unusual. He was standing behind a little counter in a neat whitewashed dayroom; his mouth was open and he was looking into a mirror which hung upon the wall.

‘It’s my teeth,’ we heard him say abstractedly and half-aloud. ‘Nearly every sickness is from the teeth.’

His face, when he turned, surprised us. It was enormously fat, red and widespread, sitting squarely on the neck of his tunic with a clumsy weightiness that reminded me of a sack of flour. The lower half of it was hidden by a violent red moustache which shot out from his skin far into the air like the antennae of some unusual animal . . . He came over ponderously to the inside of the counter and Divney and I advanced meekly from the door until we were face to face.”

‘Is it about a bicycle?’ he asked.

No. 5. Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen

I’ve always been a fan of The Boss and I know he writes his own songs, but still, I was a bit surprised by how good his writing is in this autobiography. The book flowed along and I thought the prose was delicious. This is how he finishes the book – he is riding his motorbike south to Manasquan Inlet:

“My “ape hanger” high-rise handlebars thrust my arms out and skyward to shoulder height, opening me up to the winds full force – a rough embrace – as my gloved hands tighten their grip on that new evening sky. The cosmos begins to flicker to life in the twilight above me. With no fairing, a sixty-mile-per-hour gale steadily pounds into my chest, nudging me to the back of my seat, subtly threatening to blow me off six hundred pounds of speeding steel, reminding me of how the next moment holds no guarantees . . . and of how good things are, this day, this life, how lucky I’ve been, how lucky I am. I turn the corner off the highway onto a dark country road. I hit my high beams, scan the flat farm fields looking for deer. All clear, I twist the throttle as rushing into my arms comes home.”

That will do for now. Reading all these wonderful writers makes me question my ability to write, or even to put a sentence together. I’m very happy that the world is full of so many wonderful books – I’ll probably do another five endings in the future!

From Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti | an excerpt

I am always interested to know where sayings and quotes come from so I was delighted to come across this verse in Goblin Market. The poem is sixteen pages long and tells the story of Laura, who, led astray by the Goblins, eats their fruit and thereafter pines away until she is almost dead. Her sister, Lizzie, braves the Goblin Market and acquires the antidote. Laura recovers and they both live long, happy lives.

One may lead a horse to water,

Twenty cannot make him drink.

Though the goblins cuffed and caught her,

Coaxed and fought her,

Bullied and besought her,

Scratched her, pinched her black as ink,

Kicked and knocked her,

Mauled and mocked her,

Lizzie uttered not a word;

Would not open lip from lip

Lest they should cram a mouthful in:

But laughed in heart to feel the drip

Of juice that syrupped all her face,

And lodged in dimples of her chin,

And streaked her neck which quaked like curd.

At last the evil people

Worn out by her resistance

Flung back her penny, kicked their fruit

Along whichever road they took,

Not leaving root or stone or shoot;

Some writhed into the ground,

Some dived into the brook

With ring and ripple,

Some scudded on the gale without a sound,

Some vanished in the distance.

I enjoyed reading the whole poem; I loved the imagery and the sounds – I read it aloud. There’s something so luscious about it.

More fun poems from way back when . . .

Fred by Horace Walpole

Here lies Fred,

Who was alive and is dead.

Had it been his father,

I had much rather;

Had it been his brother,

Still better than another;

Had it been his sister,

No one would have missed her;

Had it been the whole generation,

Still better for the nation.

But since it is only Fred,

Who was alive and is dead,

There’s no more to be said.

The Desired Swan-Song by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Swans sing before they die – ’twere no bad thing

Should certain persons die before they sing.

Stupidity Street by Ralph Hodgson

I saw with open eyes

Singing birds sweet

Sold in the shops

For the people to eat,

Sold in the shops of

Stupidity Street.

I saw in vision

The worm in the wheat,

And in the shops nothinjg

For people to eat;

Nothing for sale in

Stupidity Street.

You’d wonder why some of these poems were considered good enough for the school curriculum! I think I’ll have a look at love poems next . . .

From POEMS OLD AND NEW

Looking through my old book again, I noticed the title, as above; then I checked the publication date – 1933! Some of the poems are so deliciously old-fashioned that I am moved to share them – here’s a couple of short ones (some very short).

To Celia by Ben Jonson

Drink to me only with thine eyes,

And I will pledge with mine;

Or leave a kiss but in the cup,

And I’ll not look for wine.

