Thursday, 25 August 2016

A Group of Noble Dames by Thomas Hardy.

A Group of Noble Dames is Thomas Hardy's second short story collection (following Wessex Tales, 1888) and was first published in the same year as his novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles in 1891. The book is a frame narrative: the overall story is that the members of the Wessex Field and Antiquarian Clubs have gathered together for a dinner and they each tell a tale, some before dinner, some after dinner:
It was at a meeting of one of the Wessex Field and Antiquarian Clubs that the foregoing story, partly told, partly read from a manuscript, was made to do duty for the regulation papers on deformed butterflies, fossil ox-horns, prehistoric dung-mixens, and such like, that usually occupied the more serious attention of the members.
This Club was of an inclusive and intersocial character; to a degree, indeed, remarkable for the part of England in which it had its being—dear, delightful Wessex, whose statuesque dynasties are even now only just beginning to feel the shaking of the new and strange spirit without, like that which entered the lonely valley of Ezekiel’s vision and made the dry bones move: where the honest squires, tradesmen, parsons, clerks, and people still praise the Lord with one voice for His best of all possible worlds.
The present meeting, which was to extend over two days, had opened its proceedings at the museum of the town whose buildings and environs were to be visited by the members.  Lunch had ended, and the afternoon excursion had been about to be undertaken, when the rain came down in an obstinate spatter, which revealed no sign of cessation.  As the members waited they grew chilly, although it was only autumn, and a fire was lighted, which threw a cheerful shine upon the varnished skulls, urns, penates, tesseræ, costumes, coats of mail, weapons, and missals, animated the fossilized ichthyosaurus and iguanodon; while the dead eyes of the stuffed birds—those never-absent familiars in such collections, though murdered to extinction out of doors—flashed as they had flashed to the rising sun above the neighbouring moors on the fatal morning when the trigger was pulled which ended their little flight.  It was then that the historian produced his manuscript, which he had prepared, he said, with a view to publication.  His delivery of the story having concluded as aforesaid, the speaker expressed his hope that the constraint of the weather, and the paucity of more scientific papers, would excuse any inappropriateness in his subject.
The stories are:

Part I: Before Dinner
  • The First Countess of Wessex by the Local Historian
  • Barbara of the House of Grebe by the Old Surgeon
  • The Marchioness of Stonehenge by the Rural Dean
  • Lady Mottisfont by the Sentimental Member
Part II: After Dinner
  • The Lady Icenway by the Churchwarden
  • Squire Petrick’s Lady by the Crimson Maltster
  • Anna, Lady Baxby by the Colonel
  • The Lady Penelope by the Man of Family
  • The Duchess Of Hamptonshire by the Quiet Gentleman
  • The Honourable Laura by the Spark

One aspect that always fascinates me about Hardy's works is how he changed from his very first publication, How I Built Myself a House (1865): the cheery, breezy, comic short story not unlike Jerome K. Jerome or George and Weedon Grossmith's The Diary of a Nobody (1892) to the harsh and bitter Jude the Obscure (1895), described by one reviewer as "obscene". As I wind my way through Hardy's works each book is a step forward to the final novel, and in A Group of Noble Dames the theme of disappointment and marital failure is yet more apparent than in previous works (as to why Hardy changed is a matter for a biography: I have Claire Tomalin's Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man planned for later this year).

Hardy, I feel, often focuses on the working or lower classes of Wessex, and though these stories are too set in Hardy's Wessex they are more concerned with the upper classes. Failure and hypocrisy are the major themes in these stories, as well as the aforementioned disappointment in many. Circumstance and Fate, an important part of Hardy's later works, are the guiding forces of the stories; then, there is the irony: this group of dames are not all noble, some very far from it. 'Noble', in this context, simply means aristocratic. The second definition of noble, meaning very moral and highly principled, is the irony of the book and its title. His characters are flawed, and the worst of them are stubborn, shallow, proud, deceitful and at times very unkind and selfish. For that one could call it a critique of the higher classes.

Harsh at times as it is, it's still a very engrossing read. Hardy's characters are complex and life-like, he paints such a vivid picture one imagines they're all real, even those telling the stories. And perhaps they are, Hardy was often inspired by tales told in his local area. It feels too like a modern Pickwick Papers, the idea of the characters of a local history club gathering together and telling stories are not unlike the tales told within The Pickwick Papers. It's an excellent collection, very clever and very memorable, and it really shows off Hardy's exceptional talent.

