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E T A Hoffman – The Nutcracker And The Mouse-King

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Sugar plums are not always fairies.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Children’s
ISBN: N/A (Book cover is Vintage Classics’ edition)
First Published: 1816; 1853 in English
Date Reviewed: 12th December 2019
Rating: 5/5 (in its context)

Original language: German
Original title: Nussknacker und Mausekönig (Nutcracker And Mouseking)
Translated by (my edition): Mrs St Simon; Vintage Classics’ translation by Joachim Neugroschel

On Christmas Eve, Maria and Frederic wait excitedly for the moment when their parents will let them into the room to see the presents brought to them by their godfather. When it happens, the children find dolls, and soldiers; Frederic has a horse as he hoped. But soon Maria’s eye is drawn to a peculiar-looking figure that her godfather says is a nutcracker for all three of the siblings (there is an older sister, Louise), however as Maria particularly likes it she will be its keeper. When Frederic breaks the nutcracker’s mouth, Maria decides to stay up longer in order to look after it. She plans to go to bed afterwards; the toys have other ideas – there are mice in the house and a battle awaits.

The Nutcracker And The Mouse-King is the original version of the story used for Tchaikovsky’s ballet1. (The story used for the ballet is the revised, though not dissimilar, version by Alexandre Dumas.) Written in 1816, not too long after the concept of childhood was first formed, it is a particularly fantastical tale that, with Hoffman’s fame at the time2, most likely inspired the stories that came after it.

The story is very simple; a lot of the pages are given over to descriptions. The translation I read was the first known English translation, from 1853 – if you’re happy to read a scanned copy of the book I can recommend it because it has the added benefit of showing you the culture of the time.

Hoffman’s approach to storytelling for children (he also wrote for adults and is said to have inspired Edgar Allan Poe) is wonderful. Whilst the book is pretty scary and violent in places – though less so than the works of Lewis Carroll – it’s also written entirely to delight readers. You can see the idea of parents reading to their children being a likely component – Hoffman often talks directly to the reader, telling them when to listen carefully (‘listen, children’, added as a sentence clause) and writing in a way that they will relate to what’s going on.

The concept of dreams and the use of a story within a story pad out the fantasy; Hoffman blurs the lines between dreams and reality and employs a flashback sort of tale to help draw the reader further into the story. Speaking as an adult, it doesn’t quite hold its magic, but you can see where children would love it, and that’s just as much the case now as it would have been then.

To go back to that showing of the culture of the time, depending on your reason for reading – study/adult enjoyment or to read to children – you may need to find a modern translation (potentially – I’ve not read them) or be ready to consider different phrasing on occasion. Whilst the idea of a biting mouse might be fairly easy to work around, the cultural differences in regards to race are not. The ‘moors’ in this book are cute but ‘disturbed’ people, some of the only human characters but nevertheless considered very simple compared to the toys who have come alive.

Back to the better parts – the book is unisex. Hoffman does refer, in his addresses to children, more to boys than to girls but then as the main character is a girl this makes sense – it was likely considered the best way of keeping boys’ attention when the story is about a girl, and one younger than her brother at that.

For the adults, there are some great references to older literature and literary figures. There is a scaramouche, and the nutcracker invokes Shakespeare. There is also fun to be found in the names chosen for the characters – Stahlbaum, the family’s surname, means ‘steel tree’, and the elders are definitely not believers in Maria’s stories.

Interestingly, the majority of The Nutcracker And The Mouse-King takes place in the days after Christmas – a good few days after, if Mrs Simons’ translation is correct – the magic in the story is mostly down to the confectionery landscape of the ending. Nevertheless its beginning, and that sense of magic, ensure the entirety works as a Christmas story. And, contextual issues aside, it’s a lovely one at that.


1 Tchaikovsky hated the music he wrote for the ballet as he had been given incredibly strict instructions in regards to tempo and length; his story is essentially one of micromanagement before the word existed.
2 Hoffman was a composer and music critic as well as a novelist. He famously reviewed Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which became a turning point – it set new standards. (He actually reviewed the music without hearing it, only having read the score. This was the usual method at the time.) Fun fact: Hoffman’s initials were originally E T W – the W stood for Wilhelm. Due to his love of Mozart, he changed it to Amadeus.

Jane Austen – Mansfield Park

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Controversially yours.

Publisher: N/A (but I’d wager Vintage’s a good one)
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A (Vintage’s is 978-0-099-51186-1)
First Published: 1814
Date Reviewed: 8th May 2014
Rating: 3.5/5

Fanny moved to Mansfield to live with wealthy relations and now, at eighteen, she’s very much settled and happy, despite being the family’s errand girl and companion. When the Crawford siblings enter their society, Fanny is suspicious – they don’t seem to be people her cousins should be associating with, and as the days continue she worries for her cousins’ futures. Many say she’s wrong about the Crawfords. Is she?

