Madeira Mondays: Fever, 1793 (Book Review)

Ever since Covid-19 broke out across the world, there’s been a lot of talk about the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. I’ve also heard historians, especially medievalists, called upon to talk about the bubonic plague of the 1300’s, and I’ve seen Daniel Defoe’s 1722 book, A Journal of the Plague Year, added to many people’s reading lists! All of this makes sense. People are curious about pandemics of the past and how people coped (spiritually, physically, psychologically) with rampant infectious diseases.

That curiosity is what drove me to read Fever, 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson. This is a YA (Young Adult) novel published originally twenty years ago, but it definitely has a lot of relevance today. It’s about an epidemic that you may not have heard of: the outbreak of yellow fever in Philadelphia in 1793. Continue reading

Madeira Mondays: Great Expectations (Book Review)

‘I never had one hour’s happiness in her society, and yet my mind all-round the four-and-twenty hours was harping on the happiness of having her with me unto death.’ – Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

I was meant to read Great Expectations at university. I know that because I have a distinctive memory of one of my professors, who was also my undergraduate dissertation supervisor, Phillip Mallet, discussing and dissecting the ending of this book in front of our Victorian novel class. I nodded along like I knew what he was talking about (It was not the first time I had sat through a lecture on a book I hadn’t read!). And while Phillip Mallet was an excellent lecturer, I’m glad I remember very little of what he said because this book was so full of twists and turns, it would have been a shame to learn about them all secondhand.

Which is why I will try – for today’s Madeira Mondays – to discuss this book without spoiling it. What I can spoil is that: I thought it was amazing. I enjoyed it even more than A Tale of Two Cities, which I reviewed last summer. What makes it so great, you ask? Well I shall endeavor to tell you (spoiler free!!), so you can decide if it sounds like a book you’d enjoy too!

What’s the book about?

Great Expectations (1860) is a coming-of-age story. It’s probably one of the most famous coming-of-age stories in the English language, I’d say? It tells the story of a young orphan called Phillip, nickname ‘Pip’, who, in the famous first scene, encounters a terrifying escaped convict in a graveyard, demanding Pip’s help. ‘Keep still, you little devil,’ the convict cries, ‘or I’ll cut your throat!’ The convict is described as vividly as you would expect from Dickens, who is a MASTER at character descriptions, and zooming in on little details of people’s clothing or physicality to give you an amazing picture of who they are. The convict, who we later learn is called Magwitch, is described as:

A fearful man, all in course grey (…) A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin.

Can’t you see the convict? I can. And, again without giving anything away, this book is populated throughout with many similarly vivid characters – from the terrifying and tragic Miss Havisham, jilted at the altar and who still, many years later, wears her wedding dress and haunts her own dilapidated manor house, to her beautiful, serene, cold-hearted protegee Estella.

Pip meets Magwitch in the graveyard. A publicity still from a 1917 adaptation of the book from Paramount Pictures, accessed via Wikimedia Commons

Pip must navigate complicated and, at times, heart breaking interactions with all these people as he grows up and tries to ‘better’ himself and improve his social class in Victorian England. Along the way, he makes mistakes (so many), which leads me on to why I think this is probably the best Dickens book I’ve read so far. Pip is probably the most believably human character I’ve encountered in a Dickens novel (keep in mind, I’ve only read A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities and this one). I love Dickens, as you know, but usually he’s one for larger than life characters, who sort of STAND for something (greed, corruption, etc.) rather than having characters who just feel like people. Great Expectations certainly has a lot of those larger than life figures, but because it’s a first-person narrative (this is Pip telling his story), and Pip just feels so human and fallible, I thought it was the most complex and involving of his books I’ve read.

What does Pip do that is so human and realistic? Well, he makes a lot of bad choices. Namely, and this doesn’t give too much away, he immediately falls in love with Estella who is, to put it bluntly, an asshole. We (the readers) know it. Pip knows it too. Dickens knows it. Everyone knows it. She’s so mean to him, for years, and yet…he’s infatuated with her, dreams of marrying her etc. I totally believed this. It’s such a poor choice to pursue her, and yet. People do this kind of thing in real life all the time. They become enamored with people who aren’t nice to them, they idealize their beloved and they let people become symbols, in a sense, making them more than what they are. For example, Pip loves Estella because in many ways she represents the refined, upper class life he so craves. If he can have her, he can have that, etc.

Again, I don’t want to reveal too much, but Pip makes so many selfish and short-sighted decisions, while, overall, being a fairly decent person. He’s never so awful or so cruel that you strongly dislike him, he’s mostly just a bit careless and self-centered (as people often are!). By the end, I totally believed in his humanity and I very much wanted him to be happy. But what is happiness? Is he going to have to learn to redefine what it means to him over the course of the book…who knows?? (hehe)

Also, as a bit of an aside, Dickens gets a lot of flak for his portrayal of women. I can understand that. In the three books of his I’ve read, none of the women reach near the complexity of a character like Pip, or A Tale of Two Cities‘ wonderfully compelling Sydney Carton. His women are interesting – no-one can say that Miss Havisham isn’t interesting!! – but they’re extremes. They’re extremely eccentric, or extremely angelic, or extremely violent, etc. I’m not sure we can entirely blame Dickens for this. Did his society encourage him to consider the internal complexities of the women around him? Probably not. Did he speak openly and candidly with women (his wife, friends, sisters) about their lives? Probably not. I’m just saying that Dickens in many ways was an author who wrote what he knew, and I don’t think that he knew, or could possibly even imagine, what sort of fears, hopes, desires, dreams would be in the heart of a little girl like Estella, versus a little boy like Pip. It’s a limitation of his writing, but not one that ruins it for me, by any means. I loved this book.

