Hello, Fellow Hypocrites! Tartuffe (1664), by Molière

tartuffeThis book is #31 on my Classics Club list. There’s also some spoilers below.

Molière was a French actor and playwright who was popular with the French aristocracy. At the time he was considered a comedic genius, presumably because he had impeccable timing. You can tell because he died after collapsing onstage during a performance of a play entitled The Imaginary Invalid, in which he played a hypochondriac. You can’t make this kind of stuff up, people.

Tartuffe is one of Molière’s best-known plays. It’s basically about a brilliant and witty housemaid called Dorine who works for a family of absolute nitwits. Or at least it would be, if I had my way. In actual fact, Dorine, while being the only character in the play I didn’t actively fantasise about drowning, is not the main character in this particular story. Instead, that honour perhaps goes to Tartuffe, although the man doesn’t actually make all that many appearances onstage. Continue reading

The One With the Big Hooter: Cyrano de Bergerac (1897), by Edmond Rostand

cyrano-de-bergeracThis book is #18 on my Classics Club list.

‘Tis well known, a big nose is indicative
Of a soul affable, and kind, and courteous,
Liberal, brave, just like myself, and such
As you can never dare to dream yourself,
Rascal contemptible!*

(Scene I: Act 4)

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a French musketeer with an enormous nose.

And no, I’m not making this up. The hero of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play, Cyrano de Bergerac, is a brilliant fighter, poet, and wit.

Oh – and he is also well-known for having an absolutely enormous nose. Continue reading

Victorian Superheroes (Minus the Tights): Dracula (1897), by Bram Stoker

DraculaI vant to suck your blood… and varn you about ze spoilers ahead! (And also tell you zis book is #56 on my Classics Club list, bleh bleh).

On a dark and stormy night, in a castle in Transylvania, an English clerk named Jonathan Harker discovers a terrible secret about his host. It leads to an epic chase across the whole of Europe, from East to West, and back again. It’s the plot of Dracula, one of the most recognisable literary villains in history. Decades of literary criticism have shown us just how much there is to uncover in a book like Dracula. There’s no way I can possibly cover everything there is to find in a book like this, so I thought I’d start with some of the things which really caught my attention while I was reading.

Men Writing About Women Writing About Men (And Why It Always Makes Me Laugh)

In Dracula, women are everywhere. The plot revolves around two women in particular: Lucy Westenra and Mina Harker, the wife of Jonathan. In his characterisation of them, Stoker articulates anxieties about a range of issues, from Victorian sexuality to the fear of foreign invasion.* Continue reading

So You Think You Can Write Blank Verse?: The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1604), by Christopher Marlowe

Doctor FaustusThis book is #41 on my Classics Club list.

Shakespeare’s identity is so contested in some circles that scanning a list of possible alternative ‘real Shakespeares’ these days can feel a little like watching audition videos for Big Brother (or just about any reality TV show screened after 8pm). There’s so many wacky and even worrying choices that you begin to wonder if you’ll ever reach the end of them. Christopher Marlowe is somewhat of a crowd favourite on both So You Think You Can Write Blank Verse? and Who Wants to be Shakespeare?*. His is a tale of trial over adversity, mostly because he died in 1593, about twenty years before Shakespeare’s last known play was performed.

Other than this slight mortuary hiccup, however, the Marlowe-as-Shakespeare story is attractive to many because it would be a fantastic tale if it were true. Continue reading

An Amateur Enthusiast’s Guide to Shakespearean Insults: King Lear (c. 1606), by William Shakespeare

King LearIn honour of the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, I thought it was high time to get around to some of the Shakespeare plays I’ve been putting off reading for a while now. And since I’ve been making my way through Shakespeare’s plays since the age of about thirteen, the play at the top of the list is now King Lear (currently #42 on my Classics Club list). I’ve always had an idea of what King Lear looks like; for some reason, I’ve always imagined the titular character of Shakespeare’s play to be a big, bear-like man, perhaps because of the similarity in the words Lear/bear, or perhaps because I watched too much Blackadder as a kid and my idea of a Shakespearean king is basically Brian Blessed in chainmail.

King Lear tells the story of Lear, King of Britain, who has three daughters. Being a whimsical and, one might argue, politically naïve monarch, he decides that he will hold a talent contest to determine how much of the kingdom each of his three daughters will inherit. Since the kind of clothing worn by Shakespearean women was not exactly suited to Britain’s Got Talent-style acrobatics, Lear decides he will go for a less physical approach. So he asks each of his daughters how much they love him. If you’re curious as to how this might play out, just imagine the spoiled rich girl from any 90s teen comedy ever. Continue reading

A Very Short Review of a Very Long Novel: War and Peace (1869), by Leo Tolstoy

War and PeaceThis book is #16 on my Classics Club list.