The thirst that from the soul doth rise,

Doth ask a drink divine:

But might I of Jove’s nectar sup,

I would not change for thine.

Waste by Harry Graham

I had written to Aunt Maud,

Who was on a trip abroad,

When I heard she’d died of cramp

Just too late to save the stamp.

Epitaph on Charles 11 by Earl of Rochester

Here lies our sovereign Lord the King,

Whose word no man relies on,

Who never said a foolish thing

Nor never did a wise one.

I hope these made you smile at least. More anon . . .

SHE WALKS IN BEAUTY by Lord Byron

I was leafing through my very old school poetry book and came across this one, which I had long forgotten. It’s so gorgeous I had to post it here. I hope you enjoy it.

She walks in beauty, like the night

Of cloudless climes and starry skies,

And all that’s best of dark and bright

Meet in her aspect and her eyes,

Thus mellow’d to that tender light

Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,

Had half impair’d the nameless grace

Which waves in every raven tress,

Or softly lightens o’er her face,

Where thoughts serenely sweet express

How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek and o’er that brow

So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,

The smiles that win, the tints that glow

But tell of days in goodness spent,

A mind at peace with all below,

A heart whose love is innocent.

The Top Three!

Last week was a strange one for me with various family situations, now resolved. Today I resume my routine. This morning I was out for my walk along the river and I thought very hard about which three books I loved the most; I came up with these three. David Copperfield, Catch 22 and Redhead by the Side of the Road. Which surprised me a little as my favourite writer for some years now is Patrick de Witt.

I first read David Copperfield when I was at school and I’ve read it at least twice since; so many wonderful characters, so many quotes still in my head. There was Peggotty, who worked as cook and maid in his mother’s house until she agreed to marry Mr Barkis, who signalled his intentions with the phrase,”Barkis is willin’.” And the wonderful Mr Micawber who was always sure that “something will turn up” and his wife declaring that she “would never desert” Mr Micawber. I’m going to stop with quotes here or I’ll be writing all day! I will just mention David’s cousins who lived in an upturned boat on the beach in Yarmouth; the boy he met in school called Steerforth who was a bad ‘un and became involved with Rosa Dartle. I can’t leave out his Aunt Betsey who took him in and cared for him and called him “Trotwood”. David’s first wife, Dora, made very little impression on me but apparently she was based on Dicken’s real-life first love. There are many more I could include and many, many quotes but – enough!

Catch 22 I first read in my twenties and again, I’ve read it many times since. It makes me laugh so much. Sometimes I stand at the book case and open it at random . . . I could be standing there for a long time! And sometimes I remember various passages when I’m on a bus or a train and I have to keep myself from laughing out loud. The first chapter sets the tone; the chaplain appears at Yossarian’s hospital bedside and begins a conversation. Yossarian doesn’t realise he is the chaplain and thinks he’s another mad soldier but he is happy to continue the conversation:

“Oh, pretty good,” he answered. “I’ve got a slight pain in my liver and I haven’t been the most regular of fellows, I guess, but all in all, I must admit that I feel pretty good.”

“That’s good,” said the chaplain.

“Yes,” Yossarian said. “Yes, that is good.”

The conversation continues in this vein with many – that’s good, yes that is good, and that’s bad, yes that is bad – until Yossarian realises he’s talking to the chaplain and is disappointed that there is a sane reason for the visit.

And what about Major Major Major Major whose father marches along the hospital corridor and register’s his son’s birth in the name of Major Major, unbeknownst to his resting wife. And the episode where the soldiers are listening to a speech by one of the Generals and they begin to moan at the sight of the General’s bosomy nurse, started by Yossarian of course. Ah yes . . .

Finally, Redhead by the Side of the Road. I won’t say much about this book as I recently posted a review on it. Suffice to say, when I was reading it, I carried it about with me and had many conversations with the main character, Micah Mortimer. Happy days!

Percy Bysshe Shelley | Ode to the West wind

Every year at this time I quote this poem to anyone who will listen to me. I learned it off by heart at school when I was sixteen and still remember most of it. And this is my old school book – A Pageant of English Verse. The poem is quite perfect. I’ll just quote a few verses here, to give you a flavour of it – it’s very long in its entirety.

O wild west wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,

Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead

Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,

Pestilence-stricken multudes – O thou

Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The winged seeds . . .

As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.

Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!

I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

Be through my lips to unawakened earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O, wind,

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?