The Story of the Bagman’s Uncle (1837) by Charles Dickens

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Image courtesy of VictorianWeb

The latest instalment in my collection of Victorian and Edwardian ghost stories is extracted from The Pickwick Papers. The extraction isn’t quite seamless – it begins and ends rather strangely and there’s no explanation of who the bagman is or what we’re doing here – but it does just about work, I think, as a standalone tale. It makes you wonder, though, why they didn’t just pick one of Dickens’ many actual ghost stories for this compilation rather than go to the laborious task of untangling one from a much larger novel. I have many unanswered questions about this collection. It’s odd.

Anyway, the story goes that after a raucous night with some dear friends the bagman’s uncle is stumbling drunkenly home through the dark streets of Edinburgh when he comes across a yard full of old, discarded mail coaches.

The doors had been torn from their hinges and removed; the linings had been stripped off, only a shred hanging here and there by a rusty nail; the lamps were gone, the poles had long since vanished, the ironwork was rusty, the paint was worn away; the wind whistled through the chinks in the bare woodwork; and the rain, which had collected on the roofs, fell, drop by drop, into the insides with a hollow and melancholy sound. They were the decaying skeletons of departed mails, and in that lonely place, at that time of night, they looked chill and dismal.

He’s rather taken with the sight of them but his efforts to make a closer inspection ultimately lead to his being whisked away on a ghostly journey through the night with two ruffians wielding swords and a beautiful (of course) young lady for company. There’s a duel, a further flight through the night, a kiss and then the uncle awakens to find himself back in the yard nursing his hangover.

Despite my misgivings about the choice of story I did quite like this one. It isn’t remotely spooky but it did give me half an hour of strangely jolly, swashbuckling enjoyment and, like the bagman’s uncle, I too was quite taken with the image of those dilapidated mail coaches glinting in the moonlight. It suffers from the sort of overly sentimental portrayal of women that I often notice in Dickens’ novels but I can sort of forgive it in this case since the object of all that adoration is a ghostly spectre and not supposed to be an actual living, breathing person. It’s interesting to note how much the bagman’s uncle apparently likes to go about embracing and stealing kisses from unsuspecting barmaids though. These were indeed different times.

Since finishing this and The Tale of Mary Ancel I’ve returned to novel reading and have begun Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April which I’m enjoying immensely. I’m hoping to get a few more of these ghost stories in before the end of the year though.

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Our Mutual Friend (1865) by Charles Dickens

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I unexpectedly found myself at home alone on Saturday night and was able to devote the whole evening to finishing this book. I had the radio on, a cup of tea on the coffee table, a cool summer breeze through the window, and a whole evening of Our Mutual Friend. It’s been ages since I was last able to spend so much time reading so it felt like quite a luxury.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I first read this nearly fifteen years ago and loved it from the start. My tastes have changed a little since then so I was concerned that on second reading it might not be quite as good as I remembered. Would it fall flat compared with some of the other Dickens novels I’ve now read? (As an aside I can only say again that I blame The Old Curiosity Shop for casting these doubts in my mind. It’s not even that bad a book but I seem to have lost all my enthusiasm, and all my faith in Dickens, since then). I’m relieved to say, however, that I enjoyed Our Mutual Friend even more the second time so I think it’ll remain a favourite.

There were a couple of things that struck me particularly this time round. Firstly, it’s interesting that this feels so much darker compared with some of his other novels. At its simplest, Our Mutual Friend is a novel about wanting things you can’t have (whether that’s the immense Harmon fortune or the love of a woman who despises you) and the awful, spiteful things that people do when they can’t have what they want. It certainly feels like there’s a lot of death in this one so, combined with the absence of the usual comedy interludes, it’s a bleaker, gloomier read. This was Dickens’ last completed novel before his death so I wonder if maybe he was just feeling a bit curmudgeonly by this time in his life. You certainly get the feeling throughout this novel that he’s frustrated by the injustices he sees around him and increasingly bitter towards the Veneerings and the Podsnaps of this world.

