The Ultimate Book Recommendations From Every Fiction Genre: Pt.3

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Disclaimer: The links to the book listed, are Amazon affiliate links – so if you are inspired and decide to buy it, I benefit a little too. We’re sharing the love! …

Mystery & Crime

This is also sometimes called detective fiction. Simply it’s a ‘who dunnit’ narrative. Whilst these books can be fast-paced and full of twists, they can also be psychologically intriguing and offer philosophical insights into the morals of crime. But at their core, a mystery novel must feature a protagonist who is trying to solve a crime. Mystery authors often also employ a first-person narrative, to create a biased perspective and conceal the surprise of the ending.

1. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie (1934)

I don’t think I could have compiled a list of mystery books and not mentioned Agatha Christie. She is arguably the mystery/detective writer. 66 of her 75 novels have been mysteries, and this one is no different. The Orient Express has stopped just after midnight, but the train is one passenger less, an American called Cyrus Hardman has been murdered. Detective Hercules Poirot must find out who did it and stop them from striking again. Whilst the plot may seem simple, Christie’s signature-styling makes this a lot of fun to read, as you unravel the clues alongside Poirot to catch the killer.

2. The Death of Lucy Kyte (Josephine Tey #5) by Nicola Upson (2014)

Bridging the gap between historical fiction, thriller, and mystery – Upson’s book is “brimming with psychological tension”. When mystery author, Josephine Tey unexpectedly inherits Red Barn Cottage in Suffolk from her estranged godmother, the will stipulates she must personally claim the house in the countryside. “But Josephine is not the only benefactor – a woman named Lucy Kyte is also in the will.” When sorting through old documents, Josephine stumbles across an infamous death on the cottage’s grounds a century before. But this old crime still seems to haunt the little rural village. Is it superstition? Is it a real threat? Or is it somehow connected to Lucy? I can’t wait to dive into this British mystery story. 

3. Rules For Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson (2020)

My friend recently finished this and loved it and reading the synopsis it is easy to see why: A series of eight murders, all connected by the fact that each death bears an eerie resemblance to a murder found in a classic mystery novel. The deaths lead FBI agent, Gwen Mulvey to mystery bookshop owners, Old Devils. The bookstore owner, Malcolm Kershaw seems to have just what Gwen needs to solve his cases – with details from Agatha Christie’s, Patricia Highsmith’s and Donna Tartt’s stories.

4. The Survivors by Jane Harper (2020)

“Kieran Elliott’s life changed forever on the day a reckless mistake led to devastating consequences.The guilt that still haunts him resurfaces during a visit with his young family to the small coastal community he once called home.” Between them everyone is there, apart from his brother, Finn. When a body is discovered on the beach, the tide washes in all kinds of secrets… The Survivors is a character study centred around a murder linked to the past. It is dark, heavy and tragic, but also beautifully written and intriguing. 

Romance

A genre which I think personally gets an unfair reputation. Sure, there are plenty of trashy girl-meets-boy romance novels, but there is so much more to explore in this genre. From complex female and male characters, narratives which challenge gender and sexuality ‘norms’, and even romances that incorporate fantasy and thriller aspects. It’s definitely worth giving the romance genre another chance, you might surprise yourself.

1. The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang (2018)

This book is incredibly sweet, steamy and provides an important, well-balanced voice to those not only with Asperger’s (which the protagonist has), but anyone who feels nervous and lost about the dating world. This is a proper romance story, but it is definitely for adults!

2. Me Before You by JoJo Moyes (2012)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it before, this book is just FAB. Plus, once you’ve read the book, (always book first), you can watch the brilliant film with the talented Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin. It focuses on a woman who is simply lost in life, Lou, and in an attempt to regain some meaning and purpose, decides to become a carer for a man called, Will, who is now a quadriplegic. It’s so endearing, heart-warming and you might want to get those tissues out…

3. The Hating Game by Sally Thorne (2016)

It’s the classic office romance setup, where girl, Lucy Hutton hates boy, Joshua Templeman. “Trapped in a shared office together 40 (OK, 50 or 60) hours a week, they’ve become entrenched in an addictive, ridiculous never-ending game of one-upmanship. Lucy can’t let Joshua beat her at anything—especially when a huge new promotion goes up for the taking.” But perhaps they don’t hate each other after all? This is another one high on my TBR. 

4. Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston (2019)

A political romance – in which Alex Claremont-Diaz, first son of the White House and Prince Henry, his long-time nemesis must face the consequences of photos of a confrontation being leaked to the press. The plan to fix it: stage a fake friendship. It makes us ask ourselves: can love save the world after all? And where do we find the courage, and power, to be the people we are meant to be?

Short Story 

It is hard to explain what a short story is other than it is short! They are brief fictional narratives that often deal with few characters in a singular event to evoke a particular mood or feeling. The beauty of the short story is you can consume it in one (or few) sittings. When done well, it is like the novel form’s ‘top hits’, merely focusing on the greatest characteristics of the novel form. 

1. The Complete Short Stories by Roald Dahl (1991)

Containing 12 stories, from the notable Over to You, Someone Like you, Kiss Kiss and Switch Bitch to the unexpected, Dahl’s brilliant storytelling talent is present in all of them. Spanning a variety of genres from horror, adventure, mystery, and humour, it is the perfect book to pick up read a couple and put down. The joy of this collection is found in Dahl’s characters and the large number of stories means there is something for everyone. 

2. Don’t Look Now and Other Stories by Daphne Du Maurier (1973)

A married couple, a lonely schoolmaster, a young woman, a party of British pilgrims and a scientist all receive the Du Maurier treatment in five separate short stories. Whilst each story stands alone, they are connected by their mystery and slow, creeping horror which Du Maurier does so well.

3. The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans (2020)

“Danielle Evans is widely acclaimed for her blisteringly smart voice and x-ray insights into complex human relationships.” This collection showcases Evan’s ability to critically assess race, grief, identity, and American history through her characters. The titular story tells of a black scholar from Washington DC who is drawn into “a complex historical mystery that spans generations and puts her job, her love life, and her oldest friendship at risk.”

4. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver (1981)

These stories feature around a married couple who sit around drinking gin discussing what it means to be in love, what love is and is it necessary? There are no big conclusions, or strong plot lines in these stories sometimes leaving the reader frustrated and confused. Rather they are a “slice of life” stories, that excel in their narrow focus on one topic: love. 

Science Fiction

Although science fiction and fantasy are closely related, sci-fi is determined by real or real-feeling science. They are often set in the future, in space, on a different planet, or in a different universe or dimension altogether. The Becky Chambers book on this list I have been told is a particularly great way to get into the genre if you’re new to sci-fi.

1. War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells (1898)

My friend Tom called this “the parent of sci-fi books”, and I couldn’t have put it much better myself. Tom continues and explains, “it is about these creatures which suddenly land on earth and start causing mayhem – but interestingly, when it was published radio stations started reading it live on air, and because people had little awareness of the sci-fi genre, believed it was real and actually happening!” It was first serialised in 1897 by Pearson’s magazine in the UK and Cosmopolitan magazine in the US and has inspired numerous adaptations and imitations since. 

2. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (2014)

I read a brilliant review on GoodReads about this book, so shall just paraphrase Anna as she puts it better than I could. It is “feel-good fiction, set in a great big world.” “It is also a character-driven story with great female characters, where the aliens are strange, but so are the humans.” Oh, and the “author when I talked to her was very nice.” What’s not to like?!

3. The Martian by Andy Weir (2011)

I asked my friend Matt for his review of this book, as I have only seen the film – and this is what he says: “Disaster strikes Astronaut Mark Watney when a rogue storm leaves him stranded on the Martian surface. With limited supplies, he faces a one-man mission in the most inhospitable of environments. Equipped with only his botany powers and caustic sense of humour, Watney must attempt the impossible and survive where no person has before. Plus, Matt Damon’s arse in the film is top tier.” I mean who doesn’t love Matt Damon?!

4. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (2011)

Now a major motion picture which was released in 2018, this book imagines the ugly reality of 2044. Teenager Wade Watts transports himself into a utopian virtual reality called OASIS, where he feels most alive. He devotes his time to studying the puzzles within the digital code, and looks back at the culture, music and games of decades gone by. But when he finds players willing to kill one another for the first clue, the ultimate code – he must race to survive, now not only in the ‘real’ world but in the new one he finds himself absorbed in. If you love video games, pop culture, the 80’s, or digital fantasy – then this one is for you. 

Thriller/suspense

Like horror, these books can make you feel on-edge, but the progression and gradual build-up of plot, atmosphere and tension makes these books for me, better and usually scarier. However, they also feature cliff-hangers, deception, high emotional stakes and leave the protagonist in imminent and potentially mortal danger. A good thriller is one that makes you so engrossed that you can’t put the book down until it’s all over, (and then breathe). 

1. The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell (2019)

After her 25th birthday Libby Jones receives a letter explaining not only who her birth parents are, but also that she is the sole inheritor of their abandoned mansion in Chelsea, which is worth millions. But things start to get complicated when she begins unravelling the lives of the family and learns about their past. 25 years ago, police were called to the house, and found a crying, angelic baby and three dead bodies, all dressed in black with a hasty note attached. Once Libby starts unravelling secrets from the past, her life will never be the same again. Jewell’s writing makes you feel like you can’t look away, even when the turn of events starts to get just a little weird…

2. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (2015)

The film adaptation starring Emily Blunt in New York I refuse to watch. The main reason being this nail-biting, distressing story is firmly grounded in London – and the names of places, use of the train and tube make this story even more vivid and real, (for me and other British readers). It focuses on three women and their relationships from a first-person narration. But the main protagonist, Rachel catches the same commuter train every morning. She knows the route inside out, every bridge and garden it passes. She’s even started to feel like she knows the people who live in one of the houses, who she’s called ‘Jess and Jason’. To Rachel, ‘Jess and Jason’ live perfect lives, and she wishes hers could be the same. Then she sees something. It’s only a minute but it’s enough. Now everything has changed, and Rachel has a chance to become a part of the lives she’s only watched from afar. (Oh, I’m getting the shivers just thinking about this story again – it’s SO good!)

3. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty (2014)

This book has so many layers, subplots, relationships, and intricacies, and it is part of the reason it is so good. The main premise is that someone is dead. Alongside this, on the surface, it is about four women, who are working mums, and their petty behaviour of one-manship and privilege. But under the surface, it is much darker. Moriarty tackles bullying, spousal and sexual abuse, psychological trauma and marital troubles. Ultimately all these women are deeply flawed, but they must work together to hide the lethal little lies they keep telling each other and themselves. However, now that someone is dead, perhaps these lies aren’t that little anymore.

