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Charles Dickens – A Christmas Carol

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Before it’s too late… (Incidentally, before it’s too late to post this review!)

Publisher: Various
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A (Vintage’s is 978-0-099-52973-6
First Published: 1843
Date Reviewed: 15th December 2013
Rating: 5/5

Please note that this novella is often published with the inclusion of other stories by Dickens. The edition I read was Vintage Classics, which includes The Chimes and The Haunted Man, but this review only deals with A Christmas Carol.

It’s Christmas Eve and, the same as every year, Mr Scrooge isn’t interested. Hating Christmas and preferring money to people, he declines his nephew’s invitation to Christmas dinner, tells his clerk he can have the day off but to be in earlier on Boxing Day, and leaves work to spend the evening on his own in his dingy suite. But his evening is far from quiet. He is visited by the ghost of his deceased business partner who tells him he will be visited by three spirits and that he has to change his ways before it is too late.

A Christmas Carol is a riveting story that far surpasses, as you might suppose, any of the film adaptations and abridged versions that have been created since.

As most people know the story it is probably best to comment on the book with this in mind and say that the writing itself is a real treat, the book is very funny, and there is the inclusion of the author himself in the story that is simply worth knowing about. This inclusion is mostly to show how Scrooge could change, though there is a particular statement which, in our present day, comes across as from the grave and thus rather spooky.

Unlike, for example, Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol is not jammed-packed full of words. The text flows beautifully and the pages pass quickly and easily. The story is not at all spoiled by prior knowledge of the work – if you like the story but do not read the book it must be said that you are missing out.

Although society in general isn’t a theme of the book, the modern reader can learn a lot about Dickens’ time. Whilst Scrooge’s tale may be somewhat escapist, you can read through the lines, read through Dickens’s descriptions, to find out a lot about life and, of course, Christmas.

A short story with a firm message, A Christmas Carol is an excellent novella. And the fact that it is from this story that the greeting ‘Merry Christmas’ entered general use makes it more than perfect to read this book during the holiday in which it is set.

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Emily Brontë – Wuthering Heights

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Has fiction ever seen such a wretched anti-hero?

Publisher: (Numerous, but I’d wager Vintage would be a good one)
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A
First Published: 1847
Date Reviewed: 3rd December 2010
Rating: 4/5

The general idea is that Wuthering Heights is a fantastic romance, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find that it’s a terrible story of hate and obsession. This was my discovery upon opting to read Emily’s work, having remembered how much the Laurence Oliver movie adaptation focused on romance. To say I had no clue would be an understatement.

The Earnshaws lived a good life until the father brought Heathcliff home. Cathy Earnshaw and Heathcliff become incredibly close, but Cathy’s violent nature and Heathcliff’s hate of her brother provoke revenge when Mr Earnshaw dies. Power will shift back and forth and when Cathy chooses wealth over love Heathcliff’s nature degrades itself further. It won’t just be the Earnshaws who suffer his bitterness.

The story is in a narration of two layers, you have the reason for the story being narrated, Mr Lockwood who recently rented the old Linton property (Linton being the wealthy family Cathy married into), and Ellen, or Nelly, his housekeeper who is the one to tell the tale. In a way this set-up is odd, as Lockwood has nothing to do with the family, and is a rather rude person himself – at times it seems he wouldn’t make such a bad companion for Heathcliff – but it does allow for the story to move beyond the lives of the couple.

This is where defining the novel becomes difficult. Emily’s writing is good and generally easy to read. The technical side is alluring and for this reason it’s a brilliant piece of work. But then comes the story, which is painful to the extent of making you wonder what was going on in the author’s head. How do you rate a novel containing such extremes? In giving the book the rating I have, I’ve examined more factors than I usually do on other occasions because lauding the book as literary critics do is impossible, but shunning it is also equally impossible. The only thing I can really say is that this is a classic for the writing’s sake but there is nothing else to give it the clout.

I suppose I should list “romance” as one of the genres of this book, but I’m afraid I don’t see any romance in it. Not even violent love relationships. I don’t believe Heathcliff has a romantic bone in his body and any other relationships aren’t explored enough to warrant it.

To refer to the “generally” good writing of Emily, it becomes most intolerable when Joseph is speaking. Yes it can be helpful to have the dialogue of a person with an accent written in that accent, but when the person becomes incoherent due to the inability of letters to successfully dictate their words it’s surely more a hindrance. Perhaps more so than Heathcliff, the bane of this book is the amount of space given to Joseph, whole paragraphs in what is essentially a severe case of broken English. The structure of it means that after a few words you might be starting to gain an understanding of how Joseph speaks, but then you’re thrown by words appearing to be in an entirely different accent. For the most part I guessed Joseph was from Yorkshire, but sometimes he sounded like a Londoner.