I’ve spoken elsewhere about my love of two of the female characters in the book, Bella and Lizzie. This time, I found myself ever so slightly disappointed by Bella’s passive acceptance that a secret must be kept from her, at least for the time being. I know Dickens’ aim is to show that she’s changed for the better, that her contentment with her new life has driven away all that ambition, but it’s a little out of character. (Plus, if I was Bella I’d be bloody furious if I found out that I’d been lied to. It seems weird that she isn’t). But really, this is quite a small thing. On the whole I think Our Mutual Friend contains some of my favourite Dickensian characters, from poor Jenny Wren to Mr. Venus, articulator of bones. Like many readers, I have a particular soft spot for Eugene Wrayburn, the silent, bored barrister who gets dragged in to the Harmon saga on the coattails of his lawyer friend.

Composedly smoking, he leaned an elbow on the chimneypiece at the side of the fire and looked at the schoolmaster. It was a cruel look, in its cold disdain of him, as a creature of no worth. The schoolmaster looked at him and that too was a cruel look, though of the different kind, that it had a raging jealousy and fiery wrath in it.

While I like his healthy cynicism about the world around him, I found his treatment of other people more intriguing than I remembered. I suppose you could argue that it’s his cruel mockery of the unfortunate schoolmaster Bradley Headstone, who happens to be his love rival, that sets them all on their dangerous path. I wonder whether, if he’d been a kinder man, a less selfish one, Headstone’s obsession might not have taken such a grim turn.

I know a lot of Dickens fans have mixed feelings about this particular book and I know it isn’t perfect. There are a few too many characters than are probably really necessary and of course he does go on and on about stuff that really isn’t important to the story. But still, I do think it’s an example of Dickens at his best. It’s so carefully plotted and there’s so much depth to the characters that I think you can probably overlook some of the finer complaints. There’s nothing quite like it.

 

On Bella Wilfer and Lizzie Hexam

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Image courtesy of Victorian Web

 

I’ve made a big fuss in the past about how irritating I find some of Dickens’ female characters. Rereading Our Mutual Friend has reminded me that I haven’t always felt this way, that there are some occasions when he almost gets them right. For every awful Lucie Manette flinging herself about and sobbing everywhere, or for every Little Nell pathetically submitting herself to death’s embrace, there’s a thoughtful, rational equivalent to soften the blow. In my hurry to find fault with Dickens I sometimes forget this.

There are two characters in Our Mutual Friend that I’m thinking of here. The first is Bella Wilfer, John Harmon’s intended bride and ‘widow’. On the face of it, Bella is spoiled, vain, self-entitled and petulant. She’s a far cry from your usual Dickens heroine. I think it’s important to remember, though, that her engagement to a man she’s never met offers an escape from a poor and unhappy home, although she’s bitterly conscious of how embarrassing the arrangement is for them both. Harmon’s sudden death humiliates her, deprives her of the comfortable future she’d been looking forward to, and makes her all the more determined to find a rich husband. In her own words, she’s become a ‘mercenary wretch’.

“Talk to me of love!” said Bella contemptuously, though her face and figure certainly rendered the subject no incongruous one. “Talk to me of fiery dragons! But talk to me of poverty and wealth, and there indeed we touch upon realities.”  

I have a lot of sympathy for Bella. She knows she’s not an angel but for all her faults, she’s grateful for her later good fortune, loyal to the Boffins and genuinely keen to see her long-suffering father made happy through her success.  Those close to her know that there’s a kind heart in there somewhere but it takes a while for her to see it in herself.

Lizzie Hexam is the other character to spring to mind here, mainly because the Lizzie/Wrayburn/Headstone triangle is one of my favourite plot strands in this novel. When I first read this novel fifteen years ago I was a little dismissive of Lizzie, mainly because at first glance she appears to be one of those too virtuous Dickensian characters I hate: born into grimy poverty and tainted by her father’s involvement in the Harmon murder, she works hard to send her obnoxious brother to school and tries to rise above her past. So far so yawn. If this was in fact the sole substance of Lizzie Hexam I probably wouldn’t be writing this but I’ve been struck on this reading by her insistence on making her own decisions. Whether it’s the warnings of a well intentioned neighbour, or her own brother pressuring her into marriage with a respectable schoolteacher, Lizzie stands her ground… (at least until Eugene Wrayburn turns up). For an apparently meek and friendless young woman she knows her own mind and sticks to it, whatever the consequences for her reputation and her relationship with her beloved brother. And when things take a dark turn she has the good sense to remove herself from the situation.