4. The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides (2019)

“The Silent Patient is a shocking psychological thriller of a woman’s act of violence against her husband—and of the therapist obsessed with uncovering her motive.” 

Alice Berenson’s life is seemingly perfect, she is a famous painter married to an in-demand fashion photographer, Gabriel and they live in a grand, sweeping house. One evening when Gabriel returns home late Alicia shoots him five times in the face, and then leaves. Her refusal to talk and give any kind of explanation, “turns a domestic tragedy into something far grander, a mystery that captures the public imagination and casts Alicia into notoriety.” When Theo Faber, a criminal psychologist begins to investigate the mystery, the search for truth threatens to consume him entirely. 

The Ultimate Book Recommendations From Every Fiction Genre: Pt. 2

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Disclaimer: The links to the book listed, are Amazon affiliate links – so if you are inspired and decide to buy anything, I benefit a little too. We’re sharing the love! …

Graphic novel 

Some books aren’t defined by their content but by their form. Graphic novels are a visual form of literature, either presented in a traditional comic-style panel composition or in the artist’s/author’s own style. Once considered cheap, children’s entertainment, the graphic novel has now come into its own with original narratives, manga and retellings of classic novels all being adapted to pictorial form. 

1. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (2006)

This graphic memoir deals with themes of sexuality, loss, identity and coming-of-age. Alison’s father, Bruce Bechdel was an English teacher and director of the town’s funeral home. But it was not until college that Alison, who had recently come out as a lesbian, discovered that her father was also gay. A few weeks after this revelation, he was dead, leaving a legacy of mystery for his daughter to resolve. It is wonderfully illustrated and a great, quick read if you’re after something a little different.

2. Asterix Omnibus #1 by Rene Goscinny (2013)

Asterix is celebrating 60 years as an international comics superstar, originally written in French, but now translated into English for a whole new audience to enjoy. Asterix goes on many adventures as he defends his tiny village from the overwhelming forces of the Roman Empire. Join Asterix, the short but powerful warrior and his friends: the boar-eating delivery man Obelix and environmentally conscious canine Dogmatix, as they fight against all odds to save their village. 

3. Ghost World by Daniel Clowes (1995)

“The graphic bible of the 90s slacker generation”, Clowe’s Ghost World follows the misadventures of two teenage friends, Rebecca and Enid facing the unwelcome prospect of adulthood. Clowe follows a loose narrative thread through which the two young women’s fragmented lives unfold. The Hartford Advocate says that, “Clowes spells out the realities of teenage angst as powerfully and authentically as Salinger did in Catcher in the Rye for an earlier generation.”

4. Simon’s Cat by Simon Tofield (2009)

Okay this is a little bit of a cheat; I would say it is more of a cartoon than a graphic novel but I still love it. Tofield’s YouTube videos were an internet hit, and this book is equally warming and funny. The book depicts the relationship between a man and his cat in Tofield’s amusing and exaggerated style. It is charming and the kind of easy book you can sit with a cup of tea and flick through. 

Historical Fiction

These books contain fictional stories in historical settings, balancing creativity and facts. In most cases, they feature characters imagined by the authors that are embellished by factual details set in a specific time period. This isn’t a genre I have read much from, but the skill to write good historical fiction, to create an interesting, believable character but include enough historical material I think is tricky. But, when executed well it can mean a book can leave a long-lasting impression – as it really could or has happened. 

1. The Fall of Giants by Ken Follet, Trilogy (2010)

The Fall of Giants is “a captivating novel that follows five families through the world-shaking dramas of the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and the struggle for votes for women.” This is an epic of love, hate, violence and oppression. At over 1000 pages, you’ve got to be committed. But I’ve heard that despite its length, it moves at a relatively fast pace so that you don’t find yourself wading through pages and pages of non-descript ‘filler’.  

2. The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris (2018)

In April 1942, Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, is transported to the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau. “When his captors discover that he speaks several languages, he is put to work as a Tätoweirer (the German word for tattooist), tasked with permanently marking his fellow prisoners.” Lale witnesses horrific atrocities over his two-year imprisonment, but also incredible acts of bravery. One day, Lale comforts a trembling young woman waiting in line to be marked number 34902. From that moment on, he vows to marry her and survive the camp. It is a harrowing tale but one that also contains hope – portraying the power of mankind.

3. The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah (2021)

Texas, the Great Depression, 1934. Elsa Wolcott is a woman trying to raise two children on a farm in the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl. She watches the parched land crack, and farmers fighting to keep their land and livelihoods as crops fails. “As the situation worsens Elsa is forced to make a decision to stay and fight or leave for the uncertain and unfamiliar lands in the West.” This book is a plot-driven, survival story all about resilience, love, hardship, courage and the American Dream.

4. The Rose Code by Kate Quinn (2021)

This book I can’t wait to read! It is set just before WW2 and is focused on three very different women who are all codebreakers at Bletchley Park, where the best minds in Britain train to break German military codes. Debutante Osla is the girl who has everything – wealth, beauty, and the dashing Prince Philip of Greece sending her love letters, but she desperately wants to prove herself as worthy of more than just a male object. Self-made Mab, product of East-London poverty, works the codebreaking machines as she conceals old wounds and looks for a socially advantageous husband. Finally, Beth, the local village spinster, whose shyness conceals a brilliant facility with puzzles – is perfect for the role. The three women encounter a mysterious traitor who has emerged from the shadows of Bletchley Park past and now they must resurrect their old alliance and crack one last code together. But with each part they decipher it brings friends and enemies closer…

Horror

What unites these books is not the plot, characters, or setting – but rather the feeling/emotions that they evoke. It can be anything from ‘hide behind the sofa I can’t read any further’ scary, to more creepy, nuanced terror, such as Gothic horror which excels in creating a rich atmosphere that entices the reader in, and then begins to create chaos. 

1. Last Breath by Robert Bryndza (2017)

Yet another recommendation for us both, but when I asked my friend Martyna about horror novels – this was at the top of her list. Detective Erika Foster is first at the crime scene, although it isn’t her case. What she finds is a tortured body of a young woman in a dumpster, her eyes swollen shut and her clothes soaked with blood. Erika must fight to take the case, as it looks hauntingly familiar. But the killer stalks his victims online, and preys on woman using a fake identity. How will Erika find this invisible killer? Is it the same as before? Can she stop him before it is too late? It sounds hair-raising, gripping and edge-of-your-seat stuff, a proper horror novel.

2. The Shining by Stephen King (1977)

King is notorious within the horror genre, and The Shining is his highest sold book. It is set in Colorado in the 1970s and centres on the Torrance family: husband Jack, wife Wendy, and their five-year-old son Danny. Jack is hired as the caretaker of the remote Overlook Hotel for the winter offseason. But finds out that the previous hotel caretaker killed his entire family inside the hotel – using a hatchet for the child, and a shotgun for his wife and himself. As Jack learns about the hotel’s history, affairs, murders, and executions come to light. They decide to stay, but as things turn more and more sinister, the only one to notice is the five-year-old Danny.

3. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

“Genius lasts longer than Beauty.” The premise of Wilde’s tale is young Dorian finds himself in Victorian London, and his friend, Basil Hallward, paints his picture to capture his youthful beauty. But Dorian becomes obsessed. He vows that he would do anything to remain that beautiful and young – he is even willing to sell his soul. Wilde’s deeply philosophical and complex novel explores the doctrine of Aestheticism: the devotion to Hedonism, and beauty and art for art’s sake.

You can find a full review here: https://lifeofbeckyc.com/2018/12/05/to-live-is-the-rarest-thing-in-the-world-most-people-exist-that-is-all/

4. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Dr Montague hopes to find evidence of the supernatural and paranormal. He rents Hill House for a summer and invites guests who have previously experienced paranormal events. It is a ghost story at its best, and provides a meditation on the feminine, the supernatural, family and trauma. It draws on Gothic convention of the ‘haunted house’, and the result is something much closer to The Yellow Wallpaper, than The Shining. 

LGBTQIA+

Any fiction with authentic LGBTQIA+ representation falls under this category: it could be romance, thriller or fantasy etc.

1. Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters (2021)

This is Peter’s debut novel, and she is also the first trans woman to be nominated for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. It follows three women, Reese, Ames and Katrina, transgender and cisgender, whose lives are connected after an unexpected pregnancy forces them to confront ideas around motherhood, gender and sex. It is a book which pushes the boundaries, and challenges people’s conceptions of identity – beginning from the very title itself. An intriguing and important read, nonetheless.

2. Olivia by Dorothy Strachey (1949)

One of the first and most subtle lesbian novels of the century, this 1949 novel tells the story of a young English girl called Olivia and her lust for headmistress, Mlle. Julie, whilst away at school in Paris. “Although not strictly autobiographical, Olivia draws on the author’s experiences at finishing schools run by the charismatic Mlle. Marie Souvestre, whose influence lived on through former students like Natalie Barney and Eleanor Roosevelt.”

3. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (1956)

Baldwin’s daring and controversial tale of desire, lust, confusion, and forbidden love is now a classic of gay literature. An American finds himself unable to repress his desires and live the ‘conventional’ life he so desperately wants to fit in to. Torn between his proposal to a young woman and his infatuation for an Italian bartender, he is conflicted and lost in love. 

4. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (2019)

I am yet to read this book, but the title alone draws me in. It is about a letter from a Vietnamese immigrant boy to his mother, who cannot read. It is also a story about a young man’s intimate life and his relationship with another man. I’ve heard many describe it as ‘raw, shattering, impactful and sad’. Whilst it is considered to also be ‘literary fiction’, its depiction of sex, drug addiction, love and self-exploration have poignancy far beyond just one genre. 

Magical Realism

Magical Realism paints a realistic view of the modern world while also adding fantastical, magical elements. It specifically blurs the boundaries between what is real and what isn’t. It is sometimes thought of as a subgenre of fantasy, but considering its highbrow style and literary prestige, it is deemed a genre in its own right. Instead of vampires, monsters, or fairies, a ‘fluid and non-linear’ timeline exposes supernatural happenings – which are left unexplained.

1. Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)

Morrison is a master of magical realism, and Beloved is perhaps one of her most well-known and best works, winning her The Pulitzer Prize. It moves between past and present, as the main character Sethe is troubled by the ghost of her baby, known only as Beloved. Sethe was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but 18 years later she is still not free, instead she is trapped by memories of Sweet Home, the ‘idyllic’ place where unthinkably hideous things happened. The novel is so much more than just a ghost story, it also emphasises the haunting legacy of slavery, abuse and the transformative power of maternal, friend and self-love. It is so well-written that the horrors contained within the book truly come alive.

2. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami (2002)

Okay this one seems weird but stick with it. “Half of the chapters in this book unfold the story of a young runaway named Kafka who leaves home to escape a curse, while the other half revolves around an older man named Nakata who has left home for the first time to find a lost cat.” Their lives become entangled and bring about allusions to Oedipus, pop culture and talking animals. There is also a brutal murder, with the identity of both victim and killer remain hidden, but eventually everything is revealed, and all your questions answered.

3. Autumn by Ali Smith (2016)

The first of Smith’s ‘seasonal-quarterly meditations’ – ‘exploring the subjective experience of time, questioning the nature of time itself’. It is a tale about two people, about change, about Brexit and politics. It is a book of fragments, which are sometimes pieced together, sometimes not. What is said is important, but also what is not. The absence which permeates this novel makes it simultaneously confusing and memorable.

4. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (1997)

“Relentlessly brilliant, beautiful, and heart-breaking, this story has a little bit of everything.” It is a story about the childhood experiences of fraternal twins whose lives are destroyed by “Love Laws” that set out “who should be loved, and how. And how much”. There is family tragedy, forbidden love and political unrest. MyDomaine says, “You’ll enjoy it if you’re looking for something literary, or if you’re in the mood for a plot-driven novel”. As the title suggests, the reader witnesses the interconnection between small, mundane details and grand, large scale events, both good and bad.  

The Ultimate Book Recommendations From Every Fiction Genre: Pt. 1

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“So, what do you want to do in the future Becky?” Umm…anything to do with books! Recently I have put my serious thinking hat on about what I might want my career and future to look like. When faced with the largest, scariest, open-ended questions such as ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’ – honestly, I had (& have) no clue to the answer. But, on reflection, I am more and more leaning towards the publishing industry, (and my reasons why are for a whole new blog post!). However, in order to determine whether it is for me, I decided to write a few posts here on my blog to explore my interest- and to share it with all of you. The following list is the ultimate book recommendation list from every fiction genre. The books listed below I have either read, want to read or my friends and family have read and have thought were great. They are also a mixture of old and new publications. Finally, this is part 1 (as otherwise it would be an incredibly long post!) – parts 2 & 3 are to follow, with genres arranged in alphabetical order.

Disclaimer: The links to the book listed, are Amazon affiliate links – so if you are inspired and decide to buy anything, I benefit a little too. We’re sharing the love! …

But, without further ado: ENJOY!

Action and Adventure

These books tend to lend themselves to making the foundation of great movies. The protagonist most likely follows a Hero’s Journey: where they are set a quest/mission and go on a journey. They will then undertake trials of some kind, whether physical or mental and then return ‘home’ or end up in a new, and better place. Their often fast-paced, dangerous nature means they appeal to people who don’t want to spend hours admiring writer’s prosaic writing style and instead want a gripping plotline. 

1. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (2005)

This book combines murder mystery, family saga, high adventure and financial intrigue. “Harriet Vanger, a scion of one of Sweden’s wealthiest families disappeared over forty years ago; and all these years later, her aged uncle continues to seek the truth. He hires Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading journalist recently trapped by a libel conviction, to investigate. He is aided by the pierced and tattooed punk prodigy Lisbeth Salander.” Together they must find the teenage heiress. Whilst it starts out simple, the plot gradually morphs into a tale of serial murder and corporate trickery spanning several continents. (TW: violence against women and children).

2. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (1988)

This book is about an Andalusian shepherd boy named Santiago who travels from his homeland in Spain to the Egyptian desert in search of a treasure buried near the Pyramids. On his journey he meets a Gypsy woman, a man who calls himself King, and an alchemist all of whom point Santiago in the direction of his quest. But will Santiago be able to overcome his obstacles, both physically and mentally? I have been recommended this book on several different occasions, but I have also heard it is a little ‘marmity’, but worth starting at least to find out if it is for you.

3. Around The World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne (1873)

Phileas Fogg of London and his newly employed French valet Passepartout attempt to circumnavigate the world in 80 days on a £20,000 wager set by his friends at the Reform Club. Around the World in Eighty Days combines adventure, travel and exploration, and a race against time. What is also useful to remember is that travel of this magnitude was not only uncommon during the 1800’s, but also very difficult and expensive. These facts would have made the adventure even more exciting for readers, as they were also ‘travelling’ to entirely new places too. 

4. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)

Often regarded as one of Bradbury’s best works, and a classic by many literary critics: it tells of a society where books are outlawed, and ‘firemen’ burn any that are found. The forbidden, dangerous book is the most illegal commodity, and using the vehicle of a book, Bradbury’s message is that if our society wants to survive and thrive, people must be encouraged to wrestle with ideas. He “indicts a society that puts all its emphasis on providing people with a superficial sense of happiness.” I’m ashamed to say, I haven’t read this book yet – but I feel like I really should, and you should too…

‘Classics’

Okay, just take this genre with a pinch of salt. Whilst they are all brilliant works of fiction and have been deemed ‘classics’ – we must always be aware of the prejudices and limitations which are attached to canonical works. The ‘world’s greatest works’ have been chosen by and include a lot of white, male, cis-gendered & privileged writers. Today, ‘the’ canon is expanding and becoming more inclusive; featuring voices who have been previously marginalised- which is a definite step in the right direction. But little disclaimer aside, what constitutes a ‘classic’ to me is a novel that has truly stood the test of time, (or will do in the future) and provides an important moral, political or social commentary that everyone today can still benefit from. Classics are often also called or are included within the genre, ‘Literary fiction’, which are works which are considered to be of very high artistic value. 

1. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938)

This is one of my all-time favourite books. Du Maurier’s Gothic thriller/mystery revolves around an unnamed protagonist who marries a wealthy widower, Maxim De Winter and discovers that both he and the household are haunted by the memory of his first wife, Rebecca. Du Maurier expertly explores the vehicles of the gothic to show how identity manifests itself as vulnerable to change, open to manipulation and a key part of a person’s selfhood. The discussion of identity is just one of the many themes that Du Maurier touches on through her elegant writing style.

2. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1866)

I recently finished this novel, and you can find a full review here: https://lifeofbeckyc.com/2021/02/07/book-review-crime-and-punishment-dostoevsky/ But, Dostoyevsky’s story is about a man called Raskolnikov and his psychological journey after he commits a terrible crime. Raskolnikov’s philosophical musings throughout the novel not only allow us a glimpse into his psyche, but also how to portray a mind in literature. It is a slow-burning thriller/mystery which has a strong character focus, which adds great depth to the story.

3. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (1861)

Young, mischievous Pip, tender Joe and officious Mrs Gargery feature at the beginning, and throughout this Victorian Bildungsroman (coming-of-age). Pip then encounters Miss Havisham and Estella and his life changes forever. Now in London and more grown up, Pip must navigate the world of business and industry, whilst remaining forever connected to relationships from his childhood. These connections from his past have profound impacts and change his perspective on life altogether.

4. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1816)

Shelley’s nightmare creation gave birth to a novel which will forever be a potent reminder of the consequences of man creating life which then possesses an independent conscience. Whilst the creature is usually deemed the villain due to the crimes he commits against mankind, Victor Frankenstein himself is troubled and deeply flawed. This book is a profound expose on the monstrous vs the human, the role of women, science vs religion and what exactly constitutes a being. 

Contemporary Fiction

This is almost miscellaneous fiction; but it usually applies to books which take place in the present day. But in its most basic form, contemporary fiction is better understood as the absence of genre. These books may contain aspects of other genres, but they tend to bridge multiple characteristics. Often, they don’t need tropes and limitations, as their tensions and drama lie in the quirks and everyday events of the protagonist’s life. They encompass work, politics, relationships, and the general struggles of modern society.

1. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (2017)

A tale about loneliness and making your way in the world. Eleanor Oliphant is a social misfit with a traumatic past who becomes enamoured with a singer, with whom she believes she is destined to be with, whilst balancing everyday life. I laughed, I cried. I was angry. I was surprised. I was emphatic. I was completely fine, sometimes. The memorable characters, relationships and situations make for a powerful book, just don’t expect to read it, and not feel something. 

2. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (2018)

The known ‘Marsh Girl’ aka Kya Clark lives barefoot and wild, ‘unfit’ for polite society, battling a complex family life. In late 1969, when the popular Chase Andrews is found dead, locals immediately suspect her. But this book is much more than just a murder-mystery, as Owen juxtaposes an exquisite ode to the natural world against a powerful coming-of-age narrative. It is poetic, thought provoking and deeply moving. It was one of my top 2 reads of last year, and I would highly recommend.

3. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro (2021)

Ishiguro is back at it again… The novel tells the story of Klara, an artificial friend (AF) who has outstanding observational qualities. It follows her journey from wanting to be chosen in the store, to finding a family and dealing with the complexities that it brings. Ishiguro’s ability to employ a familiar, yet surprising dystopian style is arguably unmatched. The first-person narrative through the eyes of Klara herself, provide a refreshing take on not only AI, but what exactly foundational ‘human’ principles are.

4. Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid (2019)

A striking debut about race and privilege. The book is focused on a young black babysitter called Emira Tucker and her boss, come friend, Alix Chamberlain. Whilst the two women couldn’t be more different on the surface; Emira a lost, financially struggling 20-year-old and Alix a woman, a mother, with her sh*t together, who built a brand around making women feel confident – they are much more alike than they both think. When Emira gets accused of kidnapping Alix’s daughter in a supermarket, both their lives are changed forever. I devoured this book, it is SO well written and its empathic, piercing social commentary is well blended with the engaging plot, so you never feel like Reid is blatantly trying to make a point about issues at hand. 

Dystopian 

A popular sub-genre of science fiction; these books portray worlds that readers hope do not happen but could imagine that they might. Think Black-Mirror or the Hunger Games. The appeal of dystopian fiction is our attraction to dark storytelling and gaining an insight into where humanity might go, as long as it’s not us that is living that reality…

1. 1984 by George Orwell (1949)

Perhaps the novel that comes to mind when people think of dystopian fiction, and there is a good reason for that. It follows the life of Winston Smith, “a low ranking member of ‘the Party’, who is frustrated by the omnipresent eyes of the party, and its ominous ruler Big Brother”. Orwell is a master on drawing on aspects of society which could very possibly be true (the epitome of what dystopia does). It is written in 1949 but imagines a society 35 years+ into the future – a ‘future’ we have already lived through.

2. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)

You may have seen the brilliant TV show adaptation, and it is safe to say the book doesn’t disappoint either. A novel where women’s bodies are the battle ground between an oppressive regime and an underground rebellion. It is powerful, harrowing and scarily real. There is a sequel, called The Testaments, but personally this one is much better. 

3. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962)

A linguistic adventure. “I see what is right and approve, but I do what is wrong.” Alex is a 15-year-old ‘droog’ member & serves out ‘ultra-violence’. His narration tells of his experiences with the state authorities intent on ‘reforming’ him. This book is short, but definitely not sweet. It contains scary stuff, but pertinent, nonetheless. 

4. Leave The World Behind by Rumaan Alam (2021)

“A magnetic novel about two families, strangers to each other, who are forced together on a long weekend gone terribly wrong.” The FT says, ‘For the reader, the invisible terror outside in Leave the World Behind echoes the sense of disquiet today in a world convulsed by the pandemic’. Looking forward to reading this one…

Fantasy

This is a genre that I haven’t read much from, but I’m interested in learning from others what their favourite books are and why. Fantasy is characterised by the supernatural, otherworldly and is often inspired by mythology and folklore. For many, the appeal of fantasy is pure escapism, to travel to a world unlike ours in any, or very little ways. The few good fantasy books I’ve read have carefully created an entirely fictional world that is grounded by rules, so at least you can understand the world you find yourself in. 

1. The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon (2019)

“A world divided. A queendom without an heir. An ancient enemy awakens.” It is an enthralling epic saga about a “world on the brink of war with dragons – and women must lead the fight to save it.” At 848 pages, this book is looong. But with its length, comes complete world building and rich characters. I’ve heard from friends you have to stick with it, (as it drags a little because of its length) but it is well worth persevering. Not only for the plot, but also for the discussion on the division between different religions, cultures, and sexualities. 

2. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (2011)

An epic Greek romantic adventure. Miller expertly retells and adapts the story of Patroclus and Achilles in The Iliad. You are transported back in time to the tenth year of the Trojan War, surrounded by Gods and Goddesses. No prior classical knowledge is required as Miller brilliantly explains/touches on everything you need to know to understand the story. It is beautifully written, as the fusion between classical details and poetic description makes this heart wrenching story sing. 

Find a more detailed review in this blog post: https://lifeofbeckyc.com/2021/04/18/favourite-reads-so-far-this-year/

3. A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas (2015)

The first book in the five-book series, with the fifth book A Court of Silver Flames, released this year. The story revolves around the journey of mortal Feyre Archeron after she is brought into the faerie lands of Prythian by Tamlin, one of the lethal faeries, for retribution for her murder of another faerie. Yet Tamlin’s feelings change toward Feyre – from icy coldness to a fiery passion. But “an ancient, wicked shadow over the faerie lands is growing, and Feyre must find a way to stop it…or doom Tamlin – and his world – forever.”

4. (The Chronicles of Narnia) The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (1950)

Narnia, the land beyond the wardrobe. Fall in love with Lucy, Edmund, Peter and Susan as one by one they discover a whole new world. But this world is under the control of the white witch, and they must help the Lion Aslan to free Narnia from the witch’s spell once and for all. It really is a story for everyone – although deemed for children, Lewis’ endless layers of complexity including those of Christian allegory make this accessible on multiple different levels of understanding. 

Favourite Reads So Far This Year

Although I’m studying English at university, up until the middle of January and into February this year, I wasn’t reading that much. It is not that I didn’t enjoy reading, but I had lost my groove. Yes I was still reading, but I wasn’t in love with the process of turning the pages and immersing myself in a new world. For me, reading is sometimes one of those things I feel like I should be doing. As I’ve always loved studying literature, theory and language for most/if not all of my academic career, if I wasn’t diving right in to a ‘classic’, I felt like a bad English student.

But during this third lockdown, (yes, I can’t believe we have to stipulate which one!), I have fallen back in love with books. Mostly, the joy of fiction – the escapism, entering an author’s world and consequently seeing yours from a totally different perspective. I joined GoodReads at the beginning of this year and set myself a reading goal for this year. I aim to read 50 books in 2021, including those I have to read for my degree. I wanted to push myself to read not only more, but a wider range of literature – from different periods, styles, nationalities and points of view (that are different from my own). I have currently read 20 books so far this year, so I am ahead of schedule, but for me it is more about recording what I’ve read and my thoughts on it, so I can look back at the end of the year and reflect. I therefore wanted to round up my favourite reads so far this year (in no particular order) and share some recommendations. I hope this list inspires you to pick up a book and start reading!

1. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

As soon as bookshops were reopen in England, I rushed to Waterstones to grab myself a copy as I had heard nothing but good things about this book. I can confirm those people were not wrong! I finished this book in less than a week, and LOVED it. Miller has a MA in Classics from Brown University, and is a high-school Latin, Greek and Shakespeare teacher. The novel is a retelling of The Iliad but with a few extra and different details. Miller’s own classical background helps to give the book important grounding, but having never read The Iliad, or studied much Greek or Latin myself, she brilliantly provides enough mythological detail for avid Greek lovers and people reading this story on its own.

The novel is set in Greece, in the age of heroes. “Patrocolus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the court of King Peleus and his perfect son Achilles. By all rights their paths should never cross, but Achilles takes the shamed prince as his friend, and as they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine their bond blossoms into something deeper – despite the displeasure of Achilles’ mother Thetis, a cruel sea goddess. But then word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus journeys with Achilles to Troy, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they hold dear.”

This romance adventure was engaging from the first page, with Miller’s great balance of classical details and poetical descriptions, I would highly recommend this book to anyone searching for a good story.

2. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

I haven’t read an Ishiguro book yet that I don’t like. It was Ishiguro’s first novel since he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, and it doesn’t disappoint. The novel tells the story of Klara, an artificial friend (AF) who has outstanding observational qualities. It follows her journey from wanting to be chosen in the store, to finding a family and dealing with the complexities that it brings.

“Klara and the Sun imagines what the future of artificial intelligence and genetic-engineering could entail in this incredibly suspenseful novel which presents a myriad of ethical dilemmas without providing answers or solutions.”

Jack Edwards

Ishiguro’s ambiguous, familiar yet surprising dystopian style is unmatched in my opinion. At first it seems like it just another story about AI, but it unfolds in more complex and intriguing ways which leave the reader questioning foundational ‘human’ principles in a whole new way.

3. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

This graphic memoir was part of my required reading for one of my university modules, and if it hadn’t of been for that I probably wouldn’t have picked this book up. But it is wonderfully done and well worth a read. Whilst it is autobiographical, it deals with themes of sexuality, loss, identity and coming-of-age. Alison’s father, Bruce Bechdel was an English teacher and director of the town funeral home. It was not until college that Alison, who had recently come out as a lesbian, discovered that her father was also gay. A few weeks after this revelation, he was dead, leaving a legacy of mystery for his daughter to resolve. Learning about the background of graphic novels helped me to appreciate the construction of the panels (individual frames) and the text. The narrative isn’t constructed in a direct, chronological, purposeful way – but instead we work our way into the centre of the novel and back out again. It is a labyrinthine form which cleverly reflects the maze of Alison’s life. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants a quick, yet interesting read, and is after something a little different.

4. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

This book was unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It is simply a linguistic adventure. It is about a 15-year old boy called Alex, who is a droog-member and serves out ‘ultra-violence’. His narration tells of his experiences with the state authorities intent on ‘reforming’ him. I don’t want to explain much of the plot as the power of the story lies in the shocking nature of the events that occur and the language that Burgess uses. The narration uses an inventive slang (which is a mixture between Russian and British), and echoes the violent intensity of the novel. The book includes a glossary for the new words used, so that you can decipher the meaning. But after a little while you begin to fill in the blanks yourself. A Clockwork Orange is frightening and transgressive, and Kubrick’s film adaptation was banned in the UK in 1973 and only returned in 2000. Whilst this black dystopian novella is fascinating, I would suggest that it isn’t for everyone. It comes with trigger warnings of violence: sexual, physical and psychological.

 

5. The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Macksey

Beautiful. Simple. Powerful and Wise. Enter the world of Charlie’s four unlikely friends, discover their story and their most important life lessons. It is about friendship, kindness, love and much more. Whilst there isn’t much of a narrative thread (although in the audio book there is), it is impossible not to like this book. It’s made up entirely of charming illustrations, great handwriting, beautiful sentences and jokes about cake. It is a book for everyone, from 5 to 80 year olds. Go and grab yourself a copy, you won’t regret it!


Love After Love by Derek Walcott

In light of Valentine’s Day, I thought I would have a look at a love poem and draw on some of my thoughts from my own heartbreak through my love of literature. Here’s Love after Love by Derek Walcott: 

The time will come 
when, with elation 
you will greet yourself arriving 
at your own door, in your own mirror 
and each will smile at the other's welcome, 

and say, sit here. Eat. 
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart 
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you 

all your life, whom you ignored 
for another, who knows you by heart. 
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf, 

the photographs, the desperate notes, 
peel your own image from the mirror. 
Sit. Feast on your life.

Do not worry, you will be able to love yourself again. This unusual love poem concentrates on self-love when a loving relationship ends and teaches you that must learn to build yourself back up again. On a surface level the poem focuses on a single visit from a stranger who comes to eat, but it also deals with heartbreak and sadness, loss of self-confidence and identity, and a realisation that from an ending, a new beginning can grow.

Love after Love is inspired by George Hebert’s 1633 poem, Love (III), a religious poem all about accepting love in all its forms – love of God, love of nature, love of another and love of yourself. Walcott therefore builds on Hebert’s amorous message, as he acknowledges himself that, “the process of poetry is one of excavation and of self-discovery”. This poem therefore is his way of learning from his experiences and shining the light on someone else’s dark moments. 

What does the form and structure tell us?

Love after Love is a free verse poem, composed of a quintain, a quatrain and two tercets, with no set rhyme scheme or metre. Instead, Walcott uses subtle caesura and varying length lines to gently instruct and reassure the reader, whilst allowing time to pause and reflect via the punctuation. This loose structure mirrors the fluidity of healing, that there is no one right way of dealing with an end of a relationship. By not conforming to a tight framework, the poem breaks down former barriers of constraint – just like when you begin to allow yourself to heal you may find a newfound freedom within yourself. The poem suggests that what may have broken, can be rebuilt, and built back stronger. 