Cathy and Heathcliff are made for each other, even if Heathcliff is truly violent and Cathy’s violence more childish. There are no words to describe just how awful Heathcliff is, and, as I wrote in my diary, even if he isn’t literally a devil, he is surely more evil than Lord Voldermort of Harry Potter, than Sauron of The Lord Of The Rings, and so on. The reason I say this is because Emily has detailed him so meticulously and we are given no motives for why he is like he is, Cathy’s rejection aside. Suffice to say all the other characters, with perhaps the exception of Joseph and Linton (don’t get me started on him), are good to read about. Although Emily does attempt to make you feel for Heathcliff, when Hindley is treating him badly, you never can because, to use a childish phrase, Heathcliff started it. As a reader you hope the other characters would have a bit more courage and emotional strength, the constant thought is why don’t they just leave? The only answer I can come to is that their helplessness stems from their culture and time period.

There are some particularly horrid scenes in which Emily pushes the emotional boundaries a little too far, but one thing that can be said is that it’s difficult to get used to the violence no matter how many of Heathcliff’s “episodes” you witness.

“Tell your master … I’ve sometimes relented, from pure lack of invention, in my experiments on what she could endure, and still creep shamefully cringing back! But tell him also, to set his fraternal and magisterial heart at ease, that I keep strictly within the limits of the law…”

The location of the story is apt, a dark and often dreary moor that Emily uses liberally in place of standard pathetic fallacy. The setting does of course make reading the story more difficult as the characters not only spend most of their time at home – and what time they do spend away you only hear reports of – but they spend it in the same few rooms.

When I approached Wuthering Heights, I brought, along with all my incorrect assumptions, the hope that Emily would bring me a joy similar to that of her sister Charlotte. But as much as I loved Emily’s writing style I’m not sure I’ll want to read Wuthering Heights again because of Heathcliff. An anti-hero with no legitimate reasons for acting so poorly is not someone I want to read about twice.

Wuthering Heights is a hideous creation created spectacularly. It is definitely worth the read to experience Emily’s writing but the story pales in comparison to Jane Eyre. Never hold any hope for the story turning positive, because baring a small redemption it’s content is nothing but malicious.

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Charlotte Brontë – Jane Eyre

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When I opened Jane Eyre I don’t know what I expected, Austen, perhaps – humour, entertainment, but an all too familiar tale of an emboldened young woman making her way in a society that was not her own. I didn’t expect what I actually found.

Publisher: (Numerous, but I’d wager Vintage would be a good one)
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: (Vintage’s is 978-0-099-51112-0)
First Published: 1847
Date Reviewed: 1st October 2010
Rating: 5/5

Not long ago I was in the bookshop buying a copy of Pride And Prejudice for my mother (who, I lament, has still not read it). The assistant said it was a great book but then proceeded to recount the glories of the Brontës. I listened in earnest as I intended to read Charlotte Brontë’s work next. The sisters were darker, he said, Austen was too light humoured. He asked his colleague, who was browsing the shelves on this mid-week slow day, for her opinion on who was better. Austen, she said. My assistant said I should read Brontë. How right he was in his pronunciations.

Now one could say that I have missed the boat by over a hundred years in writing this review, but, and this is something I believe I touched on in my review of Pride And Prejudice, there is the idea that it’s ok to review a classic. It is important, I feel, that each generation brings to the book’s reputation their own reflections on it as surely this routine will enable those of a particular generation to decipher how this book might appeal to them. Without modern day discussion, or indeed simply educational study, all a potential reader has to go on is ancient reviews written by people of a different time; it is by updating opinion that future readers will see for themselves how the book might be accepted by them in a way that is appropriate for their own time.

I suppose I should stop there with my views on classical literature and turn specifically to the subject at hand, so here is a basic plot summary:

When Jane Eyre was a child she had no one, at least no one who gave her the love and caring attention she needed. Growing up in her aunt’s house she was bullied and treated with disdain despite her obedient ways. Sent to a boarding school Jane later flourished, but assuming the role of a teacher at the same school could only hold her interest for a short time. In seeking further employment, Jane alighted at Thornfield Hall. Mr Rochester, her employer, is a peculiar one – cryptic, seemingly forgetful, impulsive, and secretive. But how can he demand her full attention when the house, beautiful though it is, appears to be haunted by secrets?

Jane Eyre is a story that, for the most part, is ever moving and shifting between genres. It is so clear in its sections that one can point out the different “acts” with little difficulty. And Charlotte (as there were three Brontës I will refer to the eldest as such) doesn’t stick to one or two themes either, the book contains a plethora, and their subjects are such that some are just as relevant in their original sense today.

The story is told as a memoir, directly to the audience. In the first person, for Jane hasn’t written a diary, she addresses the reader in an interactive way, asking them questions and for their opinion, as well as accurately guessing what they might be wanting to know. Be sure that whatever you are thinking, Charlotte has realised and will inform you of accordingly. Many a time I believed I wouldn’t get an answer to my query and then not only did Charlotte bring it to the fore, she had Jane speak to me in person.