On a side note, I also don’t think it ever really occurred to me just how murky Wrayburn’s intentions towards Lizzie are until now. He manipulates her into accepting his help (for not entirely selfish reasons) but doesn’t really consider the harm her does her. Although he clearly cares for her he appears to be mystified by his own intentions towards her.

“Eugene, do you design to capture and desert this girl?” 

“My dear fellow, no.” 

“Do you design to marry her?” 

“My dear fellow, no.” 

“Do you design to pursue her?”

“My dear fellow, I don’t design anything. I have no design whatever….” 

God knows I love Eugene Wrayburn, but there’s definitely something a bit selfish, a bit cruel even, in his power over Lizzie. Is he just toying with her? Does he plan on seducing her and then bolting? Lizzie’s a bit of a dreamer but thankfully I don’t think she’s entirely naïve here.

My progress through this book continues to be slow but I am now finally into the second volume. Hurrah!

 

Our Mutual Friend and finding time to read…

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I’m rereading Our Mutual Friend. I’ve given up on two other books recently and this seems to be the only one that I’ve been able to settle into. You might have thought, given how much the new job has knackered me out, that I’d fancy something light-hearted and easy on the brain to read in my spare time, right? But no. Dickens it is.

“I shouldn’t care so much if it wasn’t so ridiculous. It was ridiculous enough to have a stranger coming over to marry me, whether he liked it or not. It was ridiculous enough to know what an embarrassing meeting it would be and how we never could pretend to have an inclination of our own, either of us. It was ridiculous enough to know I shouldn’t like him – how could I like him, left to him in a will, like a dozen of spoons…?” 

Our Mutual Friend was one of the first Dickens novels I ever read. I was fifteen at the time and I remember being a little baffled by it, although I enjoyed it nonetheless. It was really not like anything I’d ever read before then and I’m now finding, all these years later, that I was completely right to be baffled: the cast of characters is overwhelming, the writing occasionally incomprehensible and Dickens frequently gets side-tracked making long points that could be made in just a few sentences. He also has an annoying tendency to carry his metaphors on for far too long, so he’s still referring to a very, very minor character as ‘the hammer-headed young man’ several chapters after he was first mentioned in passing. It would be more helpful to the reader if he could just call him ‘the coachman’ (on the rare occasions when he appears) which is what he actually is. Between ‘the hammer-headed young man’, the ‘analytical chemist’ (a footman) and the ‘the satellite’ (a policeman) it’s impossible not to get a little confused sometimes.

Having said all this, I’m also finding that I was quite right to enjoy this book and to remember it so fondly. The plot is carefully woven and wonderfully detailed. The ‘mutual friend’ of the title is the mysterious John Harmon, whose body washes up on the banks of the Thames in the very first chapter. Harmon, we are told, had been returning to England, after many years spent abroad, to marry a woman he’d never met and to claim an inheritance founded on dustheaps. His murder, and the attractions of his wealth, bind together a disparate group of characters from across the city; from the poor young woman who helps drag Harmon’s body from the water to the elderly dustman who inherits his fortune, they’re all pulled into the shadowy depths of the Harmon mystery. It’s a tale of greed, changing fortunes, spite and (this is Dickens after all) love. Throughout it all the river lurks in the background, uniting those who live and die along its shores and giving the whole book a dark, brooding sort of feel.

Of course, there’s all the usual social commentary and Dickens hasn’t yet been able to resist having a pop at workhouses, the education system, child poverty and the like. I particularly love it when he uses characters like the vile Veneerings to make a point about the sponging, snobbery and idleness of the rich. They really are repellent. One of my favourite bits of spitefulness is directed at dear Lady Tippins and her “immense obtuse drab oblong face, like a face in a tablespoon.” As you might expect, there are several voices of reason elsewhere in the cast to counterbalance all this pomposity.