War and Peace is well-known for being an absolute behemoth of a book. Full of deep characterisation and intricate plotting, it would probably take several reviews to begin to cover all the material in this 1,300-page novel.

So instead of trying to pick apart the immense complexity of this book, I’m going to go in the other direction, and simplify it as much as possible. Because I don’t want to bore you, or end up re-reading the entire book again (seriously, if I have to re-read this thing straight away I will cry). Also there’s a new season of Call the Midwife on at the moment – I mean… I have much work to do for… uni. Yeah. Um. Uni work. That’s right. So in the interests of brevity, I present you with:

Ten Things I Learnt From Reading War and Peace

1. Historians suck. They majorly suck. Why? Because they’re not nearly as clever as Tolstoy, that’s why. So instead they write about ‘destiny’ and ‘great men’ and ‘the will of the people’, and bore readers with extremely long expeditionary essays that seem to – OH WAIT. That’s exactly what Tolstoy does. Only in reverse. Gasp! Continue reading

Secret Identities Revealed! The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905), by Baroness Emmuska Orczy

Scarlet PimpernelWarning! I will be revealing the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel in this post! If you have not read the book, or if you are an evil French revolutionary trying to capture the Pimpernel, please don’t read any further.

On an unrelated note, I would like to add that this book is #62 on my Classics Club List. Long Live the Pimpernel!

Ah, the elusive Pimpernel! Never did a literary hero have such an unfortunate alias.

I had never heard of the Scarlet Pimpernel until I watched Blackadder the Third. Unfortunately, having watched Blackadder also meant that I immediately knew who the Scarlet Pimpernel was. So much for mystery.

The Scarlet Pimpernel begins in Revolutionary France, where, in the midst of the Terror, some cheeky chap has been smuggling aristocrats out of Paris and helping them escape to good old Britain. The first two chapters are positively chuckle-worthy, as Orczy describes a few of the clever Pimpernel’s methods for sneaking aristocrats out from under the noses of the evil revolutionaries. Continue reading

Eugene Onegin (1825), in One Really Terrible Sonnet

Eugene OneginThis book is #35 on my Classics Club List.

Pushkin’s Euegene Onegin, what can I say?
He was a great looker, a fine young dandy;
an aristocrat, all work and no play,
danced the mazurka and drank much brandy.
Most readers, they prefer Tanya though;
lovely girl, Pushkin’s finest creation,
‘Russian spirit’, quite why I don’t know
Just the thing to inspire an emerging nation.
Pushkin, he loved Byron and Shakespeare;
Russian aristos they knew English and French
But not their mother tongue, it’s decidedly queer
an appetite for Europe, Pushkin wanted to quench.
How to sum up this novel in just one word?
All the characters are wealthy and extremely – bored.

The atrocious poem above took me far longer to compose than I care to admit. But although it’s quite possibly the worst thing I’ve ever written in my life (seriously – I’ve got some stories about seahorses that I wrote when I was seven years old; this poem makes them look like Shakespeare), it was a useful exercise. Continue reading

In the Mood for a Little Victorian?: Lark Rise To Candleford (1939-1943), by Flora Thompson

Lark RiseThis book is #87 on my Classics Club list.

A couple of years ago I began watching a hugely enjoyable BBC series. And then, one season in, I discovered that it had in fact been based on a series of books.

As a person who hates watching the movie before reading the book, you can imagine how much this irked me. So although I’d been given a box set of the series for a recent birthday, I resolved not to watch any further until I had read the source material for myself.

Two years later, and I have finally finished Lark Rise to Candleford. It’s taken me a while and one abortive attempt, but I’m pleased to say that I’ve read this trio of novels about the Oxfordshire countryside. Whether it was worth the two-year wait will probably become apparent when I finally finish watching the BBC adaptation next year. Continue reading

Mary Poppins (1934), by P.L. Travers

marypoppinsThis book is #99 on my Classics Club list and #4 on my Back to the Classics list for 2014.

Well, hello! I do hope that everyone had a lovely Christmas, filled with all sorts of pleasant things. I’m here with a review (finally) of the last book on my Back to the Classics list. After a year with a number of grim reads – All Quiet on the Western Front and Nineteen Eighty-Four, to name just a few – I was glad to finally reach this point. Mary Poppins seemed like the perfect book to end with, promising fun, laughs, and a little magic.

I’m sure that the character of Mary Poppins is familiar to many, thanks to fond childhood memories of Julie Andrews, magic umbrellas, and… dancing hippos? Or was it ostriches? I forget. My sole exposure to the Disney film was a trailer at the beginning of my video copy of The Lion King. At the time, Simba and Nala seemed to me to be infinitely more interesting companions than a singing nanny with a funny hat. Perhaps partly because I didn’t really know what a nanny was yet, and the animated African plains seemed much more interesting than London’s rooftops. Continue reading