‘I entreated her to rise’, an illustration of a scene between Pip and Miss Havisham towards the end of the book, from an 1877 edition of Great Expectations. Image via Wikimedia Commons

One final other ‘flaw’, in my opinion, is that the middle of the book drags a bit, but the first section and the final section were incredibly paced and made up for a bit of a lull in the middle.

I’d recommend Great Expectations if you’re into character-led stories, whereas I’d recommend A Tale of Two Cities if you’re into more action-led stories. That book was a lot about justice, redemption, protests, mercy, whereas this one is a lot about inheritance, class, and how, as we grow up, our values and our priorities change. Even though Cities was set in the 18th century (my time period!), I think I preferred this one. I’m a sucker for a good first-person story and this is probably one of the best I’ve ever read.

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: Revisiting ‘A Christmas Carol’

As an author, I’m often asked: ‘What are your favorite books?’ Interviewers ask this, school children ask this, my undergraduate students ask this. People even ask it if you’re not an author, as a sort of get-to-know-you question at parties or on dates. For us book lovers, this is an impossible question, which is why it’s best to memorize a few authors/books you can rattle off whenever you’re asked, a sampling of your tastes. If you’re an author, it’s also a chance, I think, to give people a sense of what your writing will be like, by citing people who have inspired you. I often preface it with something like, ‘Oh, I love so many books. I couldn’t pick a favorite!’

But this is a lie, my dear Madeira Mondays friends. I do have a favorite book, but I’m usually shy to mention it. Because mentioning it makes people think of awkward school plays and also the muppets. But my favorite book – the one that brings me the most joy and satisfaction and warmth when I read it – is definitely A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

You’re probably familiar with the story of A Christmas Carol, because there have been SO many adaptations of it – from modernizations (see: Scrooged) to classic ‘straightforward’ adaptations (see the aforementioned: The Muppet Christmas Carol). But in case you’re not, this was a novella published by Charles Dickens in 1843 (so we’re deviating from our 18th century remit a bit today, dipping into the mid 19th century!). It follows the story of a greedy, isolated old man called Ebenezer Scrooge who is visited by three ghosts (the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future) who show him the error of his ways. Over the course of the story, Scrooge learns about the values of charity and compassion and emerges from the experience transformed into a kinder, more giving, person.

One of the things that makes this book so brilliant is that it is hilarious. Yes, the themes in it are serious and Dickens takes them seriously. His concerns about poverty in London and social injustice motivated him to write the book at all. He considered writing a political pamphlet about the plight of London’s poor, but instead settled on exploring his concerns in a Christmas narrative because he thought this would reach more people. (Dickens also needed the money. When he started writing A Christmas Carol, sales of his previous book Martin Chuzzlewit were falling off.)

Yet he takes these very serious themes and crafts the most lighthearted, lovely, engaging and, as I mentioned, funny story. We see that humor from the very beginning of this story. The first paragraph ends with ‘Old Marley (Scrooge’s former business partner) was dead as a doornail’. Then the entire second paragraph is just a funny musing about why exactly we say, ‘dead as a doornail’, when we really should probably say ‘coffin-nail’:

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

We know right away that we’re in good hands and this is going to be a bit of a silly romp, rather than a polemic. And it’s not just that the narrative voice is splendid. This is Dickens we’re talking about so the characters’ dialogue is also brilliant – vivid and fun. Take this exchange between the ghost of Jacob Marley, the first apparition to appear, and Scrooge.

“You don’t believe in me,” observed the Ghost.

“I don’t,” said Scrooge.

“What evidence would you have of my reality beyond that of your senses?”

“I don’t know,” said Scrooge.

“Why do you doubt your senses?”

“Because,” said Scrooge, “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

I love that line: ‘There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!’ You hopefully get my point by now – the book is a lot of fun.

Jacob Marley visits Scrooge in one of the original illustrations from the book’s first publication in the 1840s (The image is public domain, from the British Library)

But it’s also got such striking and vivid descriptions, which I promise will surprise you, even if you’ve already seen a version of it on film or at the theatre. Take Dickens’ surreal and strange descriptions of the Ghost of Christmas Past:

For as its belt sparkled and glittered now in one part and now in another, and what was light one instant, at another time was dark, so the figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away.

Is it too much to say that the murky, morphing figure of the ghost represents our dim and ever-fluctuating understanding of the past? No. No it’s not. I’m saying it.

Not only is A Christmas Carol full of humor and genuine surprises, but it’s also full of compassion. There is never a time, since it’s publication, when its themes haven’t been relevant to us: the importance of caring for those around us (our family, our work colleagues), but also those we might never meet. It’s also quite revolutionary, in a sense, because Scrooge actually does give money away, at the end of the book. He merrily tells his employee Bob Crachit, at the end of the book: ‘I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family (…)’. It’s not just a book about being generally nice to people, but rather about someone who puts their money where their mouth is, as it were, and endeavors to better the lives of those around him through financial assistance.

Charles Dickens in 1842, the year before he wrote A Christmas Carol, painted by Francis Alexander and accessed via Wikipedia. (He looks so different from the bearded, older version we’re most familiar with now, right?)

I called this post ‘Revisiting A Christmas Carol’ because it’s something I do every winter. I’m serious. I reread the book pretty much every year. (It’s short! You could easily read it in a day!) I also liked the reference to the ghosts ‘visiting’ Scrooge, but ALSO I called it that because most people are already familiar with the book, or think they’re familiar with it, but it’s well-worth a revisit. Or a read for the first time. There’s a reason it has stayed around for this long.