My reading has been painfully slow going so far and, although I’ve been reading for over six weeks now, I’m only just getting into Book Two. But I’m hopeful that it’ll be the first book I actually manage to finish since We Need New Names back in April. Now that my journeys to and from work consist of long stretches on the motorway, I can only look back in fondness at all those lovely hours I used to spend reading on trains and in station waiting rooms each morning and evening. What luxury. And I didn’t appreciate it at all at the time.

Top Ten Tuesday: My favourite female characters (some of whom are also introverts…)

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke And The Bookish. This week there was no set topic, I was free to choose my own… 

This started out as just a plain old list of some of my favourite female characters in literature but it got out of hand pretty quickly…. I kept thinking about how much I hate it when writers think that a female character has to be ‘feisty’ in order to be interesting. I mean, honestly, that word is overused. I can’t see it or hear it without wanting to headbutt something.

It makes me wonder about all the introverts out there who aren’t represented in fiction. Why don’t we get a look in? Can you have a strong, interesting female character who isn’t (urgh) ‘feisty’? Or are the thoughtful, more reserved, characters destined to always be the weak and simpering damsels in distress?

Eventually I decided I was being a bit unfair on the world of literature, partly because it turns out that quite a few of the characters on my list fall somewhere towards the ‘introvert’ end of the spectrum. Clearly they do exist. It got me to thinking though, are they on my list because there’s something more relatable about characters who have more going on inside? Or am I just drawn to characters who seem a little more like me?

And then I started to wonder, why does everything have to be so black and white? Why should any character be an extrovert or an introvert? Or clever or stupid? Or kind or cruel? Aren’t the best characters the ones who are a little bit of everything and nothing and one thing one day and another the next? The ones who are like actual people.

And then I thought: Stop it, just write the list….

1, Cassandra Mortmain in I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith. The first time I read this book I felt like I’d known Cassandra forever. Her narration is so easy to read and she’s so likeable that it’s impossible not to get swept up in her life. Like any normal human being she’s sometimes surprised by her own feelings. I like that.

2, Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. There’s something about Esther that makes me uneasy but I’ve never quite been able to put my finger on what it is. I suspect it’s possibly because she’s so perfectly written that you almost feel like you are descending into the darkness with her. It’s quite unsettling.

3, Jane Eyre in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. She doesn’t have much to say for herself but there’s so much going on under the surface with Jane. I love the fact that she absolutely insists on doing what she thinks is right, in spite of all the entreaties from the man she loves and even though she knows it will make them both bitterly unhappy. It’s hard not to respect that (even if you do kind of want to give her a good shake…).

4, Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling. No introduction needed. I’m pretty sure we can all agree that Hermione is the best character in HP, right?

5, Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch by George Eliot. I won’t lie, I hated Dorothea for ages. She comes across as very self-righteous in the beginning but you eventually learn that she just wants to feel like her life has some value. She’s full of so many worthy intentions but she makes some really daft choices.

6, Dinah Glass in The Demon Headmaster by Gillian Cross. Without Dinah that wicked headmaster would be ruling the world by now and then where would we be? Huh? That little girl kicked ass.

7, Miss Marple in the Miss Marple books by Agatha Christie. Never underestimate Marple, that’s the first rule of book club. She sees, hears and understands everything, all over a nice cup of tea and a piece of fruit cake on the lawn. The old dear runs rings around all those patronising, young detectives.

8, Amy March in Little Women by Louisa M. Alcott. I know Jo and Beth get all the love and I admit they’re pretty great but I think Amy deserves a little recognition. She’s vain and whingey and has a weird obsession with limes that I’ve never understood….. She’s not as placid as Beth and Meg, nor as fiercely independent as Jo, but you could argue that she matures, and learns, the most over the course of the novel. She’s a nicer person at the end of it.

9, Guinevere Pettigrew in Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson. I’m ridiculously fond of this book and of Miss Pettigrew, the downtrodden, middle-aged governess who turns up for a job interview and gets caught up in a glamourous whirlwind of parties, filmstars, nightclubs and fashion shows. It’s silly but I’m always thrilled for poor Miss Pettigrew. I’m glad she gets to have some fun for once.