Stanza One:

We begin almost in media res, “The time will come”, as memories have already been made, words already said and now it is a chance for the healing process to begin. The trochee, “time” therefore emphasises the importance of allowing yourself space to breathe, that this is an ongoing process that requires work, but it will be worth it in the end. You will “greet yourself” with “elation”, as after all the sadness comes a joy of reconnecting with yourself, who is not a “stranger” anymore. This process will happen at “your own door”, therefore on your own terms. The words “door” and “mirror” suggest a two-way boundary: one way you can go back to the past and the other you can move forward into the future. The poem therefore explains that by stepping forward, through the metaphorical door, you will “smile at the other’s welcome” – you can become whole again. 

Stanza Two:

As the first stanza is formed out of one long sentence, that tails off with a comma into the second stanza, we gain a reassuring accumulation of hope as the lines grow in length, finally pausing at “Eat”. This building of lines therefore helps to reinforce the idea that you will be okay in the long run. Seemingly strangely, the message is to sit. The purpose is to eat. This imperative, “Eat”, echoes the growing appetite to find and love yourself again. As life goes on, nourish yourself and your heart. Due to the relationship’s end you may have lost parts of yourself, and not recognise who you are, but we are reassured that, “you will love again the stranger who was your self”. The repetition of “stranger” in the stanza emphasises the subtle irony, that you were once able to love another stranger, who became an important part of your life; therefore, you can ‘re-acquaint’ yourself with “your self” and learn to love that person again. The fragmented syntax that follows, “Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart” forces you to listen; the repetition and stress of the active verb “Give” mirrors the process of loving oneself. To “give” you must provide yourself with ways to heal and find yourself again.

Stanza Three:

Enjambment carries us from the second to the third stanza, and the repeated emphasis on the personal pronouns, “you”, “your” is striking in this tercet. Whilst these pronouns as repeated throughout the poem, here we have two in the same line, “all your life, whom you ignored” emphasising the responsibility that you hold over yourself. Only you know how you feel, what works best for you, and you always will, as you are the only one to live with yourself for all of your life. So, whilst you “ignored for another”, your own self was there, “who knows you by heart”. The metaphorical stranger, who unconditionally loves, has through time lost a part of their selves. We then reach the poem’s volta, as instead we are presented with practical steps to deal with the heartbreak, “Take down the love letters from the bookshelf”, (and into the final stanza), “the photographs, the desperate notes”. 

Stanza Four:

The last two lines of the poem might be my favourite, “peel your own image from the mirror. Sit. Feast on your life.” The word “peel” especially, that slowly and surely, with time, you must unseal yourself before you can at last sit down and enjoy the “feast”. To “feast”, to celebrate you – the amazing person you were before and still are now. Through self-realisation and self-love, you can find happiness again. The future tense that dominates the poem, “the time will come when”, “you will love again” is replaced by the present tense of, “sit” and “feast” as you progress forward and learn to love yourself again. Don’t forget that between the hello and the goodbye, there was love; but now it is time to move on and appreciate YOU.

Book Review: Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky

Crime and Punishment is a widely known novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky, a giant of Russian literature, published in 1866. The book is not a crime novel: instead it is a novel where crime has happened. It is not a fast-paced thriller, but rather a fascinating slow-burner. Almost immediately the identity of the criminal is revealed, there is no ambiguity of ‘who-dunnit’. In short, the novel is more about the punishment than the crime. The philosophical and psychological after effects that Raskolnikov (the protagonist and criminal) faces become the main focus of the story. 

Raskolnikov, a uniquely complex and troubled character, is an impoverished student who conceives of himself as being an extraordinary young man. He then formulates a theory whereby all of the extraordinary men of the world have a right to commit any crime as long as they have something of worth to offer humanity, in the form of redemption. Therefore, to prove his theory, he commits a murder.

The victims of his crime are an old, despicable pawnbroker and her half-sister. But Raskolnikov is no psychopathic murderer, instead his conscience is devouring him from within. The enormity of his crime makes him ill and leaves all the people around him questioning his sanity, especially those closest to him, like his friend, Razumihkin. Raskolnikov’s deterioration spirals almost out of control, leading him to almost confess his crime to a suspicious inspector, Porfiry.  

The story is told by an omniscient narrator, but the troubled voice of Raskolnikov possesses large parts of the narrative. This control mirrors the guilt and internal debate that dominates his conscience. However, Raskolnikov’s story crosses paths with two others: one of his sister, Dunya, and her engagement to Luzhin in an attempt to restore her reputation. The other, of Sonya, the daughter of the town’s drunkard, who resorts to immoral conduct to support her family. 

These narratives alongside Raskolnikov’s represent the two overarching themes of the novel: poverty and psychology. Poverty allows friendship, generosity and kindness to grow, as Razumihkin helps Raskolnikov, when he believes his illness is due to his poverty. Whilst psychology permeates the novel, it helps to understand character’s motives and explain their actions. 

This being said, it seems at times almost impossible to understand Raskolnikov’s mind and conscience. He is distinctively multifaceted and confusing, but also extremely interesting. Throughout the novel he utters some thought-provoking statements, 

“Taking a new step, uttering a new word, is what people fear most.”

“Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart.” 

His philosophical musings not only allow us a glimpse into his psyche, but they also raise interesting questions about how we can portray a mind in literature. Taking this one step further, as Garry L. Hagberg says, “to show within the larger context of that portrayal how one mind can come to interpret, to fathom, to understand another” (39). The portrayal of Raskolnikov’s mind therefore allows us to see first-hand the effects of guilt, doubt and the internal battle between good and evil in the mind. Raskolnikov’s starting point is one of general antipathy to human existence which leads to his murder, 

“The old woman was a mistake perhaps, but she’s not the point! The old woman was merely a sickness… I was in a hurry to step over… it wasn’t a human being I killed, it was a principle! So I killed the principle, but I didn’t step over, I stayed on this side…All I managed to do was kill. And I didn’t even manage that, as it turns out…”

Raskolnikov, Part III, Chapter VI

But it’s clear he is confused, lost and struggling to come to terms with his crime and how justice should consequently play out. One of the main problems of the novel therefore is, Raskolnikov’s development of a mature moral perspective. Rick Anthony Furtak in his essay, “Love, Suffering, and Gratitude for Existence: Moral and Existential Emotions in Crime and Punishment” expresses this problem eloquently, 

“Raskolnikov is thoughtful and prone to compassion and generosity, but it takes him the length of the novel to acknowledge his crime as such and arrive at an empathetic connection to others. Strangely, then, it remains puzzling both how it could have taken him so long to achieve moral growth and how he managed to do so at all.” 

It remains up for debate whether Raskolnikov has truly faced his internal battle, despite his ultimate decision (no spoilers!) Perhaps it ultimately doesn’t matter that much, as what makes Raskolnikov and the novel, so fascinating, complex and rich – is the deep insight into the human mind. It reminds us that actions have consequences, and as Dostoevsky explains himself, “the mystery of the human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.”

Works Cited

Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment: Philosophical Perspectives. Ed. Guay, Robert.: Oxford University Press, May 23, 2019. Oxford Scholarship Online. Date Accessed 7 Feb. 2021 <https://oxford.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.1093/oso/9780190464011.001.0001/oso-9780190464011&gt;.

Hagberg, Garry L. “Portrayals of Mind: Raskolnikov, Porfiry, and Psychological Investigation in Crime and Punishment.” Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment: Philosophical Perspectives.: Oxford University Press, May 23, 2019. Oxford Scholarship Online. Date Accessed 7 Feb. 2021 <https://oxford.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.1093/oso/9780190464011.001.0001/oso-9780190464011-chapter-2&gt;.

Furtak, Rick Anthony. “Love, Suffering, and Gratitude for Existence: Moral and Existential Emotions in Crime and Punishment.” Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment: Philosophical Perspectives.: Oxford University Press, May 23, 2019. Oxford Scholarship Online. Date Accessed 7 Feb. 2021 <https://oxford.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.1093/oso/9780190464011.001.0001/oso-9780190464011-chapter-3&gt;.

‘Dear Diary’: The Power of The Unique Literary Genre

Most of us at some point in our lives have probably kept a diary or journal of some sort, either from a young age detailing school days or later into adolescence and present day. I recently discovered my old diaries from when I was ages 10-13, whilst amusing reliving moments from my younger self, (mainly what I ate and who my current best friend was!), it made me question the power of the written journal. As the historian, David Ransel discusses, that in the end, the diary has not been used for “facts”, but for the “reconstruction of the social meaning of recorded daily routines, and, through, them, for a glimpse into the social and emotional world inhabited by the diarist.”[1] So, just as the significance of your own personal diary can be used to reflect on your own self-growth, by reading other people’s intimate papers it provides potential historical as well as literary value.  

The word ‘diary’ derives from the Latin meaning ‘day’ and it first came to the scene in the Medieval era, when they were used by mystics to record spiritual interpretations of daily events.[2] Fast forward to the Renaissance, where people began keeping diaries as a way to express opinions without any intentions of one day publishing their writings. As literacy rates rose, and the cost of paper dropped, and people became more aware of the self, diarising quickly became more popular at the beginning of the 18th Century. This progression in diarising, and therefore its growing prestige in becoming a genre, means that there is a distinctive narrative form that writers and readers alike associate with the word “diary”. From the English “diary,” or “journal,” German “Tagebuch,” French “journal”, and Russian “dnevnik” they all share similar characteristics and scholars have read, and used, diaries as historical authentication, evidence into social life or as an autobiographical document. Focusing on what the diarist relates about his daily life, possessions bought and gifted, visits paid and received, births, illness and deaths it allows scholars, historians and ordinary observers, the chance to follow patterns of social advancement, social and emotional interaction and class systems. 

Whilst the diary can provide information concerning the bigger picture, in a way the diary is with us all, as an idea, project or stream of consciousness, which is instantly attainable. It is arguably one of the most flexible and elastic literary genres; yet we are all so familiar with it that we hardly even include in our assessment of important literary forms. Unconsciously, the diary is “easy”, “informal”, something we take for granted, something that “sheds light” on a famous writer, painter or philosopher after their death – but more often than not, there is much to learn from seemingly simple personal accounts. We might be tempted as Bruce Merry explains, to believe that, “all other literary forms are bound to the age and habits of the period which produced them, but the diary stands outside these constraints”, as it is a “personal dialogue between the writer and his private persona”. By lying outside these “constraints”[3], it gives the diarist the chance to discuss anything outside of the push and pull of editorial fashion. A raw, unedited view of history instead of the selective teachings of many history books. 

