Tag: Dickens

My Top Ten “Gateway” Books

  1. The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien. As with, I suspect, many other people, The Hobbit was my gateway into The Lord of the Rings, a book that, almost uniquely, sits deep in my psyche. And so it was a gateway, too, into a fandom and a way of writing and thinking and into a shared code of story.
  2. The Madwoman in the Attic – Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. This was my gateway into feminist thinking, and into serious, weighty literary criticism in general. It showed me what you can do with criticism, the anger you can wield with it and the worlds you can create.
  3. Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake. A gateway into the Gothic, a mode which holds so much interest for me, deep and dark and ambiguous and strange.
  4. The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon. This was the book that made me realise that postmodernism is actually pretty cool, definitely more cool than Modernism.
  5. Havelok the Dane – Anonymous. Havelok the Dane is a thirteenth-century narrative poem about, er, a Dane called Havelok who…invades Britain or something? I can’t even really remember what happens in it. Anyway, I read this a couple of weeks before I started at university, in a vague panic because I didn’t get the reading list when I was supposed to get it, and just being utterly enchanted because it was so Tolkien-y and fairy tale-esque. And it was that that made me choose to study Middle English instead of Old English in my first year, so I got to read lots of other wonderful works like it, including several Arthurian romances, and overall I had a great insight into a literary period that doesn’t get studied very often.
  6. Saga Volume 1 – Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. This was my first graphic novel, and I couldn’t really have asked for a better introduction. It’s punchy and fearless and full of emotional truth.
  7. The Gunslinger – Stephen King. So this was my gateway into proper grown-up fantasy, really: fantasy in which worldbuilding is metaphor and metaphor is worldbuilding, in which our world is always half-glimpsed in the strangenesses of another one.
  8. Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens. I was quite lucky that this was my first Dickens novel: it’s sentimental and sprawling and right up my street, and it’s why I continue to read Dickens novels. (To be fair, there’s only been one real dud among the ones I’ve read.)
  9. The Historian – Elizabeth Kostova. This made me properly want to go to university and study things in dusty old libraries.
  10. Steampunk Your Wardrobe – Calista Taylor. I mean, I still haven’t made anything from this book, but it was my first steampunk reference book, so to speak. I now have three, and intend to collect lots more!

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: David Copperfield

This review contains spoilers.

Famously, David Copperfield was Dickens’ favourite of his novels. Possibly equally famously, it’s quite recognisably autobiographical.

Conflating these things is dangerous, of course. And just because some things in the novel are autobiographical doesn’t mean all or most of it is. But I couldn’t help reading it in the light of Claire Tomalin’s biography Dickens: A Life, which I read the Christmas before last, and specifically in the light of the fact that Dickens was, to put it crudely if punningly, a bit of a dick.

So. David Copperfield is narrated in first person by its eponymous hero, whose early childhood is as elysian as all remembered childhoods are; he lives with his adoring mother (widowed on the eve of his birth) and an equally adoring female housekeeper, Peggotty. That’s until his mother marries the odious Mr Murdstone, who turns out to be emotionally abusive and financially grasping. He sends David away to school, and then, after the narratively inevitable death of David’s mother, to work in a bottle factory. Oppressed by this life, David flees to the doubtful embrace of his fearsome aunt Betsy Trotwood, who takes him under her wing, sends him to a decent school and generally sets him on the path of genteel, middle-class poverty.

I think David is supposed to be a sympathetic, nay laudable, protagonist: fair-minded, right-thinking and generally well-intentioned. Mine is a resistant reading, then: I found him, like his creator, a misogynist pig.

David Copperfield is in part a kind of relationship sandbox for its hero: it’s full of couples who are functional or dysfunctional in various ways which, conveniently, David gets to witness and in some cases take part in, so he can learn for himself What Makes a Good Spouse. Although David’s assumptions about these relationships aren’t always correct, I think they are supposed to be reasonable assumptions from the evidence he has – and, for reasons I’ll go into later, I think whether they’re reasonable is as important to Dickens as whether they’re right. This is important because David is judgemental, unsympathetic and, usually, contemptuous about the relationships he witnesses.

