The Tempest by William Shakespeare – The Classics Club spin 21

The Tempest cover

A wee bit late, but I got my Classics Club spin choice finished. I actually began reading The Tempest ages ago and got half way through it before being distracted by something else, so when I eventually got back to it I started from the beginning again. This is probably the last play that William Shakespeare wrote, way back in 1610-1611.

Prospero was the Duke of Milan but he wasn’t really interested in ruling his kingdom as he was obsessed by honing his skills as a magician. Prospero was happy to allow his younger brother Antonio to take over all the power that he should have had, but in time Antonio decided that he wanted to have his brother’s title too, so he deposed Prospero who managed to escape with his three year old daughter Miranda, helped by his trustworthy servant Gonzalo.

When the play begins twelve years have passed since Prospero and Miranda landed on an island somewhere in the Mediterranean, and Prospero has been practising his magic arts aided by the books he managed to take with him and Ariel who is a spirit, he/she had been held captive on the island by a witch who had lived there earlier along with her son Caliban. Prospero has been able to send a huge storm to blast a ship which has his treacherous brother on board, among many others, including Ferdinand who is the son of the King of Naples who was also on the ship. Ferdinand thinks he is the only survivor of the shipwreck and when he and Miranda meet it’s love at first sight. But when Prospero meets Ferdinand he sets him to work for him, hauling firewood around, that’s not something that the heir to a throne is used to doing.

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the island some of the other survivors who had been returning from a wedding are plotting to kill King Alonso, but Ariel gets wind of the plot and foils it. There’s a lot of confusion and some drunkeness among the survivors – but what can I say except – All’s well that ends well except that’s another of his plays.

That’s the thing about reading Shakespeare, you keep coming across phrases that have become part of the English language, and often you don’t realise that they were first written by Shakespeare, and of course other writers have borrowed them. The phrase – this rough magic appears a few times to which I say Step forward Mary Stewart. His words have found their way into our psyche whether we realise it or not. I expect we’ve all heard from Act 4 scene 1:

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep

It’s thought that he was inspired to write this play on hearing of what happened to a fleet of nine ships which set sail for Virginia. The ship the Sea Adventure was separated from the other ships during a storm and washed up near Bermuda, stuck between two rocks. The crew and most of the cargo and fittings managed to get ashore safely, but it was assumed that they had all perished and it was some time before they managed to continue their journey to Virginia.

Shakespeare knew some of the people involved and was able to read an original letter from William Strachey which described the strange experiences of those who had been shipwrecked.

It seems that nothing changes as I know that writers today often get their ideas from things that they see in the news.

Anyway – that’s The Tempest under my belt – so to speak. It’s a great read and I can only imagine how enthralling it must have been for the original audience and will definitely try to watch a modern version of it, but not too modern as I prefer my Shakespeare to come with period costumes and stage sets. I just love Arthur Rackham’s illustrations.

How did you get on with your Classics Club spin book?

The Tempest

Lady Anna by Anthony Trollope

 Lady Anna cover

Lady Anna by Anthony Trollope was published in book form in 1874 but the setting is around 1830. Lady Anna’s mother was socially ambitious and was determined to marry into the aristocracy. Despite dire warnings, especially from her father, she insisted in marrying Earl Lovel who had a reputation for being evil. Not long after their wedding Earl Lovel told his ‘wife’ that she wasn’t actually married to him at all as he already had a wife living in Italy. Their unborn child would be illegitimate. Then he abandoned his ‘wife’ and went to live in Italy. Over the next 20 years Lady Lovel strove to prove in court that she was actually married to Lord Lovel, all that cost a lot of money that she didn’t have.

A local tailor took pity on her and ended up supporting her and her daughter, Lady Anna. The tailor had spent thousands of pounds on the Lovels, to the detriment of his own son. Meanwhile Anna has more or less been been brought up with Daniel the tailor’s son and over the years they’ve become more than friends, Anna has promised to be his wife when she’s of age. When her mother learns of this she’s horrified at the thought of her Lady Anna marrying the son of a mere tailor, despite the fact that that tailor has been supporting them both for years.

