Books Talking To Books

3afef1e893f675f1dd6af0348c666c70A librarian friend of mine has this theory that books talk to each other and that whatever book you pick up next it will have some link with the one that you’ve just finished.  I think she formed this one year when she found herself reading several books, one after the other, in which people performed various unmentionable acts with sheep.  I can’t be sure about that.  I have to say that despite her enthusiasm I wasn’t exactly drawn to the subject matter.  Anyway, I found myself thinking about that earlier this week when the Dickens course moved on to Oliver Twist.  One of the critical passages we were asked to read detailed Queen Victoria’s response to the novel and the entry she made in her journal about a discussion of the book she had with Lord Melbourne.  Her Majesty had been much moved by the plight of the people in the workhouse and wished to know what could be done about it.  It was Lord Melbourne who, in this instance, ‘was not amused’.  He wanted nothing to do with the book and Victoria quotes him as saying:

I don’t like those things; I wish to avoid them; I don’t like them in reality, and therefore I don’t wish them represented.

In other words, if I don’t have to look at them I don’t have to acknowledge that they exist and thus cannot possibly be expected to do anything about them.

Coincidentally (or was it really books talking to books again) on Monday I lead a group discussion of Karen Joy Fowler’s wonderful novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.  This followed what was a third read for me and details of the first two and my response to the book can be found here.  One of the things that I appreciate about Fowler’s work is that she recognises that the question of whether or not animals should be involved in developing life-saving drugs is only easily answered if you or a member of your family is not in need of the resulting medication.  Nobody’s arguing these issues are easy, her main character, Rosie, says.  But in an interview the author offers a more nuanced position that is also explored in the book.

What I can say is that I think we should not be doing things that are invisible to us.  I think that people would not stand for the factory farms if they saw them.  We’re removed from this.  And now there’s a great effort to make it illegal to go into these farms and show people what happens…If we can’t bear to look at it then we should not be doing it.

What the eye doesn’t see the heart needn’t grieve over.

Nearly two hundred years apart the sentiments are the same.  Look the other way and we can pretend nothing wrong, nothing evil, is happening. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.


Dickens Update

06d11e3a0263b62966ea48fc5e990cc3As I promised at the weekend, a quick post to catch up with the Dickens course.  A very quick post, because as is the case with most (all?) online courses, and probably most others too, the suggested time needed each week to complete the work set is ridiculously underestimated.  I think it was advertised as three to five hours a week.  You can double the top of that estimate easily.  Not that I mind that, I just think courses should be more open about the necessary commitment, although they are probably wary of the numbers that would enrol if they were upfront about the hours.

I was talking about this with my Shakespeare group, yesterday.  We are studying Love’s Labour’s Lost and you will remember that the play starts with the King of Navarre and three of his Lords vowing to study for three years while they live a life withdrawn from almost all other society.  The idea isn’t Shakespeare’s own.  There really were such Academies in France at this time, drawing their inspiration via Renaissance Italy from those of Ancient Greece. Within moments, however, the King is forced to recognise the sheer impracticality of the idea.  Life imposes itself.  He cannot neglect his other duties. I know how he feels.  Finding ten hours in a week that is made up of 168 of the darned things (169 this week!) sounds as though it would be a doddle. Until, that is, you try to do it.

Anyway, I have got some of this week’s work out of the way.  We have moved on from considering the role of the city for the moment and are thinking about the extent to which you can legitimately see Dickens own biography in his writing. I am not going to rehearse the well worn arguments about biographical interpretations of a writer’s work.  I can see points in favour of both those who say never and those who say always.  I suppose my position is that most of us make decisions every day based on what we have experienced in the past and I can’t see why a writer should be any different, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t make an active decision not to reflect those experiences in their writing.  I am probably in the sometimes camp.

What I do have a problem with, however, is those biographers who make inferences about their subjects with no evidence whatsoever and then present it as a fact.  My favourite example of this comes from a biography of Christopher Marlowe.  I had been having problems with the writer from the beginning of the text but when, talking about Marlowe’s reaction to the work of a Cambridge contemporary, he claimed if Marlowe read this, he was amused I finally exploded. If Marlowe read this, I think he might have been amused, I might just about have coped with, although I would have preferred him to tell me on what grounds he thought the playwright was so tickled.  I would actually have liked something along the lines of Marlowe read this and we know he was amused because we have his authenticated copy of the book and in the margin he has written ‘I am amused’.  That, however, would be crying for the moon.  The trouble is, of course, that once you hit a statement like this, one for which there is no real evidence, you begin to question all the other statements that have been presented as fact.  I know that biographers have to be prepared to make inferences from evidential material and we as readers have to be prepared to weigh the value of such inferences, but sometimes the writer goes to far.

So, I think I am going to take my Dickens cold and not worry about what is or isn’t biographical.  They are cracking good stories and for me that is ultimately what matters.


Sunday Round-Up

e2191505c671674fab7f119e0ae8ab3fWell, I have to say that I am feeling rather better about myself this weekend than last having had a successful first week on my Dickens course and not too bad a week in the book world otherwise either.


