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Solomon Northup – Twelve Years A Slave

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Whilst I’ve formatted this post as I do my reviews, this isn’t quite a review, more an information post.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A (Collins is 978-0-007-58042-2)
First Published: 1853
Date Reviewed: 27th February 2018
Rating: 5/5

Twelve Years A Slave is Solomon Northup’s account of his time as a slave in Southern states America, the Bayou Boeuf to be exact. It was used by the abolition movement though not necessarily written for it1; like so many others, Northup was forced into slavery and his story has a specific background – he was one of a number of Northern states freemen who were kidnapped and sold into bondage.

Every sentence in this book has been thought through. Debate has surrounded who exactly wrote this book – whilst unarguably Northup’s account, there are a few possibilities due to the presence (most definitely in the preface) of an ‘editor’, one David Wilson. There’s the possibility Wilson took Northup’s story and wrote it up, which seems most likely, reading around the subject [see end note]; the possibility it is completely Northup’s work; the possibility that it’s a bit of both. These possibilities are apparent upon reading the preface and then subsequent work and situating the book in its political and social context; in the same way the work of other former slaves – such as Olaudah Equiano who wrote 60 years prior to Northup – seeks to reassure the reader that there are good white people out there, including some masters, so too does Northup.

The book is as harrowing as you’d expect though a lot may well have been left out; you get a report of horrors but there were surely more details. Included also are the good days, the few days of leisure in which Northup expresses the normality of his fellow slaves, demonstrating further how inhumane slavery is, how everyone is the same.

Northup drops out of history ten years after this publication – we know that he was often a speaker at abolition events but the records then start to become ambiguous. Someone saw him at someone’s house once – that sort of thing. History believes he was kidnapped back into slavery or simply died of natural causes. You can’t but hope it was the latter possibility and that it happened in due course rather than soon after Northup was freed. The first doesn’t bare thinking about.

As Northup himself did, so too did the book fall into obscurity2. It’s quite possible that, with slavery abolished, Northup’s book was deemed to have served its purpose and was dually forgotten. It was rediscovered in the 1960s.

Certainly you have to be prepared to read between the lines on occasion and this is one of those few books that would be difficult to read out of context. It’s an incredibly important book.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the authorship, David Fiske’s article on the book is an interesting read. It says that Wilson was not an abolitionist – which would suggest a less political motive on that man’s part, and goes further into general reasoning and the way the book was written.

Footnotes

1 Lieblich (2015) says the book “…achieved a remarkable degree of success as an abolitionist indictment against slavery […] In the wake of newspaper reports of his rescue from slavery, Henry Northup (a white attorney and lifelong friend from New York whose family had once owned Solomon’s father), Solomon Northup, and David Wilson collaborated and published his story within the first few months of his return to the North. Henry Northup gave Wilson an incentive to publish the book as quickly as possible in the wake of news reports of Solomon’s rescue. The attorney rightfully figured that information from the book would quickly reach readers who could, and who eventually did, identify the kidnappers.”
2 More information can be found on Wikipedia.

Online References

Lieblich, Mollie (2015), The Cultural Significance of Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, US History Scene, accessed 1st March 2018.

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Elizabeth Gaskell – Cranford

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No man’s land, gender form.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A
First Published: 1851-1853
Date Reviewed: 8th April 2016
Rating: 3.5/5

Our narrator – whose name we will learn in time (this is no Du Maurier) – takes trips to the town of Cranford periodically and informs us of the goings on. Most of the residents are women – men tend to disappear – and a certain propriety functions. You’ve people like Deborah – faithful to the works of Samuel Johnson – and you’ve the richest woman, Mrs Jamieson, who struggles somewhat to retain feelings of wealth in a town where money never grows on trees.

Cranford is a novella, one of three that looks at the fictional town; it deals with many different subjects. Akin to a long-running soap opera in terms of its lack of action and overall excitement, the book is more an escape and ripe for pleasant Sunday afternoons.