To finish, some illustrations by Alfred Parsons and C. S. Reinhart from the 1891 edition:

Further Reading

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Two bits of bookish news.

Yesterday was a very unexpected book day for me! I have two bits of news: firstly, readers of old know I usually have some kind of 'Top 100' list that I try to read through, the latest being the now abandoned 'Top 50 Literary Figures' (I gave up on it for two reasons, one I found it tedious, and two I was ultimately so unimpressed by the list I realised that I would not feel a single scrap of pride in it were I to finish). I've been without such a list for a few months now and I do think these lists are rather good for me as I am inclined to get into my comfort zone and refuse to budge out of it, and reading other people's lists opens up new opportunities. I have been looking around for quite a while now but yesterday morning after my Aristophanes post I found a good list to read through- the first editions of the Penguin Classics series (I don't own a single Penguin first edition, by the way!). I found the list on the Penguin site and my progress list can be found here. I've read about 60, but many I haven't read for a while and feel they are due a re-read so I left them unmarked, reducing the number somewhat to 34. I'm very excited about the new list!

Henry Morley in 1888.
The second bit of bookish news - yesterday afternoon I had some extraordinary good luck! I found in a charity shop a great basket full of books from the Cassell's National Library series edited by Henry Morley from 1886 - 1888, and my very dear boyfriend was kind enough to buy them for me! I'm told they are classics that were published cheaply each week (each book costed threepence), cheap enough so as the working classes could afford to buy them, thus the classics, good writing, was available to everyone and not just the privileged. I'm thrilled with them - there are some books I have been after, and, most excitingly, some I'd never heard of, those books I would never have looked for, tried to buy, or possibly even ever come across so it's quite an opportunity to be presented with a mixture of gold, silver, and bronze classics. All books, even classics, go through fashions: I could very easily buy a Jane Austen if I wanted to, but (and I've picked a random book off the pile), The Earl of Chatham by Lord Macaulay might be far harder to stumble upon and, who knows, I may think it is the greatest book I ever read! They're lovely books too, a nice design, and they have the old adverts inside and on the back: I'm looking at one now - "A Luxury Unknown in England: Barber & Company's French Coffee - See that you have none other. Tenpence per pound, as used in Paris". Adverts were great back in the day!