And yes, it’s a bit over-the-top. Yes, it can be cheesy! But I love it, and like all types of love, it can’t always be explained. But, if you read it, I hope you love it too.

Have you ever read A Christmas Carol? Or what’s your favorite version of it that you’ve seen in film/TV/live theatre?

And do you have a favorite Christmas tale in any genre (Love Actually? A Christmas Story? How the Grinch Stole Christmas? Die Hard? etc.)?

Recommended Further Reading:

PS Today’s featured image is of the title page of the first edition of the book

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: The Yellow Wallpaper (Book Review)

A colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house, and reach the height of romantic felicity – but that would be asking too much of fate. Still I will proudly declare that there is something queer about it. – from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper

I wanted to share with you a ghost story this week!

It is almost Halloween, after all. I went back and forth about which story to pick, and ended up settling on a story that was written in the 19th century, not the 18th, although it’s set in an old 18th century home. It’s about a woman who has been feeling unwell (a ‘temporary nervous depression’, she calls it) and travels with her husband to a fading ‘colonial mansion’ one summer, a space where she can (presumably) recuperate. Her husband, John, is a physician and forbids her from writing, or doing work of any kind, until she feels better. But the woman begins a series of secret journal entries, chronicling her growing obsession with the ‘yellow wallpaper’ which surrounds her, in the room where she’s being held.

At first the wallpaper is just an eyesore, ‘one of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin’, but slowly it seems as though the pattern comes to life. It watches her. It moves. It is like the bars of a cage and, behind it, she sees a woman held prisoner, desperate to escape.

I’m talking, of course, about The Yellow Wallpaper written by celebrated American writer and feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935). 

The book cover from 1901. Stetson was Gilman’s first married name, which she sometimes went by.

This is quite a famous short story but one that I hadn’t actually read until a couple of weeks ago. Quite simply: I loved it. I loved everything about it, really. I loved the themes in it: the repression and infantilization of women at the time in both marriage and in medicine (she’s treated like a child by her husband, who is also her doctor, and her own beliefs about her own health are ignored), the importance of creativity and self-expression.

It is full of vivid and unsettling imagery and I could see this wallpaper so clearly through the narrator’s eyes, as she slowly descends further towards insanity:

…when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide – plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions. The color is repellent, almost revolting: a smoldering unclean yellow…

The story is on one level a critique of a specific psychological practice of the time to treat ‘nervous’ women, known as the ‘rest cure’. Gilman herself had suffered from postpartum depression, and was prescribed the ‘rest cure’. She wasn’t allowed to write or have any kind of mental stimulation – all she could do was ‘rest’ (which meant enforced seclusion and bed rest). Her doctor told her to:

Live as domestic a life as possible. Have your child with you all the time…Have but two hours’ intellectual life a day. And never touch a pen, brush or pencil as long as you live.

(As quoted in the ‘Introduction’ to Ghost, edited by Louise Welsh)

The ‘rest cure’ was a treatment advocated by Silas Weir Mitchell, who is actually mentioned by name in The Yellow Wallpaper. Gilman eventually rebelled against the ‘rest cure’, which had only worsened her condition, and began writing again. When she finished The Yellow Wallpaper, she sent a copy to Mitchell, but never received a response.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman c. 1900, photo via Wikipedia

Interestingly, according to this article I found from the American Psychological Association, the cure that Mitchell prescribed to women was very different to the one he suggested for men:

While Mitchell put worried women to bed, he sent anxious men out West to engage in prolonged periods of cattle roping, hunting, roughriding and male bonding.

So…women had to shut themselves away inside, and stop engaging in any sort of self-expression. Men should get out there and…ride some horses! It was called the ‘West cure’. I laughed so much when I learned about this, because it so clearly illustrates the misogyny and the cultural stereotypes of the time. Women were told to go back into the home, into the domestic sphere, while men experiencing what we might think of now as depression and/or anxiety were encouraged to just get out there, go outside and do some ‘manly’ activities (like hunting or herding cattle).

In any case, Gilman’s story is inspired by her experiences with the ‘rest cure’ and its negative effects, but it’s also a timeless story about how important it is for everyone to be able to express themselves. The narrator finds it a ‘relief’ to write. There is a great irony that everyone around the narrator wants her to stop writing (‘I verily believe (John’s sister) thinks it is the writing which made me sick’), but in reality it is the writing which is keeping her alive.

But is this a ghost story, Carly, you might ask? Well…I think so! And not just because I read it in the ghost story anthology, Ghost, edited by Louise Welsh. It’s quite a gothic tale (spooky old house, a woman in captivity, heightened emotions) for one. But it’s also a ghost story because the narrator is haunted by the yellow wallpaper. More broadly, she’s haunted and tormented by the confines put upon her by her husband and the male-dominated medical establishment of the time.

I know I’ve made it sound quite heavy, but it’s a brilliant story, very readable, and free to read online (it’s available here on Project Gutenberg).

Happy reading and happy halloween, my friends!

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Book Review)

It is officially autumn, which means time to crack out the ghost stories and gothic tales (For a brilliant ghost story anthology, by the way, I’d recommend Ghost, edited by Louise Welsh!). Last week I decided that I’d check out Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow for the first time and, let me tell you, this story was a delight and a surprise.

The Headless Horseman, as you probably know, is the tale of a superstitious schoolteacher called Ichabod Crane who moves into a village in rural late 18th century New York (right after the Revolutionary War). It’s a dreamy place and, when people visit, the ‘witching influence of the air’ makes them ‘begin to grow imaginative, to dream dreams, and see apparitions’. One of the apparitions that is known to haunt the town is the spirit of a Hessian soldier who lost his head to a cannon ball in a battle during the Revolution and rides out nightly looking for it. But who, or what, is the headless horseman? And what are the chances that Ichabod might have a run in with him, before this story is done?