So. The functional relationships in the novel (spoilers, obviously):

  • Mr and Mrs Micawber – Mr Micawber, David’s landlord during the time he works in the bottle factory is terrible with money and constantly in debt. Mrs Micawber’s family have disowned her for marrying him, and they are constantly having children they can’t afford to feed. This should, according to most narrative logic, be a disaster. In fact, Mrs Micawber is devoted and forgiving – not uncomplainingly so, which would be sickening, but in a kind of pragmatic, bustling way that speaks of a genuinely robust relationship despite their incompetence with reference to accepted financial social codes.
  • Peggotty and Barkis – another relationship that seems based in comfortable companionship rather than romantic devotion. We don’t actually get much of a look at this relationship, which is surprising given how important Peggotty is to David.
  • Agnes and David – Agnes is the person David ends up with at the end; she is, of course, radiant, angelic, intelligent, emotionally competent and patient. Although this reads like an idealised relationship, I think it’s actually supposed to be more friendship-based than David’s other entanglements.

And the dysfunctional relationships:

  • Doctor and Mrs Strong – Doctor Strong is David’s teacher at the school his aunt sends him to. Everyone (meaning David and Aunt Betsy’s alcoholic lawyer Mr Wickfield) thinks Mrs Strong is in love with her cousin, Jack Maldon. Not having an affair or anything; just in love. David is horrified that she should have socially unapproved feelings, notwithstanding the fact that she is much younger than her husband, who seems to be more of a father figure to her in that creepy Victorian paternalistic way. David and Mr Wickfield turn out to be wrong.
  • Mr Murdstone and David’s mother – obviously, being David’s mother’s second husband, Mr Murdstone is emotionally abusive, because women marrying again are always monsters or mistaken, even though marriage often gives women the social status and/or finances they need to survive.
  • David and Dora – a particularly shitty one. Dora is David’s first wife (men not being subject to the same rules re remarriage). She is described pretty much entirely in terms of how David sees her: enchanting, pretty, tinkly-laughed, frivolous. She turns out to be totally useless at being a wife: she can’t manage servants or do the accounts or support David emotionally, for the very good (though unacknowledged by Dickens) reason that she’s been taught to be ornamental all her life and has never had to apply herself to anything. No wonder she’s confused. In any case, just as David has learned his lesson she dies of feebleness, apparently, leaving him free to select someone more worthy. Oh, and she asks David to call her “child-wife”, which, eww.
  • Em’ly and Steerforth – this one is the worst. Steerforth is one of David’s friends from school, so devilishly handsome and charismatic that even David wants to sleep with him a little bit. Em’ly is a fisherman’s daughter, the niece of Peggotty’s brother, who David meets as a child and is, even into adulthood, bewitching, charming, and (fatally) flirtatious. She is seduced by Steerforth, and at a stroke her life is ruined: her fiance leaves her and she’s renounced by everyone who once knew her. I’ve no doubt that this is an accurate representation of what might happen to a fallen woman of her class; but neither Dickens or David seem to have an ounce of sympathy for her, who was almost certainly promised marriage by Steerforth (which of course he did not intend to provide), and who’s been damned by an act that men could do with impunity. Look at Tess of the D’Urbevilles, after all, about a woman of a not dissimilar social class living in similar times under similar circumstances: Hardy has more sympathy for his heroine in one page than Dickens and David have in the entire book. David at one point muses that it might be better for Em’ly to be dead than ruined.

For Dickens, the secret to a successful relationship seems to be equality: equality of intelligence, age and social standing. It takes David the whole novel to learn this.

This is important because in a wider sense the novel is about David finding out who he is supposed to be and where he is supposed to fit in the world. Just as he tries out different relationships through his social circle, he tries out different roles in life: manual labourer, lawyer, writer, breadwinner, unmasker of villains. It’s significant that, at the end of the novel, a ship heads for Australia, to the new society taking shape there: it carries the Micawbers and Em’ly with her uncle, people who no longer have a place in England’s body politic. And what I think is meant to be a particularly existentially terrifying moment comes when David, during some research for his writing, visits a model prison, again towards the end of the novel. There he finds Uriah Heep, a particularly odious specimen of humanity who has throughout the novel been blackmailing Mr Wickfield, taking advantage of his alcoholism to gain power over him; Uriah’s famous refrain is, “I’m very umble, sir,” when of course he means nothing of the sort. Also in the prison is Steerforth’s manservant, ostensibly arrested for petty theft, although narratively he is obviously in prison for his role in Em’ly’s seduction. The manservant’s schtick is respectability; the kind of disapproving correctness (so I imagined) you get off waiters in expensive restaurants. Both are commended by the prison guards as model prisoners; though we, and David, know they are anything but. They are actors, taking advantage of the role society’s marked out for them and playing it so very perfectly that it becomes subversion. And they are dangerous because they know their power; and they are terrifying because they are absolutely products of their society.