One of the earliest examples is the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, a Roman Emperor who lived in 2nd Century AD. Without any intention of publication, these diaries offer a remarkable series of challenging spiritual reflections and exercises which have been consulted and admired by statesmen, thinkers and readers throughout the centuries. There are many important lessons to be learnt, most of which are still relevant today. Such as “the universe is change, life is an opinion”, and “you have the power over your mind, not outside events. Realise this and you find strength.” Marcus Aurelius’ thoughts, just like any diarist, deals with the past whilst simultaneously interacting with the present. The diary also prepares for a space for the unknown future, one which allows you to reflect, build and dream of plans and inevitable change. It improves self-awareness, relieves anxiety, aids your memory and builds your writing skills; effects that even the most famous diarists, such as Anne Frank, Samuel Pepys, Marie Curie and Captain Scott most likely will have felt. 

The power of the diary means that even exceptional circumstances can be understood, in May 1941, Lena Mukhina’s writings[4] recount exactly that – an ordinary teenage girl, living in Leningrad, worrying about her homework, when on the 22nd June 1941, Hitler broke his pact with Stalin and declared war on the Soviet Union. All too soon, Lena’s life was turned upside down, and her diaries provide historians with an invaluable look into the realities and horrors of war. By viewing the diary as an empty vessel, the writer invests meaning onto the blank pages – a generic medium that gives distinctive shape to the experience it records. Just as Lena’s world is brought to life as she recounts her journey, her diary is bound by basic epistemological categories applied to human experience: subjectivity and temporality. Simply, we should take all diary entries with a pinch of salt. Perhaps the best way to learn from the diary, is as Irina Paperno from the Russian Review comments, “the diary is best read not as a book with a beginning and end, but as a process.”[5] Through learning we can begin our own journey, and the diary gives us the flexibility to just write – enjoy the process, and who knows maybe one day it will provide invaluable insight into life in the 21st century. 

Mukhina has been called a ‘Russian Anne Frank’

Pan MacMillan. ‘History’s Greatest Diaries’, April 2016. https://www.panmacmillan.com/blogs/history/historical-diaries-war-history-journal.

Merry, Bruce. ‘The Literary Diary as a Genre’. Faculty of Arts, Celtic Studies & Philosophy NUIM, The Maynooth Review, Vol.5, no. No.1 (May 1979): 3–9.

Paperno, Irina. ‘The Russian Review’. Wiley Vol.63, no. No.4 (October 2004): 13.

Welsch, Colleen. ‘The History of the Diary, the Original Blog’. The Old Timey, 5 July 2017. https://theoldtimey.com/history-of-the-diary/.


[1] Paperno, ‘The Russian Review’.

[2] Welsch, ‘The History of the Diary, the Original Blog’.

[3] Merry, ‘The Literary Diary as a Genre’.

[4] ‘History’s Greatest Diaries’.

[5] Paperno, ‘The Russian Review’.

Feminism and its importance for the future of philosophy

“Philosophy is concerned with the meaning of human life, whether there is any such meaning and whether the human can be made an object of systematic study.” – Riet Turksma. This concern and insight into searching for answers to humanity and the world’s ‘big questions’ which are seemingly unanswerable, makes for interesting discussion which accounts for all human beings. Yet these questions are often tackled and left to highbrow philosophical theory, which is a small, elitist field traditionally inhabited by men due to its austere, cold and analytical atmosphere. But it’s important that women infiltrate this field of ‘highbrow’ theory and research, not only to concern itself with fair play but also with changing the rules of the game. But perhaps as Camille Paglia, Professor of Humanities at the University of the Arts, Philadelphia, argues it is “not that women inherently lack a talent or aptitude for philosophy or higher mathematics, but rather that they are more unwilling than men to devote their lives to a frigid space from which the natural and the human have been eliminated”.  

But a shift in the proportion of key female philosophers and thinkers has correlated with vigorous efforts from organisations to increase the number of women in philosophy and to root out all forms of bias and discrimination. This shift has furthered philosophical feminism as a political cause, recently committed to gender equality and the gender wage gap; but by as Gutting says by using it as, “vehicle of a political movement” there is a danger of forgetting its other purposes and importance for the future of philosophy. Philosophers uneasy with strong feminist claims about the current poor treatment of women may feel that feminist philosophy has nothing to offer them, with writing on feminist topics being often by women and sometimes not welcome to male contributions. 

But the contribution to the abstract, analytical and purely academic thinking sometimes derives from the stereotypical roles that society has imposed on women- such as the emphasis on “care” and “kindness”. This can be clearly seen in ethics, such as explained by Nancy Williams in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “proponents of feminist care ethics…stress that traditional moral theories…are deficient to the degree they lack, ignore, trivialise, or demean values and virtues culturally associated with women.” Many feminist philosophers have therefore developed various “ethics of care” that enhance or displace “masculine” values such as autonomy and self-fulfilment. Yet even theories such as Utilitarianism where the “greatest happiness for the greatest number” take on a deeper meaning when understood not as a duty toward generic humanity but as a call to personal engagement with those in need. 

This also translates into epistemology where values and ‘care’ filtrates into traditional analytic approaches that treat knowledge as the goal of an isolated mind such as those of Descartes. For example, feminist philosophers such as Helen Longino and Louise Antony have offered strong analytic arguments for enriching the ‘masculinist’ view of knowledge with elements previously ignored as signs of ‘feminine’ cognitive weakness. As well as epistemologists, Simone De Beauvoir (who partnered with Jean-Paul Sartre, the founder of Existentialism) and Harriet Taylor Mill provided vital arguments for the unjust differences between men and women. In De Beauvoir’s famous “The Second Sex” she speaks of women being trapped in a gender role that is ‘the other’, a term defined by men which leads to the oppression of women. Whilst Taylor advocated that motherhood should not lead to a subordinate position but that women should have the right to education and civil rights- this they can use to claim economical independence. 

As you can see, women such as De Beauvoir and Taylor paved the way for future feminist philosophers to come, but feminist philosophers’ now personal and political rage against injustice could create an atmosphere hostile for philosophical reflection; a world in which as Camille Paglia states, “Philosophers are now at the margin. Philosophy has shrunk in reputation and stature – it’s an academic exercise.” However, by looking at the significant achievements of feminist philosophers to date, which has already improved the climate for women and philosophical thinking itself – it is clear that these developments are still needed. There is much more development required from Feminist philosophers and thinkers, with recent examples of the #MeToo movement and the Gender Pay Gap bringing to light the attention that needs to be shined upon such issues. 

Just perhaps, now they are approached in a different form and presented through a different medium in today’s modern world. One which has to balance the nuances of cultural criticism and pop culture with the movements such as Post-Modernism and Post-Structuralism. A revival of philosophy is needed not only to incorporate more females but to encourage younger minds to tackle life’s ‘big questions’.

References:

Gary Gutting. (2017). Feminism and the Future of Philosophy. NY Times, Retrieved July 13, 2020. from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/18/opinion/feminist-philosophy-future.html

Camille Paglia, Ellie Stevenson. (2005). Ten great female philosophers: The thinking woman’s women. The Independent, Retrieved July 13, 2020. from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/ten-great-female-philosophers-the-thinking-womans-women-299061.html

Riet Turksma. (2001). Feminist Classic Philosophers and the Other Women. Economic and Political Weekly, 36(17), 1413-1424. Retrieved July 13, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/4410545

Review: The Waves by Virginia Woolf

The Waves published in 1931 is Virginia Woolf’s “play-poem” as she called it; a colloquy of six voices, experimenting through the lives of Bernard, Jinny, Louis, Neville, Rhoda and Susan as they evolve, grow and debate with their identities, thoughts and attempts to say “I am this, I am that”. The Waves represents, in a career filled with bold experiments, Woolf’s most audacious explorations of the possibilities of the novel form- in abandoning traditional structure and plot it favours a lyrical, almost dreamlike incantation of character. 

Woolf was born in 1882 into an already distinguished literary and artistic family. Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was one of the most notable intellectuals of his day and her sister, Vanessa was a well-regarded painter. She became one of the leading figures in the Bloomsbury Group, an informal circle of writers and artists who formed one of the most well-known branches of the literary avant-garde of the early 20th century. It stood for a moderately left-wing political stance, a refined critical and aesthetic sensibility, and an intensely inward focus on the way the mind translates experience into language and meaning. By redefining the beliefs of the Victorian majority, they hoped to discover a new artistic method. Woolf herself epitomises such a modern writer, leaving behind the conventional structures of the novel in order to pursue a more poetic, character-based narrative. 

Wool herself

She wrote the book over a gruelling 19 months, between 1929-1931, making several revisions throughout the spring and summer. The writing process of The Waves was difficult for Woolf as the subject matter forced her to relive the death of her brother Thoby and many other painful aspects of her life. 

Despite its focus on character and its poetic interludes, there is an almost conventional narrative arc, tracing their intertwined lives from children, adolescence, middle age and later life. The six children and voices meet, part, become lovers, parents, age, and mourn. The death of their friend Percival plays a pivotal role in their ability to respond to grief, through the obsession of language, nature and a purely physical existence; Woolf presents her characters internal monologues, as she builds her characters from the inside out. One of the concerns of the novel is the way individual personalities and sensibilities are shaped by relationships with others. The novel is bound together by rhythms and images that recur across all six voices, a fin, far out to sea; bubbles rising; silver fish; images of circles and of bars, the collective and the “I…I..” that resounds throughout, echoing the waves as they rise from the ocean and smash against the shore. 

“The sun fell in sharp wedges inside the room. Whatever the light touched became dowered with a fanatical existence. A plate like a white lake. A knife looked like a dagger of ice.”

“The waves broke and spread their waters swiftly over the shore.”

“I, I, I; not Bryon, Shelley, Dostoevsky…”

With such a focus on character, the six voices of Bernard, Jinny, Louis, Neville, Rhoda and Susan all explore such different aspects of humanity and understanding of the world – that for me, (it being my first time reading it) was confusing. The constant change of direction of their individual identities provides an interesting introspection into character, but there are few moments of shared identity and unity, which helps to build a mental map of these characters interconnected lives. 

Bernard’s loquacity and obsession with language is one of his first apparent traits, by exploring such a vast concept makes him a compound character, influenced by the people who surround him. His dissatisfaction with language and traditional narrative echoes many of Woolf’s own concerns and perhaps offers an insight into the reason behind her boldness when composing the novel. Woolf has spoken of “moments of being” in which she gains a direct perception of reality, apart from the complexities of language, and such echoes of this can be seen in Bernard.

Neville has a desire for order and beauty, as a homosexual scholar, he is described by Louis as the son of a gentleman. When reading such an influential, experimental and in parts confusing work such as The Waves, it is helpful to research the context in order to gain a wider understanding of Woolf’s process. John Maynard Keynes, economist and prolific writer on economics, and Lytton Strachey, hailed as an intellectual and known homosexual, have been suggested as sources for Neville’s character. 