Legend of Sleepy Hollow U.S Postage Stamp, from October 1974. Image accessed via Wikipedia

I knew a little bit about Sleepy Hollow before reading it, but what I was so surprised by was the lighthearted tone of it. I expected it to be quite serious and gothic, but I’d mostly call it a playful and affectionate satire of the New York Dutch community that Irving was raised around. In fact, by the time he wrote Sleepy Hollow, Irving, who grew up in New York, had already written A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty by Diedrich Knickerbocker.‘Diedrich Knickerbocker’ (amazing name!) was a character that Irving created – a crusty old Dutch-American historian. Writing under the name of Knickerbocker, Irving’s A History of New York, lightly satirized self-important local histories and politics (which, you could say also applies to Sleepy Hollow!). It also chronicled Dutch-American traditions, including those surrounding Christmas. I talk about this in my blog post about the history of Christmas in America, but lots of our modern Christmas traditions come from the Dutch. Irving’s A History of New York is significant because it captures some of the Dutch traditions that would later become Christmas staples (hanging stockings by the fire, for instance, is a Dutch thing!).

Diedrich Knickerbocker, as a character, appears here in Sleepy Hollow too, in the framing story. The entire tale of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman is presented as something that Knickerbocker overheard. It’s a fun and quite modern (or even post-modern?) device to have a humorous fake persona like this. Irving (the cheeky fellow!) even tried to stoke controversy and interest in his work by putting ‘missing persons’ ads in local newspapers – looking for Diedrich Knickerbocker!! People really believed that Knickerbocker existed and even offered a reward for his return. This kind of play with authorial personas and invented ‘found’ histories actually makes me think of something like His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet, a novel which came out a few years ago and tells a story using fictional historical documents. (Burnet told me in an interview once that many people read the novel and thought it was real!)

In any case, this is a very playful way to create a story – such an unexpected delight. Another delightful aspect was all the autumnal descriptions in Sleepy Hollow:

As Ichabod jogged slowly on his way, his eye, ever open to every symptom of culinary abundance, ranged with delight over the treasures of jolly autumn. On all sides he beheld vast stores of apples; some hanging in oppressive opulence on the trees; some gathered into baskets and barrels for market; others heaped up in rich piles for the cider press.

Doesn’t that description just make you smell and feel the sights of autumn? There are ‘yellow pumpkins’ lying around and ‘turning their fair round bellies to the sun’. You can also find plenty of scrumptious descriptions of autumnal treats (the New York Dutch were known for their desserts) including ‘the doughy doughnut’, ‘apple pies, and peach pies, and pumpkin pies’ and ‘delectable dishes of preserved plums’. Irving is clearly a man after my own heart – I can never get enough descriptions of food in books.

So I’d definitely recommend Sleepy Hollow for a very fast and pleasant autumn read. It’s a short story, not a novel, so you could easily blaze through it in one sitting. It’s available online through Project Gutenberg, free and easy to access! I printed it off and read it with a cup of tea – which I’d highly recommend.

I hope that you’re having a nice start to the season and let me know what you think of Sleepy Hollow. Have you read it before? Does it seem like your type of thing? Have you seen any of the adaptations of it? I’m considering watching the Tim Burton version now – let me know what you think of that film, if you’ve seen it!

PS Today’s Featured Image is ‘The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane’ by John Quidor (1858).

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: Is A Tale of Two Cities worth reading?

Charles Dickens was very much a man of his time.  Much of his fiction (almost all) was inspired by the world around him: specifically, the plight of the London poor. One of his most famous works (which happens to be a favorite of mine!), A Christmas Carol, was partly inspired by a visit to the Field Lane Ragged School, one of several homes for London’s destitute children. He famously used to take long walks alone, all around London, and observe the world around him, getting inspiration for his books. Dickens and his characters – Oliver Twist, Ebenezer Scrooge, David Copperfield etc. – are basically synonymous with 19th century London. Which is why I think it’s so interesting that one of his most famous novels – A Tale of Two Cities – isn’t set in Dickens’ familiar stomping ground, but rather in the late 18th century, during the French Revolution and The Terror.

A Tale of Two Cities is a work of historical fiction, and it takes place between London and Paris (those are the titular ‘two cities’) in the 1780’s and 90’s. I was drawn to it because I love A Christmas Carol (the book) and also because I was curious to see what Dickens, a man writing in the 1850’s, had to say about the late 18th century. The equivalent would be someone now writing about the 1960’s. There’s still a removal of time, but a much smaller one than if it were me or you writing about the 18th century.

A Tale of Two Cities is also considered a ‘classic’ and while I think that one shouldn’t feel any pressure to read any book simply because it’s well-known and famous – that goes for ‘classic’ as well as contemporary lit – I do think Dickens (like Shakespeare) is an author whose work has endured for a reason. Or several. One reason, I think, is that Dickens (again, like Shakespeare) can be read on two levels – for entertainment value (if you purely want a rollicking good read!) and also on a more analytical, thematic level. His books are amusing but also rich and thought-provoking. He’s a bit over-the-top sometimes, but he also writes with so much empathy and with close observation of humor behavior. And his outage at societal inequalities is sadly still quite relevant, just as it was in the 19th century.

So now you know what I think of Dickens generally, but how was A Tale of Two Cities specificially? A ‘classic’ worth checking out, or one to skip?

Overall, I really liked this novel. No surprise, because I like Dickens’ writing and I like the 18th century (as you know!). But there’s a lot to like here even if you aren’t crazy about either of those things.