A new chapter in a novel is something like a new scene in a play; and when I draw up the curtain this time, reader, you must fancy you see a room in the George Inn at Millcote, with such large figured papering on the walls as inn rooms have; such a carpet, such furniture, such ornaments on the mantelpiece, such prints, including a portrait of George the Third, and another of the Prince of Wales, and a representation of the death of Wolfe. All this is visible to you by the light of an oil lamp hanging from the ceiling, and by that of an excellent fire, near which I sit in my cloak and bonnet; my muff and umbrella lie on the table, and I am warming away the numbness and chill contracted by sixteen hours’ exposure to the rawness of an October day: I left Lowton at four o’clock a.m., and the Millcote town clock is now just striking eight.

A comparison I will make now with Jane Austen. Although I love Austen’s work it cannot be denied that she has a tendency to go into far too much detail than is required, forming incredibly long sentences wherein one can easily become lost. There is no such worry in Charlotte’s writing. Except perhaps during a specific section, which I will come to in a minute, Charlotte never pauses to provide superfluous description. The story, as said before, is ever moving. Charlotte knows her reader, she knows that (at least in her time) they are well versed in her world, for it is a real one, and that they don’t need to read about it apart from the descriptions of the made-up situation. I would say that it is quite possible that this style of writing is what enables Charlotte to bring in so many different elements of story to the book because she doesn’t have to worry about spending time – and pages, thus not becoming long-winded – on description. If you require definite evidence of Charlotte’s quest to remove unnecessary information, you only need look several pages in where Jane says that she is leaving out eight years of life from her account because they aren’t interesting enough to speak of.

Every setting in the book is beautifully lamented upon and a pleasure to create in memory and imagination. Though the book may begin shrouded in grey, Charlotte later moves it into hues of green, yellow, and white. She uses time of day wisely, contriving with the weather to create her own version of pathetic fallacy.

There was just one area that I found disappointing, the part where Jane comes into certain social arrangements in a village. I wished fervently that it wouldn’t be a cliché, that it would be different – but it wasn’t. I do not understand how someone so brilliant and able a storyteller could fall to such boring and coincidental devices. I failed to see, for that space of time, the genius reported by Virginia Woolf – a quotation displayed in glory on the back cover of my copy of the book.

The cook hung over her crucibles in a frame of mind and body threatening spontaneous combustion.

The characters are first-class. Although, where classic literature is concerned, Austen’s Darcy may be more famous, of more note is surely Charlotte’s Edward Rochester. Rochester is a fine creation; funny, sarcastic, and very much a speedy speaker; few were the times when I could imagine him speaking any slower than quickly. And it is in part because of his backtracking and contradictions of his words that he is so full of colour – you may not find out all that much about his interests but it is clear that here is a well-rounded person, no matter how gloomy he may aspire to be at times. Several of the quotations I made note of for their humour come from his dialogue; as an example, his supposing that you might not think of hating someone you already despise. With these in mind I would like to reference a scene that particularly stood out for me, that of the gypsy’s visit to Thornfield Hall. Make no mistake, it goes on for several pages but it is here that Charlotte first demonstrates true comedic genius.

Jane Eyre herself is just as fantastic a character, but one can overlook her qualities sometimes due to the fact that she is the eternal focus, being the narrator. She is as appealing and relevant today as a character newly penned in the 21st Century.

The writing is superb. So differently to Austen, Charlotte writes in a way that is very near to how we write today, save for perhaps her fondness for colons and semi colons, which she includes as if she earned a pound for each addition. Because of the style there is no need to study the text at all in order to make out her meaning, and so in style at least the book remains an easy read. However I would like to point out that there is a substantial amount of French used in the book. Charlotte has chosen her words well and included in most sentences hints as to the overall meaning, as long as you have a bare basic knowledge you should be able to get the gist. My own GCSE education from years ago sufficed.

The love story is perfect, and it is during the scenes between the anguish-ridden couple that dialogue takes over, as does of course interesting conversation (think of the character descriptions provided) and, because the dialogue is generally balanced between the two these are the scenes that flow quickly. The only time you really realise just how long the book is is once you get to the end of one of these dialogues and turn the page to see line upon line of description in preparation for the next sequence.

One of the ways in which the book amazes me is the ending, and looking back on it I can see how Charlotte was not making it into the kind of scene you might have expected and would’ve expected had it been written by someone else. Everything points to her being a person open to modern ideas. That doesn’t mean she is perfect, she was of course a product of her society and so some issues in the book you have to read remembering that, but she was a forward thinker and far away from being narrow-minded, by both the standards of her time and now.

Charlotte Brontë is a master storyteller and although I’m yet to read her other work I have a feeling this will remain my favourite. I have tried my best in this review but a summing up could never really explain just how and why this book is so incredible. I heartily recommend it to one and all with no exceptions.

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