The Dickens course got off to a flying start with a week looking at representations of the city in literature of the period up to the early nineteenth century.  I got myself worked up into a lather over the constant depiction of the city as a place of sin, mainly because I wanted to know who decided what constituted a sin and I’m afraid I rather lowered the tone of the discussion board by quoting the opening lines of Michael Hurd’s canata for children Jonah Man Jazz.  Do you know it?  The opening goes:

Nineveh city was a city of sin,

The jazzing and the jiving made a terrible din,

Beat groups playing rock and roll,

And the Lord when he heard it said, “Bless my soul”.

I wanted to know whether or not it would have been a different matter if they had been singing Bach cantatas.  It seems to me that in a lot of the cases that were coming up for discussion the question wasn’t one of sin but of the maintenance of the current power balance: People A saying to People B, “Your behaviour threatens our hold on power, therefore your behaviour is sinful. Yippee!  That means we can legitimately wipe you out”.

We haven’t got far enough for me to argue the specific case yet, but I don’t think Dickens thought of the city as sinful per se.  Rather it was the institutions that were embedded in it that concerned him and that is certainly an issue to do with power.


I haven’t got through quite as much reading as I’d hoped, but at least it is underway.  I’m halfway through Oliver Twist and find myself thinking yet again about the disservice that adaptations can do to a book.  OK, I love the musical, Oliver,  but really it doesn’t do much more than pay lip service to the original.  I think there was a rather more recent television dramatisation.  I must try and get hold of a copy of that.  The prescribed editions of Bleak House, Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend arrived on Friday.  They weigh in at around 800 pages apiece!  I am going to have to put some serious reading time to one side.  The required edition of Oliver Twist is out of print. Naughty!!!

Otherwise, I have finished Sarah Hall’s latest novel Wolf Border,  which I thought was a very good read but didn’t actually deserve quite the level of praise I’ve heard for it.  Certainly, I don’t understand why there were calls for it to be on the Booker list.  Nevertheless, I shall go back and read her earlier work and I’ve added her to my list of authors to explore when I want something that isn’t going to be particularly taxing.

Having taken that back to the library my late evening reading has been the most recent Rennie Airth crime novel, The Reckoning.  I wonder if you’ve come across Airth.  He publishes only infrequently, but I think this series, centred around John Madden, once of the Metropolitan Police and now a farmer who still gets caught up in police affairs, is excellent and that Airth certainly deserves to be better known.   The earlier novels are set in the interwar period and during WWII, but this one takes us just beyond, into 1947. Compared with most police procedurals they are quite books, but full of psychological insight.  If you like Laura Wilson’s Stratton series then you will enjoy these.

Prologues and Epilogues

Completely coincidentally, given what I posted about on Wednesday,  I was at a seminar session this week led by Tiffany Stern concerning the beginnings and endings of Early Modern plays.  She was asking which items should be included when she prepares a new edition of a play.  Prologues and epilogues yes, but what about things like trumpet calls?  And which dances are part of the end of the play and which are a completely separate entity?  It is a difficult question.  I can explain what is happening linguistically, but knowing that it’s a question of what is a separate particle and what is part of a shared wave doesn’t help the desperate editor.  She did, however, offer another example of an epilogue appearing at the beginning of a play, although in this instance it never pretends to be anything other than the epilogue.  In the printed edition of John Mason’s play The Turke, the epilogue is on the left hand side of the page as the frontispiece is on the right.  Just to make sure that the reader knows that this isn’t a case of the printer not knowing what an epilogue is the hard pressed workman has included the note,

This epilogue should have been printed at the end of the book but there was no spare place for it.

Apparently, Mason got it to the publisher so late that all the other pages had already been set and the only possible place to put it was on what is normally a blank page right at the very front.

These writers!  You can’t rely on them for anything!

tumblr_m28hunkihb1rqmm3jo1_1280On Thursday afternoon I was talking to three recently retired friends each of whom was relishing their new found freedom and specifically how they could now take their own time over what they did and when they did it.  I smiled benignly and decided that I wouldn’t spoil their pleasure by pointing out that seven years into my own retirement I have realised that if you let that mañana feeling go too far you are heading for disaster.   

When I first retired I wrote here regularly and read analytically even when I was also reading for pleasure.  However, over those intervening years I have gradually become what on a kind day I know to be intellectually less rigorous and on a more honest day, downright lazy.  When I look back on what I was capable of I have to say that I don’t like what I have become.

So, in an attempt to pull back some of that lost ground, I am about to start a distance learning course built around the novels of Charles Dickens, a writer who, in all my years studying and teaching literature, I have never had to work on.

Reading the City : The Life and Writing of Charles Dickens is a term long course run by the University of Exeter and during the coming twelve weeks I am going to be looking at my three favourite Dickens’ novels, Bleak House, Little Dorrit,  and  Our Mutual Friend along with the much earlier work, Oliver Twist.  I always think Dickens is at his best when he is writing about London. It is probably why those first three books appeal to me so much.  If ever an author captured the essence of a city as accurately as he did the characters who populate his works it has to be Dickens.  The passage about the London fog near the beginning of Bleak House has to be one of the greatest pieces of prose ever written.

First, however, I have to master what the university calls its ‘learning environment’.  Every HE institution has one and I’m quite used to the concept. The problem is that every one I encounter is different.  So I’ve set aside a couple of hours tomorrow morning – the first day of ‘term’ – to play around and see what I can make of Exeter’s.  If you hear a news item to the effect that the university’s entire computer system has been sabotaged you will know who to hold responsible.