So, I thought I'd share the titles (there are quite a few) hoping that everyone reading this loves a book list as much as I do! I find all this fascinating. I'll put them in alphabetical order rather than edition number:
  • Barrow, Isaac - Sermons on Evil-Speaking
  • Beckford, William - The History of the Caliph Vathek
  • Bell, Henry - Selections from the Table Talk of Martin Luther
  • Burke, Edmund - The Sublime and the Beautiful
  • Burke, Edmund - Thoughts on the Present Discontents
  • Butler, Jospeh (Bishop) Human Nature
  • Byron (Lord) - Childe Harold's Pilgrimage
  • Defoe, Daniel - An Essay Upon Projects
  • Dryden, John - Poems
  • Fielding, Henry - A Voyage to Lisbon
  • Goethe (Johann Wolfgang von) - Sorrows of Werter
  • Hakluyt, Richard - North-West Passage
  • Herbert, Edward (1st Baron Herbert of Cherbury) - The Life of Lord Herbert of Cherbury
  • Herbert, George - The Temple
  • Holcraft, Thomas - The Life and Adventures of Baron Trenck
  • Inchbald, Elizabeth - Nature and Art
  • Irving, Washington - Knickerbocker's History of New York 
  • Jewel, John - Apology of the Church of England
  • Johnson, Samuel - Lives of the Poets: Butler, Dryden, Otway, &c 
  • Keble, John - The Christian Year
  • Knowles, Sheridan - The Hunchback & The Love-Chase
  • Landor, W. S. - Gebir, Couunt Julian
  • Latimer, Hugh - Sermons on the Card and Other Discourses
  • Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim - Nathan the Wise
  • Lewis, M. G. - The Bravo of Venice
  • Lucian - Trips to the Moon
  • Macaulay, Thomas Babington (Lord) - The Earl of Chatham
  • Macaulay, Thomas Babington (Lord) - Francis Bacon
  • Macaulay, Thomas Babington (Lord) - Lays of Ancient Rome
  • Macaulay, Thomas Babington (Lord) - Warren Hastings
  • Mackenzie, Henry - The Man of Feeling
  • Milton, John - Milton's Earlier Poems
  • de la Motte, Friedrich - Sintram & His Companions, & Aslauga's Knight
  • de la Motte, Friedrich - Udine & The Two Captains
  • Peacock, Thomas Love - Crochet Castle
  • Pepys, Samuel - The Diary of Samuel Pepys 1660 - 1661
  • Pepys, Samuel - The Diary of Samuel Pepys 1664 - 1665
  • Pepys, Samuel - The Diary of Samuel Pepys 1666
  • Pepys, Samuel - The Diary of Samuel Pepys 1666 - 1667
  • Pepys, Samuel - The Diary of Samuel Pepys 1667
  • Plutarch - Plutarch's Lives: Agesilaus, Pompey, and Phocion
  • Plutarch - Plutarch's Lives: Alcibiades & Coriolanus, Aristides & Cato the Censor
  • Plutarch - Plutarch's Lives: Cato the Younger, Agis, Cleomenes and the Gracchi
  • Plutarch - Plutarch's Lives: Demetrius, Mark Antony, and Themistocles
  • Plutarch - Plutarch's Lives: Pericles & Fabius Maximus, Demosthenes & Cicero
  • Plutarch - Plutarch's Lives: Solon, Publicola &c
  • Plutarch - Plutarch's Lives: Timoleon, Paulus Aemilius, Lysander, & Sylla
  • Pope, Alexander - Poems 
  • Pope, Alexander - An Essay on Man and Other Poems 
  • Reynolds, Joshua (Sir) - Seven Discourses on Art
  • Shakespeare, William - As You Like It
  • Shakespeare, William - King Henry VIII
  • Shakespeare, William - King John
  • Shakespeare, William - Julius Caesar
  • Shakespeare, William - King Lear
  • Shakespeare, William - The Merchant of Venice
  • Shakespeare, William - Much Ado About Nothing
  • Shakespeare, William - The Winter's Tale
  • Shelley, Percy Bysshe - The Banquet of Plato
  • Shelley, Percy Bysshe - Prometheus Unbound
  • Sheridan, Richard Brinsley - The Rivals & School for Scandal
  • Smith, Sydney - Peter Plymley's Letters
  • Southey, Robert - Colloquies on Society
  • Steele, Richard - Isaac Bickerstaff
  • Swift, Jonathan - The Battle of the Books 
  • Walpole, Horace - The Castle of Otranto
  • Waterton, Charles - Wanderings in South America
  • Woolner, Thomas - My Beautiful Lady
I'm so excited about these, I don't know where to start! I think the Apology of the Church of England by John Jewel sounds quite intriguing so perhaps that will be the first. It was first published in 1562 which makes it all the more interesting to me! After that I dare say I'll read them at random. I'm so happy with my books, and it's funny - I was thinking just the other day I hadn't bought a new book for months, so this rather makes up for it! I really can't believe my luck with this :)

Please do let me know if you've read any of these! I've just read a few - the Shakespeares, Pepys, and Sorrows of Werter by Goethe.

And, on a final note, I also happened to see two J. M. Barrie plays in an antique shop (great places for cheap books, I find): Dear Brutus and The Admirable Crichton. I've wanted to try Barrie's plays for a while, so I'm looking forward to those too!

Anyway, that's my bookish news :)

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

The Clouds by Aristophanes.

16th Century engraving of Socrates and his son Strepsiades.
The Clouds (Νεφέλαι) is a comedy by Aristophanes and was first performed in 423 B.C when it came third of three plays performed at the Dionysian festival. Though that may be fairly damning, The Clouds was later re-written, and with this play I feel I'm entering into the best phase of Aristophanes writing: of the surviving plays, The Clouds was proceeded by The Acharnians and The Knights, both of which I liked, but what follows The Knights, that is, The Clouds, The Wasps, Peace (admittedly I haven't read this yet), The Birds, Lysistrata, The Poet and the Woman, and The Frogs are quite simply the reason I love Aristophanes. The final two surviving plays, written in the early 4th Century B.C., are for me the moment things begin to go awry. I liked The Assemblywomen well enough, though without great enthusiasm, and I didn't enjoy Wealth at all (I do mean to re-read it next week though, hopefully my opinion will be changed).