Mansfield Park is a lot quieter, so to speak, than Austen’s other novels, and quite different overall.

The major difference is Fanny – she may prove a difficult heroine to like. Part of this is due to Austen not giving the reader (at least it seems so – maybe the little was enough in the day?) information as to the Crawfords’ natures, instead letting Fanny’s feelings do the talking. This isn’t very successful as Fanny can, for the lack of information, seem over-the-top. Fanny is quiet and confident but she is often in the background and sometimes quite literally. And not at all in that theatrical way where the person at the back is the stronger person. Although Austen details her, it never really feels like she is the main character.

To the modern reader, Fanny may be difficult to relate to. Her scruples in regards to theatre seem silly and overboard today, and where Mary Crawford is slightly ahead of her time, Fanny is very much of her time.

Referring back to Austen’s lack of detailing, in the case of Mary, the ‘bad’ traits are more obvious – Mary wants to marry someone of equal or more wealth than her, and she doesn’t want to marry a clergyman. This is interesting to consider, given that wanting someone of equal wealth wasn’t exactly uncommon at the time, nor seen as bad, and it’s not particularly glaring today, either. It could be said that not wanting to marry a clergyman is simply personal taste.

It is more in the case of Mary’s sudden shifts in affection that the bad traits lie. Austen’s presentation of Henry leads you to realise that he likes women, with emphasis on the plural, but it can come across on occasion as the case of a boy who is happy in the presence of girls and to have the opportunity to have a preference, that he hasn’t before been given the chance to really think about what and who he wants. Certainly Henry reads more the immature boy than the noticeably deceitful man, and Mary’s opinion that he would change, well, there’s the feeling that she could be right.

Despite Fanny and the somewhat dubious plot, there is a lot of laugher to be had in reading the book. There is a specific section during which you could consider Austen had realised there was a lack of joy in her story and decided that had to be remedied.

The ending of Mansfield Park is very quick and the author moves away from dialogue to give you a summary of events. The reader may feel short-changed by this, however Austen does say of a specific aspect that readers all consider timing differently and so you are left to decide on timing yourself.

Quieter, with a heroine who does little and with not much in the way of story, Mansfield Park is a very different Austen, but worth reading nonetheless. Certainly it is the novel most set in its time.

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Jane Austen – Emma

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Perhaps the best example of how wonderful Austen’s ability to create characters was.

Publisher: N/A (but I’d wager Vintage’s a good one)
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A (Vintage’s is 978-0-09951-1168)
First Published: 1816
Date Reviewed: 13th October 2011
Rating: 5/5

Emma Woodhouse is rather well off, and intelligent and charismatic to boot. She wishes to add to this list a talent for matchmaking, and indeed already has introduced a widowed neighbour to her governess and they are a fine couple. Now she wants to enhance her new friend Harriet’s position in society, and the man who wants Harriet’s hand does not fit the proposed expectations. Emma doesn’t want to marry herself, but will she able to carry on her initial success?

Emma is a fantastic examination of what happens when a person tries to involve themselves in other people’s affairs, and what this means for that person’s knowledge of their own feelings. The events in Emma are largely held in the same one place, in fact Emma herself never leaves her village, and yet Austen succeeds in being perhaps more witty and introducing a more detailed cast of characters than in any other of her books (Mansfield Park aside as this reviewer has yet to read that one).

It cannot be disputed that what makes Austen so readable is her cast of characters. In Emma every single person is very different to all the others so that it wouldn’t be difficult to know who was speaking even if you stripped the manuscript of all names. If it seems that some characters are similar it is only because they are less talkative. Of the ones who speak often you can clearly discern the man of sense, the woman who talks too much, the joker who wants entertainment, the hypochondriac who tries to push his hypochondria onto others, and so on. There is a particular chapter in volume 2 of the book, chapter 11, that is simply sublime – hilarious, all show and no tell, and a prime example of how these very different characters interact. Surely Austen is one of very few authors from whom this reviewer would be happy to read all dialogue and no description.

“Did you ever see such dancing? – Was not it delightful? – Miss Woodhouse and Mr. Frank Churchill; I never saw any thing equal to it.”
“Oh! very delightful indeed; I can say nothing less, for I suppose Miss Woodhouse and Mr. Frank Churchill are hearing every thing that passes.”

Austen undoubtedly had a whale of a time writing this book. The discourses between Mr. Knightley and Emma are brilliant, Mr. Knightley being the one this time round who has a level head. And as usual Austen shows us that she was not only ahead of her time but would fit very well in society today.