It tells the story of one family that is caught up in the events of the French Revolution, and it asks a lot of questions about justice and guilt. One man is basically asked to pay for the crimes committed by his cruel, aristocratic family on the Parisian poor. He has rejected his family long ago and deplores their actions, but the revolution is imminent and the oppressed want blood. How do we make amends, when our ancestors and sometimes even our close relatives, have committed atrocities or acts of oppression? And how far is ‘too far’ when it comes to gaining justice and retribution for the crimes of the past?

My copy had brilliant black and white illustrations – like this one.

These questions are always interesting and I think they’re especially interesting in Dickens’ hands because this is a man who really fought for the rights of the London poor and has a clear empathy for the oppressed French poor and makes it clear why they revolted. We see that, to certain aristocratic nobles, these poor people’s lives are meaningless and expendable  A boy is crushed to death under a nobleman’s cart wheel and the noble doesn’t bat an eye. A noble looks down at one of his tenant farmers, on the verge of death, ‘as if he were a wounded bird, or hare, or rabbit; not at all as if he were a fellow creature.’

Yet Dickens also condemns the violence of the Revolution fairly explicitly. The primary antagonist of the story, the sinister Madame Defarge, is an embodiment of the Revolutionaries’ desire for revenge and for heads to roll (quite literally). She is a ‘ruthless woman’ with an ‘inveterate hated of a class’ which has turned her into a ‘tigeress.’ She’s violent, excessive and without mercy, but we do see why she’s this way and how she personally has been abused by members of the upper class. So her behavior is, at least, understandable. It’s this keen sense of specifically class-based oppression throughout that makes Dickens a good writer for this subject, because he’s quite ambivalent – the violence is reprehensible, but he gets why it happened. And he’s aware that it could happen again.

Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms.

One of my favorite things about the book was Dickens’ descriptions of people. No surprise, the characters were super vivid and easy to visualize, down to the smallest player. A random jailer is described as: ‘so unwholesomely bloated, both in face and person, as to look like a man who had been drowned and filled with water.’ And all of the main characters are vivid, and relatively complex, except one: Lucie Manette. She’s worse than Mina in Dracula. She has no personality or life outside of her self-sacrificing devotion to her husband and father. Dickens seems to have no interest in either her bodily or intellectual reality – she has a child and it grows to the age of a toddler in the space of about a paragraph or two. (How do these events change her?!) She’s gorgeous, everyone loves her and would do anything for her – in short, she’s a very silly and unexamined character. With another author I’d let it slide but there’s no excuse for it when Dickens can create a character like Sydney Carton – the sarcastic, drunken, intelligent, self-loathing, spiteful yet surprisingly tender character who plays a central role in the novel’s climax.

Sydney Carton is great and, quite frankly, the whole book is pretty great too. It asks if a man, a family, even a society, can be redeemed. It isn’t spoiling much to say that, for Dickens, the answer is yes. I’m a bit more cynical, but even so, it’s nice to hope.

It would be perfect reading if you enjoy things like Poldark, or other dramas set in this period revolving around one family. I cried a lot at the end of the book, actually. Dickens can be a bit melodramatic, but his earnestness gets me every time.

Let me know what you think of A Tale of Two Cities: have you read it before? Did you read it in school? Do you plan on reading it in the future? I’d love to have any reading recommendations from you as well, particularly any spookier books as autumn approaches!

PS Today’s Featured Image is ‘Bonaparte aux Tuileries – 10 August 1792’, a painting depicting Napoleon (who would later become Emperor of France) witnessing a mob attack on the Tuileries Palace.

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: The Unbinding of Mary Reade (Book Review)

Let’s talk about pirates!

I was super excited when I checked out The Unbinding of Mary Reade from my local library a couple of weeks ago. This historical fiction novel by Miriam McNamara came out in 2018 and it’s inspired by the life of a real 18th century (female!) pirate by the name of Mary Read. I knew nothing about Mary Read going into the book, but I’ve since learned a little bit about her and her status as one of the legendary English pirates of the early 18th century, the so-called ‘Golden Age of Piracy’.

We’ll come back to the real historical Mary’s life in a moment, but I went into this book without any of that knowledge and I’m reviewing it now as a novel. And, unfortunately, as a novel, I don’t think that it wholly succeeded, despite the super exciting premise of a queer lady pirate going on an adventure in the Caribbean (cue Pirates of the Caribbean theme music…).

I’ll start with some of what works about the book. At its core this book is really a romance, between Mary Reade and another female pirate called Anne Bonny (also a real person). And some of the sensual scenes are really well written without being explicit – it’s a Young Adult book, so it’s still appropriate for that audience. Bodies melt into each other like ‘candle wax’ and the characters are always covered in gritty sand (okay, so maybe that’s not sensual, but it is specific and probably realistic). In general, the setting was well described – colorful parrots fly overhead, the sea is shining under the hot sun etc.

I also liked the character of Anne Bonny, the female pirate who our protagonist Mary becomes enamored with. Anne was an excellent combination of manipulative and vulnerable, capable and helpless, totally over-confident at times and totally self-pitying the next. She’s gorgeous and bold and brash. As a poor woman in the 18th century, the odds were not in her favor and she has learned to manipulate the men around her and play the system, using her sexuality to gain safety and favors, but we see her coming up against the pervasive lack of fairness and unequal treatment of women at that time, which all works great.

Unfortunately though, the cons outweighed the pros for me with this book. My main issue is that there wasn’t a lot of pirate stuff in it. No buried treasure? Maps? Sword fighting? None of that? These are things we expect from the genre. I wanted a queer pirate treasure island, I guess – whether or not that’s historically accurate is another matter (it probably wasn’t) but you come to expect some of those trappings from pirate stories. A lot of pirate life probably was waiting around for opportunities to arise, as the characters do in this book, but that’s not as fun to read about.