The Clouds is a philosophical comedy, or rather a comedy of ideas. It begins with Strepsiades lying awake at night next to his sleeping son Pheidippides who is keeping him awake with snoring and sleep talking. The two are in a great amount of debt, another reason for Strepsiades not to sleep, and so instead he comes up with a plan - he will enrol his spend-thrift of a son into the Phrontisterion, a school teaching philosophy, and there he will learn the art of rhetoric and oration, after which he will be able to talk his way out of their debt. Pheidippides however, more concerned with horses and gambling, refuses and so Strepsiades decides he will go himself. There he meets Socrates (who descends in a basket) and his students, and he learns of his experiments and studies into fleas, gnats, and astronomy. They go on to talk of the gods (who do not exist, according to Socrates) and the weather, which is controlled by the Clouds (the Clouds make up the Chorus and also take opportunity to berate the audience for not showing appreciation of the original The Clouds, which, they argue, is in fact Aristophanes' finest play). However Strepsiades proves to be an appalling student and Socrates asks instead that he sends his son. Pheidippides is dragged to the school and Just and Unjust begin arguing over what constitutes a good education for a young man. Unjust wins the argument and becomes Pheidippides' tutor. Meanwhile, Strepsiades manages to befuddle his debtors, but, the Chorus warns, it comes at a price. Later we see poor Strepsiades being beaten by Pheidippides over a disagreement with poetry: it seems Pheidippides' obsession with horses has been replaced with an obsession with rhetoric. In the end, Strepsiades takes his revenge by setting fire to the school and chasing off the students.

This is a very funny and clever play, and with this I think we begin to say the powers of Aristophanes' creativity and originality. In the tale of Strepsiades and Pheidippides we see a clash of the old and the new, the religious and the secular - philosophy and science. It is of course also an exploration of sophism, a method of teaching to use philosophy and rhetoric to one's advantage; good for statesman, and also good to exploit and use against one's debtors. Finally, it's also an interesting play in its portrayal of Socrates, who, though very famous, remains a rather enigmatic figure. It's said that Plato in The Last Days of Socrates (4th century B.C.) mentions this play as a contributing element of Socrates' trial and execution. I haven't read this yet but I plan to very soon, and when I do I'll be able to say a little more on that. Until then, I must say I thoroughly enjoyed The Clouds. Next on my Aristophanes list - Peace, which I'm looking forward to reading later today.

Monday, 22 August 2016

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde.

1899 edition.
Last week's Deal Me In Challenge brought me Salomé by Oscar Wilde, this week another Wilde play of an altogether different though more recognisable genre - The Importance of Being Earnest. This is a comedy and was first performed on the 14th February 1895. The play also marked Oscar Wilde's downfall: though very successful, on the opening night Marquess of Queensberry (the father of Wilde's lover Lord Alfred Douglas) accused Wilde of being homosexual, leaving a calling card that read "For Oscar Wilde posing Somdomite" (meaning 'sodomite'). Wilde sued him for libel, however it was ascertained during the trial that Wilde was indeed gay, and he was thus sentenced to two years in prison (he was sent to several prisons including, most famously, Reading Gaol, where he wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol, first published anonymously as "by C. 3. 3." in 1898). Because of this the play was eventually cancelled, and it would be Oscar Wilde's last play, not published until a few years later in 1898 in Paris.

The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People is a satire on the Victorian approach to marriage and, compared with the little background I've just given, it's very light, very sparkling, very Wilde. It begins with Algernon "Algy" Moncrieff in his flat in London, a cynical, fashionable wit who is planning on entertaining his aunt Lady Bracknell and her daughter Gwendolen Fairfax, but before they arrive Algy's friend Jack Worthing appears, announced as "Mr. Ernest Worthing". To add more mystery, whilst Jack tells Algy of his plans to propose to Gwendoline, Algy notices an inscription on his cigarette case, "From little Cecily with her fondest love". It is soon revealed that Jack is adopted, taken in by Thomas Cardew as a baby, his lack of social standing and parentage making it difficult to marry Gwendolen as he had wished: she had even accepted his proposal, though with some regret that he wasn't called "Ernest". As for "Ernest Worthing", Ernest, Jack claims, is his brother. But all is not what it seems. Just who is Ernest is the question of the play, how will Jack and Algernon secure the women they love, Gwendoline and Cecily, and how will Jack overcome his lack of parents?