My point is that, in a wider sense, David Copperfield is a novel about the body politic, and where people fit, correctly, into it. That’s why, after all, it’s so important that David marry the right person; because marriage and the nuclear family is the cornerstone of England’s bourgeois body politic in Dickens’ time. And that’s why it’s important that the women of the novel aren’t really characters in their own right (the exceptions are the delightfully proto-feminist Betsy Trotwood, who dresses masculinely and refuses to marry, and Peggotty, who exists, it seems, to serve David); they’re ciphers, seen only through David’s eyes, existing only insomuch as they affect the men around them. (Poor Em’ly’s fiance! His heart is broken and he will never marry now! Never mind that Em’ly is considered worse than dead by her society.) In Dickens’ society, women exist only for men: to uphold and serve the body politic and allow men to learn and have stories and actual lives. In Dickens Land, a woman will only ever be a supporting character.

Top Ten Books That Would Make Good TV

  1. Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens. I think this is actually already a TV series – I mean, I doubt there’s a single Dickens novel that isn’t – but I haven’t managed to get my hands on it. It’s almost a truism to observe that Dickens is perfect for a TV series’ episodic, sprawling structure – certainly Our Mutual Friend needs more space than a film can give it.
  2. The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien. I had to think about this one a bit (and it’s never going to happen in any case, the Tolkien Estate being notoriously tight-fisted with the rights), but it’s an episodic narrative with a vast cast of characters and a number of narrative strands. It would be like Game of Thrones but without all the rape.
  3. Perdido Street Station – China Mieville. I cannot imagine any TV producer being brave enough to take on Perdido Street Station, with its particular brand of squicky violence and unromanticised reality, but I wish they would. The pulpy plot elements, the rambly narrative, the overbearingly Gothic-steampunk city of New Crobuzon? Yes, yes, yes.
  4. Saga – Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. I don’t know why, I just think the high-speed zaniness of the graphic novels would transfer well to TV. (Maybe like Doctor Who but without all the sexism?) It makes a lot of play with different kinds of pop culture and the role they play in public dissent, too, which would be interesting to consider in a TV show.
  5. Bleeding Edge – Thomas Pynchon. Obviously, there’s a lot in Pynchon that couldn’t be captured visually, but that’s the case with pretty much everything else on this list too. But I can see a TV version of Bleeding Edge playing out like Dirk Gently, almost.
  6. Paradise Lost – John Milton. What? Paradise Lost would look fantastic on TV, all fire and brimstone and war in Heaven, and it has some pretty compelling characters too. If you can have Shakespeare on TV, you can have Milton.
  7. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers. Yes! It would be like Firefly but with aliens and fewer guns.
  8. Palimpsest – Catherynne M. Valente. I just read this, and it would make a terrible film but a great TV series (though I suppose it’s quite short). You could do a lot with the city of Palimpsest itself, and intertwining that with the characters in the real world would work really well on TV.
  9. Robot Dreams – Isaac Asimov. You know what would be good? A Twilight Zone-style anthology series featuring Asimov’s short stories, which all have that kind of conceptual twist you got in Twilight Zone episodes, when it turned out the person narrating the story was dead or something. Obviously, not that tone of twist, but structurally it’s the same thing.
  10. Temeraire – Naomi Novik. All the Regency society manoeuvrings are like a soap anyway. It would just have dragons in it too.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Top Ten Books I Read Before I Was a Blogger