Also I wasn’t a fan of the book’s structure. It flashes back from past to present, in alternating chapters, which was often confusing and didn’t add much. I think those flashbacks would have been better if they had simply been woven into the main body of text, not set off in separate chapters.

Additionally, the dialogue was often a little clunky and on-the-nose (there’s a bit when two characters scream at each other: ‘You don’t understand what it’s like to be me!’ ‘Well you don’t understand what it’s like to be me!’). And throughout the text there didn’t seem to be much of an attempt at taking on an 18th century manner of speaking. Often I prefer a lighter hand when it comes to adopting a historical voice, but I didn’t feel like McNamara was enjoying or reveling in any of the amazing language of this time period, which was full of very distinctive and colorful phrases.

Overall though I think my main criticism was quite simply the lack of adventure. I think buried treasure is mentioned but then it’s dropped. I would have preferred the primary driver of the plot to be something non-romantic (Mary wants to find treasure and get rich, for instance) and then have the romance with Anne Bonny growing slowly throughout their adventure together. But that’s also an entirely different book. 

When I went to read a bit about the real Mary Read after finishing this book, I was also a bit taken aback by all the changes McNamara made to her life. Not because the author doesn’t have license to change whatever she wants (of course she does!), but because I just don’t understand why some of these changes were made. Why change so much? The real Mary was married before she became a pirate, for instance, which I think could have made for quite an interesting backstory (although possibly not as appropriate for YA?).

Also, as a side note, I’m unclear why the character’s name is spelled with an ‘e’ in this book (Reade) but most sources I’ve found online refer to her as Mary Read (without the ‘e’). I’m guessing these are just variations of the spelling of her name (it was fairly common in the early modern period, especially when many people still couldn’t write, to have multiple spellings of your name). But I’m just curious!

To sum it all up, in the end I’d still recommend this book if you’re after an unconventional love story between two women, but not if you’re looking for a pirate story. It was a disappointing read because I just have this writerly feeling (I could be wrong!) that McNamara was one or two drafts away from this book being really great, but that what we’re reading just isn’t quite finished yet. Which is sad because it’s such a fascinating story about a really unique historical person. I’d certainly pick up another book by her in the future.

What have you been reading recently? Any suggestions?

PS Today’s Featured Image is ‘Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard, 1718’, accessed via Wikipedia

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: Astray by Emma Donoghue (Book Review)

‘Emigrants, immigrants, adventurers, and runaways – they fascinate me because they loiter on the margins, stripped of the markers of family and nation; they’re out of their place, out of their depth.’ – Emma Donoghue, ‘Afterword’ in Astray

I’ve read several books by Emma Donoghue. She writes about lots of things I’m interested in: American history, sexuality, fairy tales, travel and migration. It’s this last theme that she takes up in her 2012 short story collection – Astray – about travelers of all sorts: those who, by choice or by necessity, have to leave their homes and arrive at a new place where, more often than not, new difficulties await them.

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It’s not my favorite book of Donoghue’s that I’ve read (that would probably be her 2010 bestseller Room) and it’s not my least favorite (that would sadly be her 18th century historical novel Slammerkin). Astray sits somewhere in the middle. There are some excellent stories, and some disappointing ones. Overall it’s a very mixed bag.

I’ll start with the positives. I think Donoghue’s #1 strength, whether she’s writing stuff set in the past or the present, about children or adults, about men or women or people whose gender identity is beyond the binary, is voice. She’s brilliant with voice. Her writing is strongest, I think, when it’s in first person and she has this amazing ability to create a unique rhythm for the way each character speaks, and to use distinct and period/age appropriate expressions. It’s no surprise she lists in the Afterword that Charles Dickens in her ‘favorite novelist’. Say what you want about Dickens (who also had his strengths and his weaknesses) but the guy was amazing at writing dialogue and his characters’ voices really jump off the page. Donoghue is the same.

My two favorite stories in Astray, ’The Lost Seed’ and ‘Vanitas’, are told in two very distinctive voices by two totally vivid characters. In ‘The Lost Seed’ that’s a man in Puritan New England who starts accusing his neighbors of sex crimes and, in ‘Vanitas’ a bored and spoiled Creole teenager on a plantation, whose thoughtless actions have unintended, disastrous consequences for an enslaved maid. The main character in ‘Vanitas‘ comes across immediately: she’s a bored teenager with a flare for drama.

What both of these excellent stories share too, is that they put you into the minds of people who (not maliciously but certainly carelessly) did terrible things to others. Both characters are based on real people and I think these stories are stronger than many of the others because Donoghue has to work harder as a writer here to dig into these people’s motives, to guess why they behaved the way they did. The really tragic conclusion that she seems to have come to is that both of these people were deeply isolated and lonely. The reader feels for them, as well as condemning their actions, and this makes these stories have more tension and resonance than the sad but more straightforward stories like ‘Onwards’ about a London mother who has to resort to prostitution, or ‘Counting the Days’, about a marriage between two Irish migrants fleeing to Canada.

My main critique of the collection though, other than the hit-and-miss nature of the stories, is to do with the way it was put together (which may or may not have been Donoghue’s idea). After each story, there’s a brief historical note, where Donoghue explains what real books/newspaper articles/biographies inspired these fictional stories, and often she elaborates on how the ‘real’ people’s lives ended. For me, this information was interesting but should have been left to the end of the book. The stories are strong enough to stand on their own and often this research context was distracting.