10, Estella in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. I’m usually a bit dismissive of Dickens’ female characters but I’ll make an exception for Estella (and Miss Havisham too in fact). I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Estella, I feel sorry for her. There’s a bit at the end of the book where she says to Pip, “Suffering has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken but I hope into a better shape…” It’s practically my favourite thing ever. 

So there we have it, some of my favourite female characters. Is there anyone you’d add to the list? Who have I missed? (Besides Elizabeth Bennett obviously!).

In the interests of fairness I may well devote my next TTT freebie to my favourite men in fiction!

Top Ten Tuesday: Nineteenth Century Gothic

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke And The Bookish. This week’s theme is all about books I’d include on my syllabus if I taught a literature course of my choice.

I’ve included here a combination of books and short stories I’ve already read as well as ones I’d like to read:

1 Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. This doesn’t need much of an introduction, does it? I know this book fairly well because I read it for A’level English and then again at university. It was a ground-breaking piece of fiction back in 1818 and an important landmark in the development of Gothic literature.

2. The Vampyre by John Polidori. This short story is worth reading alongside Frankenstein since they have similar origins. I’ve always been fascinated by the story of how they came to be written.

3. The Signalman by Charles Dickens. This wouldn’t be the blue bore without one reference to Dickens a week, right? You can find tons of examples of the Gothic in Dickens’ work but this short ghost story has always given me the heebie-jeebies.

4. Dracula by Bram Stoker. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve not yet read this but it’s been on my TBR list for ages. Years ago I went to Whitby, the home of Dracula, with some friends and paid £3 to go on a ‘haunted house’ tour which eventually culminated in the four of us being chased shrieking through a dark cellar by a man in a mask. Absolutely mortifying.

5. The Hound Of The Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle. I was thirteen when I read this and it scared me half to death, until I realised the truth about the hound. If you were being pernickety you’d point out that this was published in 1902 and therefore doesn’t belong on my list. I’d say well, it was probably written in the years before that. I wouldn’t know, I’ve conveniently not checked.

6. The Picture Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. This has been on my shelf for about ten years and I’ve still not got round to it. I love Oscar Wilde’s short stories and I can well imagine that any Gothic novel he wrote would be bloody brilliant too.

7. The Woman In White by Wilkie Collins. This isn’t just one of my favourite works of Gothic literature, it’s one of my favourite novels in the world ever. It’s got wicked plots, villainous villains, mistaken identity, madhouses, ghostly figures in the woods…. Seriously, what’s not to love about this book?

8. The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James. Aah, Mr James, my old nemesis, we meet again. I haven’t attempted this one yet but it sounds great. I just have to get over my appalling fear of Henry James.

9. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. I’ve never been able to decide whether I really love Wuthering Heights or really hate it! But I do like the way Bronte uses the moors to create that brooding intensity. What is it about the Yorkshire landscape that screams Gothic to so many writers?

10. The Fall Of The House Of Usher by Edgar Allen Poe. I’ve not yet read any books by EAP but I’m told this is a particularly good one. I also quite like the sound of The Pit And The Pendulum.

Doesn’t ‘Nineteenth Century Gothic’ sound like a font?

Top Ten Tuesday: Most read authors

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the Broke And The Bookish. This week’s theme is all about the authors I’ve read most.

I had a wee break from TTT because I found the last two topics a little tricky, a bit too niche for my reading/blogging habits. This week’s theme is more general so you’d think it’d be easier, wouldn’t you? My trouble is that although I like to think I’ve read books by a wide variety of authors, I don’t tend to read more than two or three books by any one of them. In reading terms I like to get around a bit. I’m a commitment-phobe.

1 Enid Blyton. Famous Five, Mallory Towers, Noddy…. I read them all. But not Secret Seven. Eurgh. I hated Secret Seven. Favourite: The Hollow Tree House.

2 Charles Dickens. I don’t want to sound like a stuck record but Dickens is one of the only authors I go back to again and again. I’ve read eight of his novels and some short stories too. Favourite: Probably Our Mutual Friend.