(Caricature of Lytton Strachey.)

Louis’s deepest sense of himself is that he does not fit in, as he is Australian. His life is defined by the need to overcome the sense of inferiority his nationality gives him. He becomes an ambitious striver, eager to make his mark and to shed his status as an outsider- which he eventually achieves. Critics have suggested that there is a probable connection between Louis and T.S. Eliot as Woolf uses the same adjectives to describe them, as “pale” and “marmoreal”. He discovers poetry and sees the tradition of literature as a way to gain admittance. 

(T.S. Eliot, drawing by Wyndham Lewis, 1938)

Jinny lives her life utterly apart from concerns of the soul, she embodies a purely physical existence. She thinks of herself as a body, first and foremost – as she describes herself as a creature of motion, surface and physicality. Her attitude therefore is carpe diem – seize the day, and live while you can. 

“But look — there is my body in that looking glass. How solitary, how shrunk, how aged! I am no longer young.”

“But my imagination is the bodies. I can imagine nothing beyond the circle cast by my body. My body goes before me, like a lantern down a dark lane, bringing one thing after another out of darkness into a ring of light.”

Susan to me is the most ‘normal’ character in the novel, or at least the easiest to understand on the surface. She is a representation of the maternal “instinct”. Throughout life, she is closely associated with the natural and domestic world: marrying a farmer, living in the country and protective of her children. Several critics identify traits of Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell in the characterisation of Susan, as she was “exalted, in the most tragic way…full of power and responsibility”. 

(Self-portrait by Vanessa Bell)

Rhoda embodies a dreamlike abstraction from ordinary life, nothing comes easily to her and everything seems foreign. She is terrified of human contact, terrified of being judged and criticised and her deep sense of alienation from others is a feeling which can still be felt in today’s society. 

The Waves, although confusing and thought provoking due to its poetic qualities and lack of clear plot, deals with many themes which are deep rooted within our society. It deals with essence of selfhood, the desire for order and meaning and most prominently the aspect and influence of death. To me, it feels like the sort of novel I will have to return to and re-read, in order to gain a better understanding and be able to extract more complexity and detail. But nevertheless, a book worth a read if only to explore something different, like a novel you’ve never experienced before. 

References:

Satire: The Punch Magazine

Satire, “the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.” 

Satire has been used throughout history to express opinions and its significance is vast in providing context for many controversies and important moments in society. 

The Punch Magazine was one such outlet that cast a satirical eye on life in Britain from 1841-2002, it chartered the interests, concerns and frustrations of the country and today it stands as an invaluable resource for social historians. In its beginnings, it combined humour, illustration and political debate with a radical audacity, and in its first few years of existence, the magazine developed a reputation as “a defender of the oppressed and a radical scourge of all authority.” During the late 1800s, it reflected the conservative views of the growing middle classes and copies even spread as wide as royalty. In the Western world its significance on satire was wide reaching and it helped to revolutionise the world of illustration. The original idea stemmed from a man called Ebenezer Landells, a Parisian who took inspiration from Le Charivari and hoped to breach the gap and launch his own magazine over in London. 

After Queen Victoria took the throne, the media world of London, which was full of scandals, blackmail and personal attacks was about to take a new direction, as Punch offered a more wholesome approach that the Victorians loved. 

In the Early Years

Punch in the beginning was more about politics than the pictures – whilst each issue featured a full-page satirical drawing that appeared at the centre of the magazine, called ‘Punch Pencillings’, it was only this drawing which had much significance. The prestige and importance of this illustration was passed around the various illustrators to express their take on current London life; with Kenny Meadows (1790-1874), Archibald Henning (1805-1864) and Henry George Hine (1811-1895) all making contributions. All three of these men were reliable draughtsmen, but their work was yet to make a significant and markable impact on the way the magazine was viewed, and society portrayed. 


A development… 

It wasn’t until the Punch Almanack in 1842 that it gained any large popularity or following, a key figure in this development was John Leech (1817-1864) who went on to revolutionise the magazine and what we now know today as a ‘cartoon’. He produced over 3000 drawings and his contribution to the magazine and to the world of satirical drawings has been second to none. 

One particular illustration aimed at the ‘Palace of Westminster’ was a target of Leech’s criticism in 1843. The ‘Palace’ was a deemed a complete waste of public money, at the time London was a city of ill-health, poverty, slums and workhouses. The consensus was that an exhibition of competing rough designs for Westminster was a pompous and misplaced concern when much more pressing issues needed to be dealt with. The exhibition had been commissioned by politicians and Punch saw it simply as a means for the elite to celebrate their own importance. Leech’s finished piece of work is rather striking; it depicts a group of poor and ragged Londoners visiting the ‘Palace’. The clustered crowd sticks out like a sore thumb amongst the grandiose drawings, making it clear the misery that the poor find in work. Commonly, a finished preliminary sketch was known as a cartoon as from Frescoes (a painting done rapidly in watercolour on wet plaster on a wall or ceiling, so that the colours penetrate the plaster and become fixed as it dries). When Leech entitled this piece, “Cartoon No.1 – Substance and Shadow”, the use of the word ‘cartoon’ ridiculed the pretensions of the establishment and satirised their lavish attitudes. From that ‘Punch Pencilling’ onwards the illustration became known as a cartoon, and Leech therefore the first ‘cartoonist’.

Unlike media today in which the reader will often jump straight to the pictures for variety, an easier understanding – Leech made the reader aware of the illustrations and their importance was now on par with the writing. You could even go so far as saying it was the reason that people bought the magazine. If you mention the Punch magazine today, most likely people will recall the cartoons rather the significance of the writing. 

Leech’s death

After Leech’s death the magazine was thrown into disarray, but Charles Keene helped to continue the legacy and his cartoons were arguably more polished and works of art in their own right. John Tenniel also had a casting impact, best known for his illustrations in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, he succeeded as the next main political cartoonist. However, there was much controversy surrounding Tenniel, his personal political standpoint was arguably portrayed through his work and and some of his cartoons upset radicals on the staff such as Douglas Jerrold. He denied showing political prejudice and claimed that “if I have my own little politics, I keep them to myself, and profess only those of the paper”. 

A key example is argued by Lewis Perry Curtis, an American historian in the 1900’s, who pointed out that “despite their dignified quality, some of Tenniel’s cartoons partook of the dominant prejudices of the day. His depiction of Jews included such standard antisemitic features…”. However, his significance and impact cannot be side-lined even if his topics of attack were often questionable… 

Charles Keene’s work

Leech, Keene and Punch revolutionised what we know as satire today as it became far more conventional. This is evident in this one such example, in which John Tenniel had been among those chosen for the Westminster frescoes that Leech had ridiculed just two decades earlier. Punch and cartoonists had reached a turning point, there were no longer interested in attacking The Establishment, it had become The Establishment. 

So perhaps the balance had been tipped too far, but ultimately the progression is one that social historians can use as an invaluable resource for analysing the uprising of the British middle-class, and issues of the time – all encapsulated in one drawing. 

In an article by the ‘Illustration Chronicles’, they say that to “study the magazine is to study the evolution of the cartoon itself. It chronicles the shift of satirical illustration from a reliance on caricature into an era of sophistication.” For me this brilliantly sums up the magazines importance in redefining and progressing satire today, and in continuing the evolution of the modern form of illustration. 

References: 

  1. http://punchproject.blogspot.com
  2. https://illustrationchronicles.com/How-Punch-Magazine-Changed-Everything
  3. http://www.john-leech-archive.org.uk/archive.htm
  4. https://spartacus-educational.com/CHleech.htm
  5. https://www.punch.co.uk/index/G0000Uiv3S1UFh5o

Persuasion – a classic re-visited.

“…when pain is over, the remembrance of it often becomes a pleasure.” 

Volume II, Chapter VIII

Austen has often been the source of profound morals which have been weaved seamlessly into her characters and plot lines and Persuasion is no exception. Let’s begin by looking at the title, often overlooked when you start a novel – but a good place to start. 

Persuasion was originally entitled The Elliot’s by Austen, however it is rumoured that Henry Austen decided to rename it Persuasion, without realising the profound impacts this has on the novel and how it is perceived. 

For a modern-day audience, ‘persuasion’ carries the connotations of falling under the influence of someone or something else or debating different sides of an argument. In this light, it immediately highlights Anne’s situation in a disadvantaged way, spotlighting a mistake committed years earlier. As a young woman of nineteen, Anne allowed herself to be persuaded not to marry the man she loved, she now has to deal with the consequences. This circumstance, although not specific to Anne and Persuasion highlights the societal expectations of women to marry to secure their futures. This was a heavy price to pay for any woman, for Anne being open to persuasion arguably lead to her tragic downfall. 

But by re-adjusting our definition of ‘persuasion’ it might reframe Anne’s situation. If persuasion means, “A set of beliefs, especially religious or political ones.” We can then view Anne’s decision not as a result of external ‘persuasion’ but that her set of beliefs or faith in Wentworth was not strong enough for her to form a well-rounded decision. 

Monica Fairview, author and member of the ‘Jane Austen Literary Foundation’ argues that by calling the novel Persuasion, Henry Austen places too much emphasis on the beginning of the novel – the ‘mistake’, rather than on the understanding reached by both characters. From this perspective, Anne is rather not ‘persuaded’ but capable as she couldn’t have made any other decision.

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For a novel such as Persuasion, it is almost impossible to even begin discussing it without giving thought to Austen herself. Most people have at least heard of the name ‘Jane Austen’ and throughout her literary career understanding her piercing social observation and subtly subversive style helps the twenty-first century reader to gain an understanding of the complex class and gender relations which underscored early-nineteenth century English middle-class society. Persuasion was Austen’s last novel, published in 1817 and the maturity within her work is highlighted, as she continued to step out of sphere and write about the personal flaws and mistakes of the proud gentry. Such subtle criticism is nearly always cleverly entangled in her characters, whilst her final novel also stands out for the nationalistic pride for the Navy. At the height of the British Empire, the Navy was admired as the defender of British interests throughout the world. Such heroes introduce a new, rougher ideal of manliness into Austen’s world, yet her female characters rival this strong-willed nature as she continually questions people’s roles in society. 