In the case of the first story ‘Man and Boy’, about a circus elephant and his trainer, something that she mentioned in the historical note was a lot more interesting, in my opinion, than what she chose to write the story itself about, which got me thinking too much about that historical fact, rather than her story. Maybe it’s just because I’m conditioned to expect these sort of notes at the back of books, but they felt out of place in the midst of the collection and almost like she was justifying why she wrote what she wrote: I’d have liked for the collection to just let the stories breathe and include that at the back, for people who are curious about what inspired them.

All in all, if these are themes (travel, migration, American and Canadian history) that you’re curious about – this is a good book to pick up, especially considering how few historical fiction short stories are published these days (more on that in my post from earlier this year about my favorite author Karen Russell). Donoghue isn’t a didactic writer but of course these stories have a political resonance to reading them now (but, then, when does migration not have a political dimension to it? Has there ever been a time when societies didn’t try to shut their borders, demonizing the foreign ‘other’?). Donoghue clearly knows this and mentions in the ‘Afterword’ when discussing the story of the Johnsons, ‘economic migrants’ fleeing the Irish famine that: ‘Whenever I read headlines about human traffic gunned down crossing a border (…) I think of the Johnsons.’ So it’s an important time to think about and reflect on these topics of migration and immigrant experiences, which are always relevant, but perhaps especially so now.

PS Today’s Featured Image is ‘The entrance to a harbor with a ship firing a salute’, by Joseph Vernet in 1761 and accessed via Wikimedia

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

Madeira Mondays: Celia Garth by Gwen Bristow (Book Review)

On the cover of Celia Garth, there is a beautiful blonde woman peering out at you serenely. Behind her, there’s a harbor front (presumably Colonial Charleston, where this book is set). The woman on the cover is lovely, but she also has a definite Mean Girls vibe – she knows she is good-looking and well-dressed and there’s a strong possibility she’s not gonna invite you to sit at her lunch table. But she also looks sharp and observant, like she sees things.

I love this cover, because to me it incapsulates what I liked most about Celia Garth – the titular main character. Celia Garth’s main strength is its characterization, particularly its depiction of Celia herself who, as this cover image suggests, is attractive, vain, serene, and intelligent. An interesting young woman who proves an captivating viewpoint character as we explore the turbulent final years of the Revolutionary War in British-occupied Charleston.

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My copy of Celia Garth

Celia Garth was published in 1959 and it follows the story of Celia, a young orphan in Colonial South Carolina who comes from money but finds herself needing to work in a dress shop to pay the bills. She’s a talented seamstress and, wanting to prove her worth, she accepts a commission from a Mrs. Vivian Lacy – a glamorous older woman with exacting requirements and expensive taste (I pictured Glenn Close, because that’s who I would cast if I was going to make this a movie!). But soon her career goals are overshadowed by the trauma of the Revolutionary War. The British army arrives to Charleston and some quite grizzly disasters befall Celia and people she loves. The book becomes a story of survival – how to survive mortal danger, but also grief. And there are parts of it that are genuinely quite moving.

As I mentioned earlier, the real strength of this book is the characters. Celia herself is wholly believable and complex from the start. I enjoyed how she takes a lot of pride in her appearance and is judgmental of people who are less conventionally attractive than her (this is kind of unpleasant to read but it’s realistic, especially for a naive, pretty young woman). She’s also whip smart, stubborn, and always making bold choices with consequences (an ‘active’ character, as it were). But her client Vivian was my favorite character by far. She had a very Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey vibe, if you’ve seen that show, and she was always throwing out sassy little aphorisms. To a pregnant acquaintance, Vivian says: ‘I know these nine months seem endless. But Nature takes her time. You cannot hurry a tree, or a baby, or a hard boiled egg.’ Aside from Vivian and Celia, you get a whole host of other colorful characters: the laid-back and good-natured Captain Jimmy Rand (who had ‘an ugly, engaging face, scooped at the temples, bony at the jaw, with a wide mouth and a look of being amused by life in general’), the witty daredevil Luke who fights with Francis Marion’s men in the swamps, and a whole bunch of other people besides.

In fact, one of my main criticisms of the book was that there were simply too many characters. I couldn’t keep track a lot of the time or remember who was related to who. These wealthy southern planter families were often inter-related, sure, but I think a family tree would have been useful to remember everything. That simple addition would have made a big difference.

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A lovely Colonial house in Charleston, South Carolina, taken during a research trip I took to Charleston in 2017

While I had no major issue with the overall historical accuracy of the book (which is saying something, because my whole PhD project looked at the lives of women in South Carolina during the Revolutionary War), it should be noted that slavery simply isn’t a concern in the book at all. There are enslaved characters (Marietta, Vivian’s enslaved maid, is a prominent secondary character and I got a good sense of who she was), but the institution as a whole is simply…there.

Now, that could have been a choice on author Gwen Bristow’s part to show the past through Celia’s eyes, and Celia (a white woman from a wealthy background living in the early South) would have accepted slavery as a fact of life (abolition doesn’t really become a big thing until the next century). But the knowledge of what is happening to these enslaved people hovered just out of sight, like a strange specter, as I was reading the book. There’s one moment when Vivian is meeting Celia for the first time and Celia feels like ‘something put up for auction.’ I don’t think Bristow was trying to evoke slavery here at all, but this line only served to remind me that, just a few streets away, not only were things being put on auction, but people were too. The book just doesn’t address slavery at all, so if that’s a topic that you want explored in more depth, in fiction, then I’d say look elsewhere (look to, for instance, Beloved by Toni Morrison. Or if you want something about this time period, why not try Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, or even the poetry collection I reviewed last year, Mistress by Chet’la Sebree?).