Meanwhile Lord Lovel has died intestate so his estate and money should go to his nephew who is keen to marry Anna which would please Lady Lovel, but Anna feels she must keep her promise to Daniel. Lady Anna takes this all very badly as you would expect of someone who has always been a social climber

Whose side was I on? Well, there are lots of clues to the character of Daniel and they don’t bode well for a harmonious marital future for whomever he marries. Daniel is a Radical, the variety that thinks that everyone should have equal rights, except his wife!

Daniel Thwaite was considering the injustice of the difference between ten thousand aristocrats and thirty million of people, who were for the most part ignorant and hungry.

“Mr Thwaite says, “There must be earls and countesses.”

Daniel Thwaite says, “I see no must in it. There are earls and countesses as there used to be mastodons and other senseless, overgrown brutes roaming miserable and hungry.”

Daniel Thwaite says, ” I don’t want my wife to have anything of her own before marriage, but she certainly shall have nothing after marriage – independent of me” For a man with sound views of domestic power and marital rights always choose a Radical.

I believe that Trollope wrote more books featuring these characters – it sounds like Lady Anna may discover that she has made a big mistake.

The White Guard by Mikhael Bulgakov Classics Club spin

The White Guard cover

I got The White Guard in the Classics Club Spin which was almost ideal really as I was reading it while on my way to Russia, except I was going to St Petersburg, not Kiev which is the setting of the book which first appeared in serial form in 1925 but wasn’t published in book form in Russia until 1966.

The setting is the city of Kiev in 1918 – the October Revolution. The Turbin family had been well off but they’ve just lost their beloved mother. It’s particularly poignant as her eldest son Alexei had just returned from the front after serving for years in a disastrous campaign in the Tsarist army. At last the whole family is together, but without their mother. There’s a younger brother, Nikolka and a sister Elena who is married to an army captain and also Anyuta the maid all living in the family apartment but it isn’t long before Talberg the husband abandons them, running away to save his own skin, the brothers had never trusted him anyway.

The city is chaotic with the German army roaming around and various other factions trying to grab the power.

The Bolshevik thugs are running around in the city, attacking anyone that they recognise as having been an officer in the Tsarist army, and it’s very easy for the officers to be pinpointed. Criminals are taking advantage of the chaos to blackmail people into giving up their valuables. The apartment becomes a refuge for others sheltering from the violence.

This is a really great read, conveying the atmosphere of danger, fear and panic as the normal rules of society have broken down and nobody has any idea of what the new future is going to hold for them.

Riceyman Steps by Arnold Bennett

Riceyman Steps by Arnold Bennett was one of the books that I read on my Kindle while I was on the Baltic cruise. I actually ran out of ‘real’ books to read on board, that’s because I found it quite boring, cruises are fine if you are keen on stuffing your face a lot, otherwise there isn’t much else to do but read, unless you’re interested in boozing or gambling!

Anyway, back to the book. Riceyman Steps was first published in 1923 and it won the James Tait Memorial Prize that year, which is one of the reasons that I decided to read it as I’m hoping to read as many as those prize winners as I can get my hands on. It is set in London’s Clerkenwell, mainly in a bookshop and attached flat which has been inherited by Henry Earlforward from his uncle. One window looks into The King’s Cross Road and the other onto Riceyman Steps. Henry had had to learn the book business quickly and despite the shop being really dirty and dingy he had a good number of loyal customers for the antiquarian books in stock. Books are piled everywhere, as is dust and as Henry is a terrible miser he only has one electric light, the rest of the building is lit by candles.