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Persuasion is widely appreciated as a moving love story despite what has been labelled as a simple plot, but Austen’s iconic narrative style remains throughout. The novel follows Anne’s attempts to marry for love rather than social advantage, despite the insistence of her excessively vain father Sir Walter Elliot, who refuses to curb his spending despite mounting debts. He and his three daughters, Elizabeth, Anne and Mary, let out their home (Kellynch) to a family rising through society; the Crofts, bringing new connections, potential marriages and intrigues. The wife’s brother is Captain Wentworth to whom Anne was engaged eight years ago but haven’t had any contact since. When Sir Walter, along with Elizabeth and a friend of the family, Mrs Clay, go to Bath, Anne stays with Mary at Uppercross for two months. Anne particularly enjoys Elizabeth’s husband family including his siblings, Henrietta and Louisa. They all travel to Lyme to visit the Harvilles and the reader is introduced to Sir Elliot, Anne’s cousin and heir to Kellynch. The inevitable troubles which stem from the relationships, dialogues and meetings between characters of varying status and class; whilst navigating marriages and inheritance, provides an interesting insight into society of the time. 

≿————- ❈ ————-≾

It is the first of Austen’s novels to feature as the central character a woman who, by the standards of the time, is well past the first bloom of youth; at twenty-seven Anne is characterised as a present to herself and to her sister Cassandra who remained unmarried despite Jane receiving an offer from a wealthy suitor. This theme also famously comes through in Austen’s writing in her wry opening line to Pride and Prejudice, “it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” 

At the same time, the novel is an acclamation to the self-made man. Captain Wentworth is just one of several naval officers who has risen from humble beginnings to affluence and status on the strength of merit and luck, not by inheritance. “All his sanguine expectations, all his confidence had been justified. His genius and ardour had seemed to foresee and to command his prosperous path.” It marks a time where the very roots of society were changing, as ‘old money’ exemplified by Sir Walter, had to accommodate the rising strength of the nouveau riche, such as Wentworth. He is then is a worthy foil to the materialistic patriarch, Sir Walter as he values character and personality over wealth and social status. The comparison of these two characters can be seen in modern-day interpretations, as many celebrities earn considerable fortunes based on their image and appearance, therefore arguably the anachronistic Sir Walter would be in good company even today. 

Which brings us to Anne Elliot, although not as witty or intelligent as Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, Anne’s portrayal is one of more subtle defiance and her appeal lies in her ordinariness. She doesn’t openly challenge tradition yet remains true to her feelings for Wentworth, she doesn’t succumb to the women’s flitting flirtatious nature to find an appropriate suitor. 

Even now, Persuasion and Austen’s other works leave us questioning how much of her own hopes and dreams are bound up in her female leads. By speculating how much her own life influences her characters and plot lines, of whether she lives vicariously through their love lives, we can never know. But to read Austen is to never take her own life out of the equation. 

≿————- ❈ ————-≾

My favourite part of the book for me comes in Volume II, Chapter IX in which Captain Harville and Anne discuss the nature and constancy of men and women, with Anne claiming women, “…cannot help ourselves. We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us.” The reply from Captain Harville is one of Austen’s subversive approaches, “our bodies are the strongest, so are our feelings; capable of bearing most rough usage and riding out the heaviest weather.” In exploring men’s emotions in relation to the physical world, she subtly and cleverly questions whilst remaining the boundaries of society. 

But when reading Austen, the temptation to refer to her other works and society she lives in, often distracts from the opinion of the actual novel. Persuasion follows a simple plot thread and the enjoyment comes from the strength of her characters, rather than her unpredictable, twisting story – although if you are reading Austen, arguably this is not an expectation you expect to be met. Her characters have outlived her by two centuries and will remain a benchmark focus for other writers in creating developed characters that continue to display complex moral personalities and relationships. I would recommend Persuasion, to any Austen fan, any romance lover and anyone 12+ who wants an introduction to classical literature as the plot is easy to follow and characters fun to engage with. 

‘Literature explores the conflict between order and chaos’

This is my recent essay comparing John Webster’s, ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ and a selection of Samuel Coleridge’s poetry, an interesting comparison nevertheless; but it was a part of my A level English course (OCR exam board, mark 30/30).

Both Webster and Coleridge explore the conflict between order and chaos via the symbolism of religion, the abuse of social hierarchy and nature. The usurpation of Christ in Coleridge’s poetry and the transition between accepted Protestantism and Catholicism allows the potential for chaos. The manipulation of social hierarchy through Bosola, Ferdinand and the Cardinal in ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ and in ‘Kubla Khan’ and the ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ displays chaos through the desire for social ascension. The Romantic ideals of nature and their transgression leads to chaos and the corruption of the Jacobean court embodied through nature allows the audience to clearly see the lack of order.

Religion is a key way that both Webster and Coleridge explore the conflict between order and chaos, through the decline of religion and constant intellectual and philosophical debate between religion and nature. In Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ this can be clearly seen as the Mariner battles with the guilt of killing the albatross, which can be seen as an allegorical representation of Christ, “Instead of the cross, the Albatross about my neck was hung”. The sin is a parallel to Adam and Eve’s original sin, where the act of killing the bird instigates a break with nature, bringing the Mariner out of harmony with the natural world and causing punishment akin to the Fall of man. In this way, Coleridge is presenting the chaos which breaks from the order of religion; as the poem’s supernatural and various Pagan elements exist parallel with Christian ideas. This mirrors Coleridge’s own religious debate as he showed how Christianity was not merely desirable but philosophically true, he argued himself out of a Unitarian position into a Trinitarian one and became a staunch defender of the orthodox Christian concept of God as containing three persons as he believed that a personal God was necessary to him. Therefore, strengthening his link to order and shying away from chaos. But by Coleridge’s adoption of Spinoza’s pantheism, a system of belief in which God, man and nature share one substance leaves the potential for chaos as the natural world changes. The Cardinal in the ‘Duchess of Malfi’ behaves a similar way, he has bribed his way up the ecclesiastical hierarchy, redistributes Antonio’s lands, and has illicit affairs with married women and suborns murder. Bosola describes him as, “Some fellows, they say, are possessed with the devil, but this great fellow were able to possess the greatest devil and make him worse.” He exercises his power through his religious background and transfers his power to a more violent and aggressive source, transitioning from an ordered religious perspective to a chaotic corrupt soldier. Religion within Jacobean society was also open to corruption and chaos; apart from a brief return to Catholicism under Mary I, England had been a Protestant country since Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic in the 1530’s. Catholics were presented as ritualistic ideal-worshippers who were politically and morally corrupt, as anti-Catholic prejudice was enshrined in the law, with harsh punishments for refusing to follow Protestant doctrine. This conflict between order and chaos of the Catholic religion mirrors the imaginary battle of the speaker in ‘The Pains of sleep’ in which the speaker at passionate silent prayer battle imaginary demons to pray aloud. The tension between traditional religious order and the adoption of Pantheism, Catholicism and military action all bring about the potential for chaos.

The desire for social hierarchy and superiority leads to chaotic events and characters open to manipulation and betrayal. Bosola in the ‘Duchess of Malfi’ battles the conflict between himself of conscience and guilt, as he seeks to ascend the social ladder- he will do anything to achieve his end goal. Webster presents the status quo in society as chaotic, as social mobility imposes constrictions and eventually people rebel. The Cardinal abuses his status to manipulate others, such as Julia “I have taken you off your melancholy perch”, the audience however can see the chaos and destruction that the Cardinal brings by imposing the social hierarchy of the time. Just like King James court as Webster’s evocation of a court riven by favouritism, factionalism, betrayal and intrigue aptly captures the political realities of the day. The extent to which James’ government fell short of the king’s own ideal as set out in Basilikon Doron and in the ‘French court’ as described by Antonio in his opening speech, is of central importance. Webster is clearly mirroring his audience’s unfavourable perception of James’ court when he has Bosola describe the Aragonian brothers as ‘plum trees that grow crooked over standing pools…and caterpillars feed on them”. The clear conflict between lack of order and the chaotic abuse of status and social hierarchy is displayed by Webster and shown in James’ court. In ‘Kubla Khan’ the Khan decrees a “stately pleasure-dome” and he builds a wall to enclose a fertile paradise of gardens, streams and groves, the force of water “a mighty fountain momently was forced” is described in terms which suggest turmoil and chaos, erosion and fertility all at once. Kubla imposes the power of man over nature displaying a different kind of social hierarchy. In the ‘Lyrical Ballads’ by Coleridge and Wordsworth they expressed their experience of romantic ideals; recollecting dignity in the commonplace, which had the same effect as the French revolution. Their aim was to create a democratic world in which the outcasts, women and children had a voice of individual consciousness; they succeeded where the revolution had failed, they gave politics a human face and brought order to chaos. In the same way that the genuine fear of social mobility in deeply conservative Elizabethan and Jacobean society is challenged and displayed in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, “then everything includes itself in power, power into will, will into appetite”. Just as Delio vows to restore the hierarchy and warn others of revenge in the ‘Duchess of Malfi’, “let us make noble use of this great ruin” – bringing order back to the chaos which had ensued from the abuse of social hierarchy.

The consequent embodiment of nature within Coleridge’s Romantic ideals and Webster’s use of nature to portray madness and corruption is vital. The presentation of nature within “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” symbolises how since nature is omnipotent there is no such thing as solitude and order is renewed. The “prison” in which Coleridge finds himself in is outweighed by the ministrations of nature which can transcend any such imprisonment, bringing order to chaos. In ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ the Mariner is plagued by “water, water, everywhere” the natural source is taken away as torture for what he has done, for the chaos he has created. Just like the corruption and decay within the ‘Duchess of Malfi’, “crooked over standing pools” via the court and hierarchy is cleverly displayed through the metaphorical references to water and fountains. The combination of religion and nature used by Coleridge highlights clearly the chaos which can arise from a lack of order. In ‘Christabel’, a “bright green snake coiled around its wings and neck” references the snake from the Fall in which Adam and Eve were tempted. The cunning and sly nature of the snake within ‘Christabel’ is also portrayed via Ferdinand and the Cardinal who corrupt the “idyllic court” and the Duchess’ happiness and in turn bring about the chaotic disintegration of society. The paradox as Leggatt points out, is while Webster depicts a world of chaos, the play “resists that chaos by the conscious, deliberate shaping of its own art”. It is clearly a portrait of the Duchess’ brothers about the destructive lusts of sexuality and power, rather than the chaotic force of nature.

To conclude, both Webster and Coleridge explore the conflict between order and chaos via religion, social hierarchy and nature. Coleridge’s philosophical debate between religion and nature brings chaos, whilst the abuse of social hierarchy portrayed by Webster shows the lack of order within society. Ultimately the conflict between order and chaos is shown via the tensions which both Webster and Coleridge symbolise via man, nature and societal structure.