Another aspect of the book I didn’t love is that it majorly glorifies American officer Francis ‘Swamp Fox’ Marion and majorly attacks the infamous British officer Banastre Tarleton. I’ve talked about these figures in my post about the movie The Patriotbut suffice it to say here that Tarleton’s legacy as a ‘butcher’ might be more grounded in legend than in fact. But I was more inclined to accept the Evil Aristocratic British Baddies v. Noble American Farmers dichotomy here than in The Patriot, because this is the war as CELIA sees it. And Celia is furious at Tarleton and psyched about Marion, as many South Carolinian patriots were at the time. So, fair enough.

My final critical comment is that the book kind of peters out, rather than building to a strong climax. I won’t give anything away, but Celia gets involved with helping the rebels and this doesn’t develop in a satisfying way, I thought. But the ending itself (as in, the last few pages) was quite moving.

I would compare this book to one that came out last year – City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert. Although that’s set in 1930’s and 1940’s New York City, it also features a young seamstress coming of age during wartime and all the colorful characters she meets.  There are even similar sorts of characters in both books. But books also have fun frivolous moments but also deal with the trauma of war. I would also recommend Celia if you enjoy things like Outlander (which I’ve not actually read, but I’ve seen a bit of the show and I understand that parts of it are set in colonial Charleston!).

It does not surpass Johnny Tremain as my favorite book I’ve read set during the Revolutionary War, but overall I quite enjoyed it. The prose is solid, and the characters are vivid and memorable. It was predictable, but I still cried twice while reading it, which is a testament to Bristow’s characterization. I wanted the best for Celia and her pals. And I would quite happily pick up another historical novel by Bristow, and there are apparently several!

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An iconic South Carolina sight – the live oaks twisting together in a sort of tunnel/roof. I believe I took this photo near Magnolia Planation.

Do let me know what you think about this book. Does Celia sound like something you’d be curious to read? Any other recommendations for historical novels that I should pick up? (Speaking of other novels, I have some exciting news about the one I’m working on, so stay tuned for that, later this month. AND stay tuned for more news about my new poetry book, which will be published by Stewed Rhubarb Press in July!).

PS Today’s Featured Image is from the cover of Celia Garth. If you buy this edition, from the 1950’s, please PLEASE don’t read the book jacket. The synopsis there gives so much away about the plot and even though it’s a fairly predictable story, you don’t want to spoil it!

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past.

Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

 

Stay in and Read: The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear by Walter Moers

‘People usually start their lives with being born. Not me, though. That’s to say, I don’t know how I came into the world (…) I could have emerged from the foam on the crest of a wave or developed inside a seashell, like a pearl. Then again, I might have fallen from the sky like a shooting star.’ – from The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear by Walter Moers

Several weeks ago, when this quarantine began, I promised to post some recommendations here for fun and immersive books to read during this period of isolation. I’m here today with another one of those recommendations! I just finished reading The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear, one of the most imaginative books I’ve ever read.

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It’s a fantasy adventure story for children about the adventures of a blue bear as he travels through an extraordinary land, filled with giants, trolls, hobgoblins, tiny pirates and giant evil spiders! Bluebear recounts his adventures of getting trapped inside a tornado, crossing a desert made of sugar, and even traveling to other dimensions. If that sounds ludicrous, it’s because this book is ludicrous. It’s an epic adventure story that manages to be both exciting and a satire on adventure stories. Take, for instance, when Bluebear is about to die and he is rescued at the last moment by a flying reptilian creature named ‘Deus X. Machina’ or ‘Mac’, for short. (Deus ex machina is the literary term for when a plot problem is suddenly solved by an unlikely occurrence).

The humor in this book actually reminded me a bit of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s smart, zany and often satirical, usually poking fun at literary tropes (like deus ex machina). But it’s also so incredibly light-hearted and silly, so it manages to work as a simply a fun tall-tale! I loved meeting all the wacky characters that Bluebear encounters.

But what really makes the book special is all the artwork. The author, Walter Moers, is also a cartoonist, and it really shows because these drawings are alive with emotions and sometimes take up an entire page spread – like this one, when Bluebear is trapped inside a giant’s brain!

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The Featured Image for this post is of a marvelous map, at the start of the book.

And you also get to see illustrations of many of the wacky characters Bluebear meets. Here’s an illustration of his friend Fredda, a hairy imp:

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By now you’ve hopefully gotten a good sense of what this book is like and if it’s up your alley or not! I will say that it’s very episodic, and doesn’t have much of a ‘plot’. It’s a series of tales and adventures, although it is loosely structured as an autobiography of Bluebear himself, as he recounts his first 13 lives (Blue bears have exactly 27 lives, of course!).

I would recommend this one if you enjoy witty adventure stories, like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or even The Hobbit, or if you’re looking for a fun and unusual children’s book, although I’d say this is for slightly older children, not really little kids, because it does have some scarier bits. It’s a similar scariness level to The Hobbit, I think. So if you’re looking for a fun, smart, and zany adventure story – then Bluebear is your man. Or, rather, your bear.

Moers is actually a German writer and, from what I’ve gathered, this is a famous book in Germany. But growing up in the US, I never heard of it! Which is a shame because I would have loved it as a kid. Ah well, it’s never too late!

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If you enjoyed this recommendation, you might want to stick around and check out the other great books I’ve suggested for this period of quarantine: Dracula by Bram Stoker, The Girls by Emma Cline and a series of spoken word poetry videos!

And let me know what you think of BluebearDoes it seem like your cup of tea? Have you read it already? Is it really famous but I’m just now finding out about it (possible)? 

As always, thanks for reading!