  1. The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien. I’m currently re-reading this, and I think one of the things I love about it is how autumnal it is: that gentle, gorgeous sadness.
  2. Going Postal – Terry Pratchett. Or, all the Discworld books. Going Postal is one of my favourites, though: I’m fascinated by showmen, and if Moist is anything he’s a showman.
  3. The Gunslinger – Stephen King. Apocalyptic and vast, a story of truths half-told, of men in black and way stations and mutants under mountains: in many ways this is just perfect fantasy. I’ve never read anything like it since.
  4. Sabriel – Garth Nix. I read and re-read this, and its sequels Lirael and Abhorsen, endlessly. It’s got an awesome heroine, a sarcastic cat, a vast and wonderful library (in Lirael), and an invented world with a lot of depth.
  5. Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens. This was my first Dickens, which I read when I was in school: I fell in love with its sprawling sentimentality.
  6. The Historian – Elizabeth Kostova. Another novel that features libraries: its main characters track down Dracula through a paper trail of pamphlets and books from across time. It made me want to go to university; not that I hadn’t wanted to go before, but this made me want it concretely.
  7. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – Douglas Adams. Dirk Gently is one of the great comic creations of English literature: irreverent, off-beat and ironical.
  8. Persuasion – Jane Austen. Another wonderfully autumnal novel: I read it for my A-level course, and it was just so rewarding to study.
  9. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – J.K. Rowling. This was the first Harry Potter book I read (don’t ask) and I’ve had a soft spot for it ever since. I think it strikes a great balance between worldbuilding and plot, a balance that the later books don’t ever really achieve.
  10. Northern Lights – Philip Pullman. I just really, really loved the idea of daemons, and the fact that it was a huge, dense book to get stuck into. Reading it back now, it’s also full of quite complex ideas about science and metaphysics and philosophy.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Top Ten Books I Recommend Most Often

  1. Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel. Station Eleven is SF for book club readers (which sounds a good deal less positive than I meant it to). It’s an inoffensive and quietly touching book, and its focus is on people not setting.
  2. Sabriel – Garth Nix. I have had something of an awakening to just how good the Old Kingdom books actually are in recent years: strongly-characterised heroines who are moral but strong, subtle sex positivity, really solid worldbuilding and a sarcastic cat. In a publishing scene awash with high fantasy that can often barely summon up a female character not defined by romantic relationships, these are a breath of fresh air and I’m so grateful to have grown up with them.
  3. Guards! Guards! – Terry Pratchett. Does this really need saying? Pratchett’s books are an Old Favourite: humane and funny and so lovely to return to like a comfort blanket and I’ve met very few people who don’t like them.
  4. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley. Everyone should read this. Everyone. Firstly because it’s nothing like popular culture tells you it is. And secondly because it is a warning about the perils of forgetting the dispossessed and the downtrodden, the terrible power of the disenfranchised.
  5. The Gunslinger – Stephen King. I don’t recommend this as often nowadays, but I used to plug it to absolutely anyone who would listen. I still think the first three books are astonishing, understated, fresh pieces of epic fantasy; my love for them is just a little tarred by the bloat of, especially, Wolves of the Calla and The Dark Tower.
  6. Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens. I have a special place in my heart for Our Mutual Friend, and I always recommend it to people asking about Dickens. This is probably a bad idea, since it’s a sprawling, dense novel which I imagine turns a lot of people off. But I can’t help it: it is my fave.
  7. House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski. I do hesitate to recommend this sometimes: I think it’s a book that only certain people will like. But if I think you are certain people? Then I will recommend the heck out of it.
  8. The Madwoman in the Attic – Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Yes: it is an academic tome. Yes: it was first published thirty years ago and is extremely very hectoring and feminist-ragey. But I maintain that absolutely saved my life in university and every English student should read it and it is totally badass and awesome.
  9. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers. I read this only quite recently and have therefore had limited time to recommend it; but it is a breath of goodwill and hope in a post-Brexit, terror-scarred, shifting-to-the-right world.
  10. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. A book whose relentless optimism about the power of community bears down on the horror of German-occupied Guernsey and flattens it. Just universally agreeable.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Top Ten Romances in Books