3 J. K. Rowling. Harry Potter was one of those very rare occasions when I read an entire series all the way through from beginning to end. It may only have been possible because I spread it out over fifteen years but still, quite an achievement in my eyes. Favourite: Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire.

4 Agatha Christie. When I’m feeling lazy, or I really just don’t know what to read, I turn to Christie. I’ve read so many over the years that the titles, plots and characters are starting to blur a little. Favourite: Murder On The Orient Express.

5 Roald Dahl. No surprises here. I had the complete set. I read them all. Repeatedly. Favourite: Either The Enormous Crocodile or The Fantastic Mr Fox…… or maybe Matilda.

6 Margaret Atwood. My old roommate was responsible for getting me completely hooked on Margaret Atwood. I never finished the Oryx and Crake series so one day I’ll go back and do that…. I hope. Favourite: The Blind Assassin.

7 Jacqueline Wilson. I read tons of these as a child and then read a load more when I was trying to finish the BBC Big Read. They were great. Favourite: Double Act.

8 Winston Graham. I discovered the Poldark books while I was staying at my grandparents’ house in Sussex one summer when I was about 12. Over three successive summers I read them all. Favourite: Ross Poldark.

9 Judy Blume. She understood teenagers. ‘nuff said. Favourite: Superfudge at first, Deenie when I was a bit older.

10 Graham Greene. I’m scraping the barrel with this one since I’ve only read four GG books, but that’s still more than I have most other authors. I got a bit obsessed with Graham Greene for a while. Favourite: Brighton Rock.

The Liebster Award

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The Creative Counsellor very kindly nominated me for this award. It’s the first time I’ve been nominated and I’m chuffed to bits. Thanks!

Here are the rules:

  • Each nominee must have under 200 followers
  • Thank and link to the nominated blog
  • Answer their 10 questions and propose 10 new ones for your nominees
  • Nominate 10 blogs and tell them that they have been nominated
  • Write a post containing the questions
  • Include these rules in the post

And these are my answers to the questions posed:

1. What made you want to start blogging?

It was a spontaneous decision. I’d been reading Daniel Deronda and was desperate to discuss it with someone but sadly not one of my friends, relatives or colleagues seemed to have read it! I turned to Goodreads which, in turn, led me to some great book blogs. I realised that blogging might be a fun way of connecting with other readers with the same interests.

2. What was your favourite book as a child?

I’ve talked before about some of my favourite childhood books. I’m not sure I could whittle it down to just one but I think Cruel Kings And Mean Queens deserves a special mention. I work in the heritage sector and am surrounded by history (and books!) every day. I like to think that if it hadn’t been for Terry Deary’s book then I’d never have looked for other books about history and I’d never have been set on this path! So yeah… thanks Terry.

3. If you could recommend only one book for me to read, what would it be?

As a lifelong Dickens fan I recommend Dickens to everyone. I know he’s not always everyone’s cup of tea but when he’s at his best he’s brilliant. I love Great Expectations and it’s fairly short so I think it’s a good one to start with. But if you want something you can really sink your teeth into then you can’t beat a bit of Bleak House!

4. What and where is your favourite book store and why?

I buy many of my books from the Oxfam second hand bookshop just round the corner from where I work. It’s teeny tiny but always busy and the stock is usually pretty good. I often pop in on my lunch break and I can usually find something I fancy. The staff also play a pretty eclectic mix of music (loudly) which I always enjoy: today it was the ‘War of the Worlds’ soundtrack, on Friday it was Jacques Brel. I’m sure I once heard them play something that sounded a lot like Mongolian throat singing.

5. What hobbies do you have other than reading?

Very few, I am really quite a boring sort of a person. I like museums, walking, baking (although I’m not good at it), old churches (although I’m not religious), Scrabble, Ikea, seeing my family, Dr Who, birds, curry, sewing, Miss Marple, wine, Shakespeare, complaining about the weather, QI, cups of tea, chocolate, Christmas, Billie Holliday, castles, old black and white films, pizza, holidays…. oh loads of things. I’m not sure if any of these really count as hobbies though.