Dame Judy Dench as Lady Bracknell (2002).
It is quite a bizarre play, I must admit. It's not to say I didn't enjoy it, but it was rather confusing. The highlight, for me, was Lady Bracknell, a snobbish, acerbic, domineering, and extremely funny character determined to see her daughter marry well, approaching the business of suitors as one might approach the subject of financial investments. Her one-liners and the humour in other characters make this play a must-read, but I did feel as though the plot and circumstances were what they were to facilitate these witty remarks. Dialogue aside, the play was almost farcical but not quite enough to enjoy it as a farce, and had the almost Shakespearean approach to comedy - the more confusing, the funnier it is (not something I enjoy, personally!). Even so I did like the poking fun at the superficiality and self-absorption of late Victorian life when keeping up appearances was everything and nothing else must be allowed to get in the way. For that, underneath the sparkling wit it was very clearly a cut-throat world, and Wilde makes fun of it beautifully. It is a very funny play indeed, and sometimes one does just need something to laugh along with. 

And that was my 34th Deal Me In title. Next week - Isabella, or the Pot of Basil by John Keats.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

The Knights by Aristophanes.

I've been on a bit of a Greek kick of late, reading History of the Peloponnesian War, Homeric Hymns, and making a very very tentative start on The Iliad this wek, but I didn't want to miss out on Aristophanes. I'm nearly finished reading his plays (after The Knights I just have three to go) and I'm sort of 'filling in the gaps' of what I've read so far. The Knights is my eighth Aristophanes, but it was his fourth following Banqueters and Babylonians (both lost) and The Acharnians.

The Knights (Ἱππεῖς) was first performed in 424 B.C. and it concerns Cleon, an Athenian general during the Peloponnesian War. Cleon had previously banned one of Aristophanes' plays - Babylonians - and Cleon has already received some back-lash in The Acharnians, which directly followed Babylonians. In The Knights this continues. Aristophanes begins with two slaves, Nicias and Demosthenes, who have received a beating from their master Demos. It's revealed that Paphlagonian, another slave who represents Cleon, has wheedled his way into Demos' affections and frequently tells tales and makes up stories to get Nicias and Demosthenes into trouble. They plot to escape, they plot to get revenge, but instead they end up just drinking his wine. After enjoying a few glasses they decide to get their revenge by stealing a set of oracles belonging to Paphlagonian which he won't let anyone read. By reading them Nicias and Demosthenes discover that Paphlagonian's fate will be decided by a sausage-seller. At that moment a sausage-seller appears - Agoracritus. They eagerly tell him of their discovery (Agoracritus needs some convincing) however, meanwhile, Paphlagonian has discovered his wine has been drunk. Incensed he throws all kinds of accusations including treason and Demosthenes is forced to consult the Knights of Athens (made up of the Chorus) who are far from sympathetic to Paphlagonian's accusation. Here it descends into farce, and a shouting match between Paphlagonian and Agoracritus is encouraged. Paphlagonian loses and accuses the entire company of committing treason. When they meet again Agoracritus has secured the absolute support of the council, and Paphlagonian, still unwilling to back down, seeks the support of Demos. However Demos too deserts him, won over by the sausage-seller. Eventually after much absurdity Paphlagonian admits defeat and the Chorus explains the audience why it is good to mock the dishonourable. The play finishes with Agoracritus presenting a newly rejuvenated Demos, who in turn is presented with two beautiful women, 'Peacetreaties' who had been locked up by Paphlagonian to prolong the war. 

This play is frankly surreal and for such a small cast of characters I couldn't quite seem to follow it, though that said there is a great many references to contemporary figures of the time. It is very obviously an attack on Cleon, so clear that Aristophanes had to play Paphlagonian himself (this play was performed at the Lenaia festival and won first prize - it's highly likely Cleon would have watched it). He is accused of a great manner of things, most importantly of all using the Peloponnesian War to his advantage, and quite what his reaction would have been I don't know, but Aristophanes was able to go on to write at least a further 36 plays. The next one I'll be reading is The Clouds.


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