  1. Beren/Luthien – The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien. There are so many things wrong with this romance (the age difference, the fact that Luthien gives up literally everything because Beren is such a manly Man, the codependency) but, ugh, it is my fave and will continue to be unto the ending of the world.
  2. Rosemary/Sissix – The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers. It’s always heartwarming to see characters navigating something other than a conventional hetero monogamous relationship, and Chambers does it with such good humour.
  3. Alana/Marko – Saga, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. I love that this is already an established relationship by the time the story starts. I think Saga is doing character work around Being In A Relationship which I don’t see very often in genre, and Alana and Marko feel like a properly strong couple.
  4. Axl/Beatrice – The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro. Another long-established couple, looking back (or trying to) over their lives together. Again, their relationship just feels strong because of, not despite, the shadows that beset it.
  5. Holly Sykes/Hugo Lamb – The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell. From a life-long marriage to a one-night stand. I don’t think I’ll ever stop shipping these two: I really, really hope there’s a fanfic somewhere in which Hugo doesn’t go off to become a soul-sucking immortal.
  6. Beatrice/Benedick – Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare. Beatrice and Benedick have such chemistry: Beatrice is one of Shakespeare’s great female characters, gutsy and witty, and Benedick is perfect as her foil.
  7. Agniezka/the Dragon – Uprooted, Naomi Novik. Again: yes, my fave is problematic. But I love that Agniezka doesn’t even think of pining for the Dragon when she’s away; she just gets on with her life.
  8. Glenda/Nutt – Unseen Academicals, Terry Pratchett. I just think these two are adorable. Nutt is awkward and geeky and also an orc and Glenda is pragmatic and only very secretly romantic and their romance is quiet but true.
  9. Callanish/North – The Gracekeepers, Kirsty Logan. I just finished this book, and admittedly it is not a fantastic read, but one thing I do like about it is that it makes absolutely no fanfare about the fact that Callanish and North are both women. It doesn’t even bother making it an issue.
  10. Eugene Wrayburn/Lizzie Hexam – Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens. Lizzie is, unlike so many of her Dickensian leading-lady counterparts, sort of a badass. She drags her love interest out of a river after he’s attacked and carries him to the nearest inn. Of course, she could only do that because she is working class (I cannot see Bella Wilfer even contemplating rescuing John from any body of water), but it’s still fantastic.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Top Ten Books I’d Give as Gifts

“September read often, and liked it best when words did not pretend to be simple, but put on their full armor and rode out with colors flying.”

Catherynne Valente

…or, you know, just press into someone’s hands and run off cackling.

  1. A Novel Bookstore – Laurence Cosse. It’s a lovely, atmospheric, gentle book about books, and book-love, and how reading can save us, and it’s a contemporary with wide appeal. Plus, people are unlikely to have run across it before as it’s a translation (from the French).
  2. Jack Glass – Adam Roberts. Murderers and locked room mysteries IN SPACE! I can imagine some people who wouldn’t like this, but NOT THAT MANY.
  3. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell. I think this is pretty much self-explanatory. It’s brilliant, moving fiction that’s also very accessible (well, barring the long stretch of dialect in the middle, which admittedly takes some getting used to), and there’s a genre in there for everyone.
  4. Collected Poems 1909-1962 – T.S. Eliot. I just think the brown-paper Faber edition is beautiful, with its high-quality creamy pages, and Eliot is a classic (if not the easiest of poets to read).
  5. Going Postal – Terry Pratchett. Or, you know, any of the pre-Snuff Discworld books: they are funny and humane and clever and there’s a whole world waiting to be discovered there and I am literally insanely jealous of anyone who gets to discover them for the first time.
  6. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making – Catherynne M. Valente. Everyone should read this book: it is just such a wonderful, original fairytale, written in luminous, beautiful prose, casting sharp shadows against marshmallow brightness.
  7. Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier. Another classic, hypnotic, disturbing and involving, an apparently realist novel with a darker undertone.
  8. Temeraire – Naomi Novik. A solid fantasy novel, exactly the kind of thing you want to give as a gift: well-characterised, carefully period-specific without being dull, full of adorable baby dragon, and not too weird.
  9. The Gormenghast Trilogy – Mervyn Peake. You can get some beautiful editions of Peake’s work, and they’d make great gifts to the right person – heady, all-encompassing and intensely compelling Gothic fiction.
  10. Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens. As we all know, a good Dickens novel makes a great gift, and Our Mutual Friend is, I think, his best, for its anger, its humour, its sentimentality and the careful links it weaves between all its characters.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)