Where Emma thinks wrongly, Austen is always ready to have a laugh and put her on the straight and narrow in the form of her Mr Knightley. As is the case with Northanger Abbey, bar the narration itself in that novel, Austen employs a male character to voice her feelings. In a way, the reader may wonder why Austen, a woman in a male-oriented society, would often want to make her male characters the ones with the most sense, but in doing so she opens up her work to a wider audience.

It is this continual discourse between Mr Knightley and Emma that sets the reader up with the knowledge of what is to happen. In the character of Emma we have Austen trying to test the boundaries of class and seeing what happens when people try to get around them, even if it is only for their own benefit and fun.

As a counsellor she was not wanted; but as an approver, (a much safer character,) she was truly welcome.

Emma herself is fun for being so intelligent yet so out of her depth when it comes to matchmaking, and for having the inept ability to choose entirely wrong people for her friends.

It may be possible to do without dancing entirely. Instances have been known of young people passing many, many months successively, without being at any ball of any description, and no material injury accrue either to body or mind…

The reader might say that the set up of matchmaker could have been continued longer, with more people involved, but what is included is so well thought out that it doesn’t really matter. The way that Emma provokes her friends to follow her ideas and, as is once the case, literally follow her around, is worth a lot more than numerous matchmaking attempts.

Pride And Prejudice may be perhaps the most famous of Austen’s novels, but Emma makes a good run for Elizabeth Bennett’s money. Whether or not Emma would have chosen Mr Darcy for Elizabeth however cannot be speculated. The phrase that would conclude this review best is “read it”.

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Jane Austen – Northanger Abbey

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In which Austen plays narrator to devastatingly good effect.

Publisher: (Numerous, but I’d wager Vintage would be a good one)
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
First Published: 1818
Date Reviewed: 27th March 2011
Rating: 5/5

Catherine Morland loves Gothic books, in fact she loves them so much that they can overtake reality. That she’s not well-versed in anything else is of no importance to her. As luck would have it, it may not be important to the hero either, at least in his choice of partner. But before she can meet this handsome fellow she must first travel to Bath, because that’s where he is, and must, before they can become well-known to each other, embark on a few irritating friendships.

If my summary sounds strange, it is because I have endeavoured to provide a hint of the style of the book. Austen has no qualms about letting the reader know that this is just a story, and in fact she makes it so that the story is one of the easiest narratives written. She purposefully creates a heroine who is to have little trouble in meeting the hero (she reminds you often that they are the heroine and hero) and points out where she could have made the book stereotypical and chose not to. In essence, the book is far less eventful than many but still very good – but you have to know the style of writing to understand why the contents stop it from being boring.

The book centres on the relationships between three major factions, Catherine and her brother James, John and Isabella Thorpe, and Henry and Eleanor Tilney. All three factions impact each other in various ways, both directly and through the “use” of one another. As you might expect with an Austen novel, love plays its part, as does money, and overall personal situations.

On the whole, Catherine isn’t a particularly interesting character, but Austen focuses on her quirks in order to make the story the success it is. Catherine is a sensationalist and some of the humour in the book inevitably arises from her love of Gothic novels and the value she places on the information in the real world. It’s like the thought that often crosses the mind of an admirer of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe to investigate any old-fashioned wardrobes they come across; but unlike these more modern thoughts that are meant only in jest by all but children, Catherine’s thoughts that stem from her novels become a reality to her, and the chastising she gives herself for it being a fantasy is only half-hearted. That her imagination is taken advantage of several times by Tilney is to create not only humour but also a situation in which Catherine can develop as a character, as well as to make Tilney himself not only a brilliant hero but to demonstrate Austen’s own superb mind.

If Henry had been with them indeed! – but now she should not know what was picturesque when she saw it.

Catherine’s development in regards to general knowledge, which includes general social knowledge, may not be particularly detailed, but it is fun to read about and good to be able to imagine where she might be in a few years time.

The other characters are almost equally compelling. Although not as passionate and impulsive as Catherine (in Northanger Abbey I found the spin-off, of sorts, that I would have loved to see of Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, focusing on Ginerva Fanshawe) they each possess distinctly interesting qualities. Henry Tilney is sarcastic, intelligent, and, I would say, the way in which Austen divulges her thoughts to the characters; his sister is an obedient woman but unconvinced by general society. Their father is a matriarch and the Thorpe siblings hard to bear, an assuming, self-righteous, deceiving duo.

“Would he thank you, either on his own account or Miss. Thorpe’s, for supposing that her affection, or at least her good-behaviour, is only to be secured by her seeing nothing of Captain Tilney? …Is her heart constant to him [Morland] only when unsolicited by anyone else?”

Something that marvels me about this book is Austen’s detailed knowledge about relationships. I know that so many things about love and relationships only occurred to me after I had experienced them, together with the information from music, books, and movies, and here we have Austen, a woman in the Victorian era, when woman were suppressed, a woman who experienced love but not for a great length of time, discuss subjects so much better than many writers even today.