This said there are two ‘sides’ to Cranford. Certainly the surface dressing and the majority of the content is frivolous – we could well imagine people in Gaskell’s time sitting down to the most recent chapter (the work was first published as a serial) but there is a second side akin to Gaskell’s work in North And South. It may take a while for the side – the social commentary – to become apparent but to put it simply, the book includes a small-scale study of poverty. One can assume Gaskell was wanting more contemplation for her readers, in fact one could assume she was wanting to say something without jeopardising their interest – she looks at poverty in general and how other people work to help each other, whilst simultaneously never implying anyone lacks money. Needless to say the book can be read in a variety of ways; Gaskell seems to want you take away what you will.

Away from this there’s little to comment on in depth. The book is all about its humour – every now and then you may laugh out loud but the emphasis is on subtlety. Here, again, Gaskell doesn’t want to alienate her serial readers – the characters are women and that’s great, but we’ll have some fun at the expense of them on occasion. The male characters, likely deliberately, are all good guys, men that can match the women in wit and personality and thus stay in town.

The writing is strictly okay; you can see why, perhaps, Gaskell is not considered on a level with her friends Charlotte Brontë and Charles Dickens, but it does the job.

That this review is so short should clue you in to what you can expect from Cranford – fun, yes, and escapism, but a lot of average moments and a sense of convenience. Reading the book is like watching Neighbours, just without the divorces and deaths. It’s something to read whilst you’re deciding what to read.

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Elizabeth Gaskell – North And South

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The industrial revolution shook England up and changed everything, but where is the plot in Gaskell’s book?

Publisher: Vintage
Pages: 547
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-099-51148-9
First Published: 1855
Date Reviewed: 12th September 2011
Rating: 2.5/5

After Mr Hale decides that he can no longer be a vicar of the Church of England, he takes his family from their home in the New Forest, to Milton in the north. Whereas the New Forest is pretty and problems are hidden, Milton is smoky and full of issues. Margaret, the daughter and the heroine of the novel, learns to live in Milton.

Aside from the uprooting of a family, I could find no real plot to this novel. Discussions on life, yes, but a firm here to there in any theme, no. Gaskell is both humorous and knowledgeable about the subject on which she writes, but in detailing the industrial revolution as she did it she forgot to tell a story. And whilst her characters are okay, they are not interesting enough by themselves to make the plot irrelevant.

Margaret isn’t a heroine to enjoy reading about. She receives proposals of marriage and gets angry about it and her speeches single her out as a self-righteous woman who, while not wanting to demean herself and act like a woman was supposed to, does often cause one to want her to be quiet. When a friend dies she refuses to see the body, and at one time she calls herself a genius – for doing something that the reader will identity as common sense. It’s not said in a humorous manner and is thus difficult to read.

Neither are the other characters particularly readable. Mr Hale comes across as selfish in his desire to leave the church, and the younger men have nothing special to recommend them. A lot of characters are there just because. The class issues are not looked into very well and hardly scratch the surface. Yes, Gaskell tells you what happened, but her whys aren’t particularly compelling.

While it may be the melodramatic nature of Victorian literature, that so many people start dropping like flies doesn’t suit Gaskell’s writing at all. It comes across as fake and convenient. The ending is rather sudden and unbelievable and the conversations go on and on without making any real progress. You get excited about all the possibilities with a character or a relationship and then Gaskell kills them off or makes Margaret stop seeing them.

To be sure the information presented is interesting, if you are in to economics and trade, and the later development of an understanding between those with power and those with none is good to read about, but by and large this reviewer cannot see why North And South proclaimed a classic.

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Charlotte Brontë – Villette

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Where a sound story is hindered by its length.

Publisher: (Numerous, but I’d wager Vintage would be a good one)
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A
First Published: 1853
Date Reviewed: 18th February 2011
Rating: 3.5/5

Lucy Snowe leads a mundane life, looking after other people and staying with friends. When the chance to move to France presents itself, she takes it on impulse. An encounter with a fellow compatriot leads her to employment as an English teacher in the town of Villette. Lucy’s life at once goes back to monotony but it appears that one teacher may be interested in her, even if the interest seems negative.

On the whole, Villette isn’t a bad book. The story is good, and although not up to the standard of Jane Eyre, it is nevertheless enjoyable. The characters are interesting and there is a similar variety of genres used throughout, including a small mystery.