There’s a confectioner’s across the road, inherited by Violet who is a widow, and Henry has taken a shine to her. It isn’t really romance he’s after though it’s more the fact that she has a business and he thinks that maybe Violet would take over the cleaning in the shop. That’s a bit optimistic considering they both already share the same young cleaning woman/maidservant in the shape of Elsie. She has trouble with her young man who is a survivor of World War 1 but he suffers from shell shock, which causes huge problems within their relationship. Henry’s chief joy is to spend half an hour picking his teeth with toothpicks after a meal, not that he would ever go to the expense of buying toothpicks. His only other joy is to fashion spent matchsticks into toothpicks – waste not want not!

Violet isn’t really cut out for being a confectioner and when she decides to sell her shop she also decides to marry Henry, after all – he has good living accommodation. But they really know nothing about each other. When Violet decides to employ a firm of cleaners – complete with new-fangled vacuum cleaners to clean the interior of the building as a wedding present to Henry he is absolutely aghast. She had spent £14 on the firm of cleaners and of course everything had been moved. Henry thinks his customers won’t be able to find the books they are looking for.

Henry’s miserliness becomes worse and worse and he cuts back on food and fuel for both of them to starvation levels – with disastrous results. This sounds a bit of a grim read but I enjoyed it and it’s a lesson for all misers everywhere.

The Kill by Emile Zola – Classics Club Spin no. 18

The Kill cover

The book that I got in the Classics Club Spin is The Kill by Emile Zola which was first published in 1872 and it’s the second book in his Rougon Macquart series. I think this is about the fifth book in that series that I’ve read and it is the one that I’ve liked least. However it’s one of his earliest books and he obviously improved with maturity.

The setting is Paris 1852 and Aristide Rougon has gone there having left his native Provence. He hopes to get help from his older brother and eventually he does get a job with his help, he’s a surveyor of roads. It isn’t really what he was looking for but he realises that the work gives him access to important city planning decisions and this means that he can take advantage by buying up tracts of land that he knows will be needed in the rebuilding of the new Paris. He’ll make lots of money when the land is bought from him by the city.

Aristide is a born wheeler dealer and when his wife dies he marries Renee a young woman from a wealthy family. She is already pregnant and needs a husband. Aristide can use her money for his business dealings, but although Renee is much younger than Aristide and is very pretty, he isn’t really interested in her, she’s just a business deal as far as he is concerned. They both have affairs and Renee eventually ends up having an affair with Aristide’s son by his first wife. She spends a fortune on her clothes and has to borrow to pay some money towards her debts. Meanwhile Aristide realises that he isn’t such a brilliant businessman as he thought he was.

The subject matter of massive greed, waste and infidelities didn’t appeal to me and the book is very overwritten. I like descriptions but there are far too many of them in this book – too many adjectives, too much purple prose.

They say that writers should always write about what they know but Emile Zola was writing about a society that he knew little about and he apparently got all of his information from the society pages of the Paris newspapers. Of course they described the dresses and jewellery that were worn at balls and Zola must have felt the need to do the same. I got to the stage where I was thinking – ‘please – no more satin, lace and bows!’

I’ll definitely be continuing with this series though.

The American Senator by Anthony Trollope

The American Senator cover

The American Senator by Anthony Trollope was first published in 1877 and this was my second attempt at reading it, which is strange as I ended up loving it. Obviously my brain just wasn’t in the right place when I lost interest in it first time around. What I love about Trollope’s writing is that he wears his heart on his sleeve and he chose to highlight different aspects of British culture that he found to be unfair and distasteful. In this book it’s the way young women were put on the marriage market at the age of 18 and often pressurised into being ‘settled’.

Arabella Trefoil is from an aristocratic family but is penniless and she has been chasing after various wealthy men for years and it has all come to nothing. She’s now getting on for 30 and is worn out with it all so she plumps for an engagement with an older man, John Morton, a diplomat, but she makes no attempt to even be pleasant to him, she thinks he’s mean with money and is having second thoughts. When another man who’s a wealthy young lord comes into view she’s tempted to try to manipulate him into a marriage proposal and lies her head off to everyone, including herself.