As to the theme of parental interference, Austen ends the novel leaving the reader to decide whether her work is in support of “parental tyranny” or “filial disobedience”. It’s a fitting way to end the book. That she had pointed out to the reader, several paragraphs before, that she knew that they knew how it would finish, just adds to the superior quality.

The best aspect of this book is the writing. The story is enjoyable but if it had been told in a more regular manner it would be nothing special, and that is it’s selling point.

Northanger Abbey is one of a kind, especially where Austen’s own work is concerned. If you are an admirer of her books but have not yet read it, I urge you to do so in haste.

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Jane Austen – Sense And Sensibility

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Before she wrote as Jane Austen, one of England’s most famous writers was entitled “A Lady”.

Publisher: (Numerous, but I’d wager Vintage would be a good one)
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
First Published: 1811
Date Reviewed: 30th April 2010
Rating: 3/5

Having now read Pride And Prejudice and Persuasion it was only right I continue on in my task to become well acquainted with each of Austen’s works.

Elinor and Marianne are two very different sisters with very different tastes in men but neither of them realise that what seems to be is not always what is. When Elinor falls for Edward Ferrars and Marianne for Willoughby the future looks bright for both of them but they live in ignorance of the secrets of their lovers.

It is quite clear from the writing and plot development that this is the work of a person still coming to understand themselves as a writer. At 20 years of age and in a society where people tended to keep solely to their communities it’s understandable that Austen’s work would be less polished than many debut writers of today; however that’s not to say it’s awful, there may well be some awkward moments where better editing would have sufficed in bringing the story to a higher level, but the overall quality speaks of promise rather than imminent failure.

The issues to be addressed therefore are as follows: the storyline. It takes a good third or so of the book for the story to pick up and gain momentum and indeed any reasons for continuing. The story drags its feet behind the family on their various trips to and from their friends’ abodes with no sign of being anything more than a look at a number of incredibly regular and boring existences. Austen should have combated this by inserting more points of interest, as she later did for Pride And Prejudice.

The other issue is confusion, and I have found this to be discussed in biographies so I know that my saying so is not completely in error. Austen seems not to know whether she likes Elinor or not. Elinor comes across as a sensible, kind soul and then suddenly turns round and tells her sister not to write to their mother because she is writing to their mother already. It may be that at the time Marianne was in the full throws of passion for Willoughby but the way in which Elinor communicates her response is downright nasty and by that very effect confusing. It comes without warning.

Something that Austen excels in, however, is in articulating rivalries and the eternal struggle women have had with each other when it comes to loving the same man. She tells us from the beginning when a character is perhaps not telling the full truth in order to be spiteful, and then proceeds to cleverly trick us into not believing her (Austen) before bringing it all together nicely, but without any hint of “I told you so”.

Austen, as in her other novels, presents age-old issues between the relations of men and women. Her male characters are as dastardly as any character in a British soap opera (I’m thinking of Eastenders, since you ask) and as confusing to women as many men in real-life (and probably British soaps too).

There is not much time given to describing locale although in a way that’s an asset because it lets you form your own imagination while concentrating on the action, or lack of it. Sense And Sensibility, perhaps more so than Austen’s later novels, is character based. With fewer characters than some of her novels but at the same time with more issues presented, it all comes together, after that first dull third, to create a busy narrative.

There are some fantastic quotations to be had in this book:

The ivory, the gold, and the pearls, all received their appointment, and the gentleman having named the last day on which his existence could be continued without the possession of the toothpick case, drew on his gloves with leisurely care, and bestowing another glance on the Miss Dashwoods, but such a one as seemed rather to demand than express admiration, walked off with an happy air of real conceit and affected indifference.

But of the writing otherwise I’m afraid I have to revert back to the negative, at least for the most part. There are a few errors that could’ve done with a once over and throughout the book there seems a problem with was/were and gave/given. I can’t say this for certain, because I know that the book is set mostly in the country and people quite possibly spoke very differently there at that time but it is difficult to read a book by someone held in esteem when they are delivering dialogue, of people with money, that reads like the spoken word of people nowadays who are considered lacking in education. To read sentences beginning with the like of “you was going to” and “I have gave him” makes for a distraction from an otherwise engaging story. So I would like to be able to trust that this is simply the cause of accents and not something that should have been vastly edited.

With Sense And Sensibility, Austen obtained on a big undertaking, to write her first full-length novel, and to fill the pages with a work that would stand equal in entertainment on shelves dominated by male authors. That she succeeded is far from debatable but that this is the best example of her writing is not. Sense And Sensibility is an average novel but one which proclaims the possibilities for later perfection – which as we all know, happened.

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