I should point out that this is not a list of my favourite things in order. If that were the case I would obviously not place ‘seeing my family’ in between ‘Ikea’ and ‘Dr Who’!

6. If you could have one magical/mythical animal as a pet, what would it be?

Good question. I’m quite attached to our local legend of Black Shuck but I’m not sure he would make a good pet (although probably an excellent guard dog) and I don’t know that he’s been seen in these parts recently.

7. How do you decide if you want to read a book or not?

There are certain genres that I tend to avoid – mainly romance and horror – but anything else is fair game. If I’m really stuck for something to read I’ll turn to a classic.

8. You inherited a bookstore (Congratulations!) but you have to change the name. What do you call it?

When I was reading Cold Comfort Farm a few weeks ago I came across a character called Agony Beetle and I immediately wished I’d used that name for this blog. ‘The Agony Beetle’ has a good ring to it; it’d be a great name for a bookshop too.

9. What was your least favourite book to read in school and why?

That’s easy. As You Like It. It was my set Shakespeare text for A’ Level English and I hated every last second of it. I mean, really, what is the point of it all? It’s just silly. After this I seemed to forget that there were Shakespeare plays I’d studied and enjoyed and I became absolutely convinced that they were all like this. It wasn’t until four years later that I actually watched a live performance of a Shakespeare play (The Tempest at the Globe, in case you were wondering) and realised what a genius the man was.

Incidentally, I saw an open air performance of As You Like It last summer and it was no better than I remembered which, in a weird way, made me feel vindicated!

10. If you could visit Hogwarts (the fictional version) or Narnia, but not both, which would you choose and why?

Oh, this is hard! As much as I like the Narnia idea it’d have to be Hogwarts. I’m not ashamed of being 32 years old and still liking a bit of Potter and there’s something about all those secret passages, invisible doors, moving staircases and dungeons that appeal to my inner child!

And here are my ten questions for the nominees:

  1. What do you think are the best and worst things about blogging?
  2. On an average day where and when do you read?
  3. Do you ever borrow books from a library or do you prefer bookshops?
  4. Which fictional place would you most like to visit?
  5. Are there any real literary locations you’d like to visit? (The birthplace of your favourite author or the setting of a particular novel, for example). 
  6. You’re going on a long, long journey but you only have room for the collective works of one author in your bag (don’t ask me why!). Who will it be?
  7. How do you treat your books? For example, do you flex the spine? Do you fold the corners down to mark your page? (This will settle a years old argument between my friend and I. She’s much kinder to her books than I am).
  8. What are your favourite literary TV/film adaptations?
  9. Do you prefer to read the book or watch the adaptation first?
  10. Of all the books you own, which has your favourite cover?

And I nominate these bloggers:

Good luck!

A London trip and some new books

The Dickens Museum

The Dickens Museum

This’ll be a relatively quick post – partly because I’m all tuckered out after a busy weekend but also because the last episode of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell will be on the telly shortly! Priorities and all that.

So – as the title of this post suggests – I spent yesterday in London with my best friend B. We’d been planning a bookish day in the capital for months but it kept getting put off because of work and weddings and money troubles and other such annoyances. We managed to cram a lot in to our trip, including a quick stop at the British Library where we saw Jane Austen’s writing desk, a Shakespeare First Folio and the original manuscripts of Jane Eyre and Tess of the D’Urbervilles (amongst others). We also went to the Dickens Museum, which is a short walk away. It’s housed in Dickens’ former home on Doughty Street, where he lived for two years early in his career while he was working on Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickelby. I was particularly interested to see his enormous writing desk and a panel of bars from the Marshalsea Prison, where his father was imprisoned for debt and where he set some of the scenes in Little Dorrit. I don’t remember either of these items from last time I was there (admittedly that was over ten years ago) and I was struck by how much more modern and interactive the museum felt this time. I would have liked to have stayed longer but we had a more important task at hand: book shopping!