Mary Masters is a lot younger, just 18 or so and her step-mother is pressurising her to marry a local farmer. It would be a hard life for Mary who would be expected to do a lot of the farm/dairy work on her own, but apart from that Mary just doesn’t love the man. Her step-mother doesn’t see that as a problem.

Meanwhile Elias Gotobed is an American senator who is in England visiting John Morton and writing to a friend in America about his observations on British society and culture. He’s critical of the way the eldest male in any family inherits everything leaving the other children to make the best of it, usually by joining the army or the church.

The way the Church of England is organised is another thing that appalls him. This is a subject that obviously weighed on Trollope’s mind as his Barchester books are about the same thing.

He’s critical of fox-hunting, the cruel ‘sport’ which entails riders trampling crops and trespassing, ending with a fox being ripped apart.

He’s critical of the House of Lords as they’re unelected. The voting system is bizarre and basically corrupt.

Unfortunately the senator doesn’t keep his criticism for his American friend. While at a dinner party he’s keen to share his thoughts with the other guests. Mr Gotobed has no tact or sense of diplomacy whatsoever. Freedom of speech is more important to him, no matter how much he upsets his hosts. His bad manners shock the guests.

This was a great read although it’s slightly depressing that one of the things that obviously annoyed Trollope still hasn’t been improved as the House of Lords is still an unelected house. It’s a really ridiculous state of affairs but I read somewhere that in British politics things are usually spoken of for around 200 years before any change ever takes place, so there can’t be too long to go now surely!

I read this one for the Classics Club.

Nana by Emile Zola

Nana cover

Nana by Emile Zola was first published in 1880 and it’s part of his Rougon Macquart series which I’ve been reading completely out of order. There’s a list on Goodreads which recommends the order they should be read in, you can see it here. I’m not sure if it makes a huge difference to the enjoyment of the books.

Bluntly, this book is about prostitution and the part it played in French society of the Second Empire, particularly in Paris. Nana is the main character and in the beginning she’s a new girl in a theatre, her first experience on stage didn’t go well at all, she couldn’t sing, but she had the wit to realise that a lack of talent wouldn’t be a problem for her, she had a great figure and she was more than happy to show it all off, with just a very thin gauze veil for cover.

The men are agog, so are a lot of the women, and Nana goes from being a penniless unknown to being the toast of Paris, in some circles anyway. She’s a manipulative and totally dishonest tart who as time goes on becomes more and more out of control. The wonder is that the men involved with her were happy to put up with her nonsense, but there’s nowt as queer as men when it comes to sex it would seem!

Apparently Zola did a lot of background research for this book and he even managed to get a peek at a very ornate and expensive bed of a famous Parisian courtesan, and he based Nana’s bed on that one. As ever Zola’s descriptions light up the book but I didn’t enjoy it as much as the others of his that I’ve read. Zola wanted to compare Nana’s destructiveness with that of the French Empire’s disintegration which came in 1870.

Zola did set out to show how hereditary weaknesses affected various members of the families in this series and Nana’s personality is completely out of control, self-centred and destructive. She’s a nutter, one of those women who should have ‘dangerous to everyone’ stamped on her forehead. She’s smart though, much wilier than everyone else and has the unusual (for that society) tendency to kindness when others are in despair.

This one was on my Classics Club list.
Have you read Nana? What did you think of it/her?

The cover of my Penguin Classic shows ‘Nana’ painted by Edouard Manet.

Classics Club Spin number 17

Well the Classics Club Spin number has been chosen, it’s number 3 so the book that I’ll have to read before April 30th is Sir Walter Scott’s Bride of Lammermoor.

That’s fine by me as I’ve been meaning to read that one for ages. My copy which was published by Richard Edward King Limited originally belonged to Jack’s grandfather so it’s very old, but strangely it has no publication date on the front. The print is very small so although it’s only 316 pages long that probably translates to over 600 pages in a more modern print size. I think I’ll download it from Project Gutenberg so I can read it on my Kindle, or get a more modern copy.

