‘An Infinite Multitude of Chickens’: Reading Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) in 2017

UtopiaThis book is #39 on my Classics Club list.

2017 has dawned with the words ‘dystopic future’ hovering on more than a few people’s lips. ‘Dystopia’ and ‘utopia’ are loaded terms, of course – one man’s ‘post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland created by the greed of power-hungry and irresponsible capitalists and world leaders’ is another man’s ‘strategically-managed relocation solution with wonderful future prospects following the end of the nuclear winter’, although I’m not sure I’d really want to meet the person who thinks like that.

Amidst all this talk of a dystopic future, where greedy capitalists have succeeded in grinding down the poor and middle classes and filling the rising oceans with plastic and ring-pull cans, 2017 seems like a good time to revisit the origins of the terms Utopia, and consequently Dystopia. I’m sure I’m not the only person who feels like Thomas More’s 1516 work Utopia, which gave us the term and presented us with one of the earliest examples of a utopian text, is still remarkably relevant today. Continue reading

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In Which I Have Nothing Original to Add to the Discussion on: Howards End (1910), by E.M. Forster

Howards EndThis book is #65 on my Classics Club list.

Right. I didn’t have a whole lot to say about Howards End, so I decided to go away and read some reviews to see what other people are saying about the book. And it seems like all the reviews, positive or negative, seem to more or less agree on a few main points:

1. The novel is about class. Some other stuff too, but people mostly seem to agree that it’s about class. Because there’s three families, and two of them are rich enough and marry one another, and one is not. This is all very sad and tragic and allows Forster to make some profound comments on the way that class works in the twentieth century. Don’t ask me what they are, I just know they’re profound. Continue reading

All the Things I Remember About The Moonstone (1868), by Wilkie Collins

the-moonstoneMystery fans beware! SPOILERS ahead!

This book is #63 on my Classics Club list.

I’m not exactly known for being the most up-to-date when it comes to posting my book reviews. This is usually because I’ll finish a book, write a review, and then let it sit on my hard drive for months, until I finally remember to post it up, usually about two years after I wrote it (and that’s not even an exaggeration). In the case of The Moonstone, however, I made the crucial mistake of reading it in November last year and avoiding the writing of the review itself (and only about ninety-five per cent of the reason is because I didn’t have anything particularly interesting to say about it. The other five per cent is, predictably, that I’m just lazy).

So when I finally came to write this review, I couldn’t remember a darned thing about the plot, characters, or themes. Which is especially concerning considering I also watched the 2016 BBC adaptation of the novel, and still can’t remember anything beyond the fact that the guy who plays Godfrey Ablewhite has fantastic cheekbones, and that Sarah Hadland can still make me laugh. So if you’re hoping for an in-depth postcolonial reading of Collins’ novel, I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint. But if, like me, you are a newcomer to The Moonstone, you may find the following facts, dredged only by dint of great effort from the quagmire of my brain, to be quite useful. Continue reading

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