Our plan was to head to Leicester Square so we could explore some of the second hand shops that are rather neatly clustered around Charing Cross Road. I’d set myself a decent budget of £40 and made a mental list of books to look for so I was feeling pretty optimistic. We did make it to quite a few of the shops we’d identified, including the teeny tiny Marchpane, which specialises in rare children’s books. It had two whole bays of shelving devoted just to copies of Alice In Wonderland. Sadly the actual purchasing part of the trip wasn’t overly successful, mainly because I’d forgotten how much I hate the West End. I’m rubbish in crowds and not only was it rammed with tourists but it was also on the route of the Pride rally so it was even busier than usual. It was hot and noisy and hectic. Instead of having a relaxed wander round the shops we just got a bit cross and stomped about looking for a pub so we could get a cold drink to cool ourselves down (and failing miserably at that too). In the end I came home with just two new books – both from the great Henry Pordes – having spent just £6 in total. It was a bit disappointing but at least I’ve learned a lesson about book shopping in tourist hotspots on a Saturday in the summer during Pride.

This leaves the new books purchased/received in June looking like this:

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The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale (already blogged here)

Coraline & Other Stories by Neil Gaiman

1215: The Year Of Magna Carta by Danny Danziger and John Gillingham

Latin Grammar by E. C. Marchant & G. Watson

Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

This isn’t a bad haul so I shouldn’t really complain too much about my failure to buy heaps of books yesterday. It wasn’t that long ago that I was complaining about not having enough room to store them all!

A Tale Of Two Cities (1859) by Charles Dickens

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It’s taken a ridiculously long time to finish this, much longer than I would have liked. It’s been a busy couple of weeks. There’s just been too much life going on and poor old Dickens got put on the backburner for a bit, as did blogging. But it’s nice to be back now.

Despite the long hiatus, I loved reading this book again. And what’s not to love? There’s revenge, sacrifice, love, mistaken identity, revolution, murder… Occasionally it’s a bit overblown, a bit sentimental maybe, and you have to put up with Lucie Manette weeping and fainting all over the place and saying things like:

I feel his sacred tears upon my face and his sobs strike against my heart. O see! Thank God for us, thank God!”

But she improves in time and Miss Pross and Madame Defarge more than make up for her shortcomings as a female character.

Tale of Two CitiesThe novel begins in 1775 with the release of Doctor Manette from the Bastille, where he’s been languishing in secret for 18 years. On his release he’s met by Lucie, the daughter he’s never known, and they retreat to the quiet safety of London. A few years pass and Lucie, obviously burdened with many suitors, marries Charles Darnay, an émigré aristocrat living under an assumed identity as a French tutor. Meanwhile, France is hurtling towards revolution and Doctor Manette, Lucie, Darnay and their friends soon find themselves drawn back to a Paris now in the midst of ‘The Terror’. The people are in charge and they’re burning down the chateaux and beheading aristocrats in the streets.

It’s quite hard to pinpoint exactly what I like so much about A Tale Of Two Cities, especially because I know some readers really don’t get on with it at all. It doesn’t have the neat, satisfying ending of some of his other novels, nor does it have so many peripheral characters and comedy interludes. It feels much tighter because of this and the small cast of characters are really quite vividly portrayed (except Lucie of course). For me, it’s all about Sydney Carton, the alcoholic lawyer who befriends the Manette’s and defends Darnay against charges of spying. His speech to Lucie, shortly before her marriage, is one of my favourites.

“…Think now and then that there is a man who would give his life to keep a life you love beside you…”

There’s also the menacing Madame Defarge, who quietly encodes the names of her enemies in her knitting so they can be recalled and brought to ‘justice’ later. She’s quite terrifying.

The chapters set in Paris are of course the most gripping. There’s so much symbolism and such a sense of foreboding as the hysteria builds – it’s not particularly subtle but it’s hard not to get swept up in it all. I found myself switching very quickly between sympathy for the peasants to horror as they started dragging people to their deaths.

I’m not sure if this would be an ideal first introduction to Dickens; it’s not very typical of his usual style and it can be quite a hard read (some of those descriptive sentences are loooong). But I would still recommend it wholeheartedly. There’s so much atmosphere and it feels almost epic in spite of being quite a short book. I found myself rereading certain passages multiple times, savouring them almost, before I could bring myself to move on. It’s wonderful.