Apart from the obvious parallels that come from them sharing a creator, Lucy Snowe couldn’t be more different to Jane Eyre. Lucy, too, addresses the reader in that beautiful way Charlotte applies to her writing, drawing them into the fold as intimately as a friend, but she has none of the strengths of her predecessor. Lucy is always saying that her life is dull and thus it becomes very irritating when she turns down offers of, for example, a dance, which would make her more interesting – and then later reasserts her position as a person living a mundane existence. Lucy has every opportunity to improve herself but for most of the book she does not take it.

Unfortunately this means that the psychology Charlotte uses – the way she has Lucy often spending ages wondering on her life – doesn’t quite make the impact it should. To speak personally, I found myself happy that Lucy had learned something, thinking she would remember it for next time, and finding my hopes dashed again and again. Lucy is her own worse enemy and it is thanks to the goodness of other people that she develops later on. If left to her own devices entirely she surely would never have got anywhere.

Charlotte writes about her characters in a way unique to her. Maybe it’s in part because the length of her books allows for good development, but it’s more just the way she appropriates time. The best way to explain this would be to provide you with a quotation:

A constant crusade against the “amour-propre” of every human being but himself, was the crochet of this able, but fiery and grasping little man. He had a strong relish for public representation in his own person, but an extreme abhorrence of the like display in any other. He quelled, he kept down when he could; and when he could not, he fumed like a bottled storm.

The array of difference between all the characters is quite something. Lucy spends a lot of time thinking and shying away, whereas most of her acquaintances make nothing of sharing their feelings with everyone. A particularly fantastic character, for her distinct oppositeness to Lucy, is Ginevra Fanshawe, a girl at once annoying and yet so full of life that the reader cannot but love her as the antidote to a dull heroine.

There is a romantic element to the plot, for the most part subtle, one can never be sure if it will develop or not. And, as seems to be the norm with Victorian writers, there are a great many coincidences that make the story unfortunately less realistic.

Now there are three major bones of contention I must deal with. The first I will discuss briefly because otherwise I could end up talking on it at length.

Charlotte’s Protestantism. It becomes impossible to separate a personality from the book they have written when a lot of the work is clearly a lecture. Lucy is so vehemently against Catholicism that at times it makes the book impossible. Villette can come across as a sermon, and in suggesting it is a sermon I look to Charlotte’s situation as the daughter of a clergyman as my evidence – she would know well how to word her feelings. The hatred is just too much, Lucy goes on about how her “ears burned” as she was “forced” to listen to stories of the saints, and the silly thing about it is that in doing so and in going on about it frequently, Charlotte produces the opposite effect – indeed I felt sorry for those she scorned – and not only that, but she makes her Catholic characters, through their lesser strength of feeling for their opposites, or at least for the lesser amount of time afforded to them, the preferred group of people. Perhaps, then, it is in realisation of this, in realisation of the fact that Catholics could well be among the number of her readers, that makes Charlotte’s joining of the denominations later on through her characters, important.

The application of French. In my review of Jane Eyre I said that one could get by with a very basic knowledge of the French language; in Villette whole paragraphs are written in it and I presume that even an intermediate knowledge would not suffice. It’s odd really because Charlotte switches back and forth, during conversations, between English and French, where she could have just used English. Her method renders her work impossible to read in its entirely without knowledge of French, and therefore unless you possess it you will likely find yourself, as I did, skipping over large chunks of text, much of which it’s obvious is important to know for a clear understanding of the characters.

The last thing is the length of the book. The length is what makes it so dreary a read because there are chapters upon chapters of needless content, and although it effectively expresses Lucy’s mundane life, it makes a desire to read the book difficult to kindle for any long periods of time. The last third is very worthy of heralding, and the last few chapters are magnificent, the characters introduced interesting, but, because the wait for it is so long, that wait puts a damper on the novel in its entirety. It may have suited Charlotte to describe at length a profession which she had first-hand experience of, but for the monotonous routine she should have thought twice about how much she said.

I reckon that with a quick look at the back-story, one could easily skip the first half or so of the book. Villette may tie up it’s subplots well and have a brilliant cast of characters, but for the time it takes it’s not a patch on Jane Eyre.

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