Did you take part in the spin, and are you pleased with what you have to read?

Britannia Mews by Margery Sharp

Britannia Mews cover

Britannia Mews by Margery Sharp was first published in 1946 and it wasn’t at all what I was expecting. I had imagined it was going to be about a neighbourhood during World War 2 – a setting that is usually right up my street so I was quite disappointed when I realised that the story opens in the 19th century.

At the beginning Britannia Mews is quite a good address, this book marks its decline to slum status and its subsequent gentrification years later. Mainly it’s about Adelaide who is only ten at the beginning of the book, she’s very close to her cousin Alice, they share drawing lessons together, but when Adelaide’s hormones turn up she becomes obsessed with the drawing master and elopes with him. Adelaide’s family had already left Britannia Mews for a better address but when they were in the midst of moving again, this time out of London, she takes her chance to run off and ends up back in the now slum area of Britannia Mews. She has worked everything out, getting a special marriage licence so that when her parents track her down it’s too late for them to do anything about it.

Adelaide like many a woman before her thinks that she will be able to transform her husband, starting with scrubbing their rooms, but it’s not long before she realises she’s made a terrible mistake, but she’s never going to admit that to her over-bearing mother, she’ll stick it out come what may, despite having to live amongst filthy people the likes of which she’s never met before.

I enjoyed the second half of this book more than the first and I have to mention that for a filthy slum Britannia Mews was remarkably lacking in vermin. In reality someone like Adelaide would have moved out at the first glimpse of cockroaches, bedbugs and rats. But that’s me being pernickety I suppose.

This one is on my Classics Club list.

The Children Who Lived In A Barn by Eleanor Graham

Mobius Dick cover

The Children Who Lived in a Barn by Eleanor Graham was first published in 1938. My copy is a Persephone reprint. The author is probably better known as an editor for Puffin and Penguin books, and as such she obviously knew better than anyone that the best way to write a book for and involving children is to get rid of the parents as fast as possible, which she duly does in this book.

The Dunnet family consists of the parents and five children who range in age from thirteen to seven. Susan is the eldest and luckily she’s a very level-headed and competent girl, she has to be because their rather feckless parents take off for Switzerland where Mrs Dunnett’s mother has taken ill. They’re completely confident that Susan can look after everyone until they get back, but they don’t return and even worse the children are evicted from the family home as the landlord wants the house.

The villagers are mainly helpful and a farmer offers them the use of an old barn to live in. They set to work making it habitable and as the summer approaches they make a decent job of looking after themselves although the bulk of the work has fallen on Susan who has to learn how to wash and sew. She’s at her wits’ end trying to make ends meet.

Susan has become a little mother figure with help from a local teacher, the baker and some others, but the local district visitor is determined to get them all put into a ‘Home’ for orphans. She’s a thoroughly despicable character, but to be fair nowadays there is no way that ‘home alone’ children would be allowed to look after themselves, they’d all be taken into local authority ‘care’ immediately.

This is a charming story even although the reader has to suspend disbelief, not only when the children are allowed to stay in the barn, but also the reason why the parents haven’t returned is fairly pathetic and totally unlikely. It’s well written otherwise although I have to say that it always annoys me when the youngest girl in a family is portrayed as spoiled and whining as is Alice in this book – such nonsense as I should know!

There’s a preface by the author Jacqueline Wilson in which she explains that when she was growing up it was normal for children to be given a latch key and to be by themselves at home – until their mother got home from work. All quite true, there were millions of us growing up like that, really bringing ourselves up, I don’t know when it was decided that children had to be chaperoned all the time, possibly around the late 1970s.

I’m fairly sure I didn’t read this one when I was wee, I think I would definitely have remembered it as it would have been right up my street. Have you read it?

This one is on my Classics Club list – another one bites the dust.

The endpapers are taken from a 1938 screen printed design by John Little.

Arrowhead