Fanny Hill; or, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, by John Cleland

First published: 1748.

Edition read: Oxford World’s Classics, 1985, ed. Peter Sabor.

Provenance: purchased from Blackwell’s secondhand section

Read: October 2014, on the slow-moving commuter bus in the evenings.

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UGH I am sorry it’s taken me so long to get around to writing. I note that it’s been ten days since I’ve posted anything at all. Work has been enervating, to say the least, punctuated by a lot of weeknight socializing, and, well…anyway. Here we are. I have a cup of coffee, Bruckner coming through the speakers (Os Justi, which, if you’ve never heard this before, just do yourself a favor and click on it), and my notes arrayed about me, ready to begin talking about Fanny Hill.

Where to start? Maybe with the plot. Fanny Hill (yes, yes, it’s crude slang, what did you expect, this book was the PornTube of its day) is a young country girl whose parents die. She’s pretty and innocent, and puts herself into the protection of a rather more worldly-wise young woman, who takes her to London and dumps her in the hands of a brothel madam. The rest of the novel delineates Fanny’s adventures as a mistress, a high-class prostitute, and then a mistress again, before finally reuniting her with her first lover and allowing her to settle into a happy-ever-after. She is sort of like the little sister of Moll Flanders; all of her criminal and sexual activity is wiped clean at the end of the novel, her sins forgiven.

Like Defoe, Cleland is writing at a time when the novel genre has no clear boundaries. He positions his book as a memoir, so we hear everything in Fanny’s voice, and see everything through her eyes. This is both refreshing and problematic for a twenty-first century reader: on the one hand, hearing a female voice in fiction speak candidly and unashamedly about sex is unusual, but on the other hand, that voice is being ventriloquized and manipulated by a man in a narrative that is, let us be frank, pornographic. So how much of it is a legitimate attempt to understand female pleasure and motivations, and how much of it is just another literary man’s wank fantasy (to put it bluntly)?

The sex scenes are some clue. The first one is with another woman, and Fanny is quite keen to abdicate all responsibility for her part in this: “[it] robbed me of all liberty of thought”, she writes. Nevertheless, her own response is clearly enthusiastic:

“the extensions of my limbs, sighs, short heavings, all conspired to assure…that I was more pleased than offended.”

Despite her horror of actual homosexuality, Fanny likes sex, and although she’d rather have it with a man than a woman, her objections are never moral. Her first suitor is turned down, not because of any piety on Fanny’s part, but because he is ancient and insufficiently attractive. She’s independent of mind, determined in character, and knows exactly what she wants. Maybe the fact that Cleland  is a man lends these traits a touch of inauthenticity; maybe Fanny is a prototype of the Cool Girl made famous by Gone Girl’s maniacally brilliant Amy Dunne. But the very attribution of these thoughts and feelings to a woman’s mind–and an extremely young woman at that–is transgressive, even today.

There are other elements in the novel which suggest that Fanny’s stereotypically male characteristics are perhaps a result of Cleland having observed the mechanics of female sexuality more carefully, and more open-mindedly, than most men of his era. Female assessment of male attractiveness, for instance, is absolutely key in this novel. Academics of all stripes like to throw around the concept of “the male gaze”: the idea that women, and objects, gain their societal value from how they appear and how they are constructed by the men who look at, assess, and evaluate them. Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure reverses the idea by giving the power of evaluation and judgment to a woman. The first time Fanny sees Charles, her first lover and eventual husband, she describes him as lasciviously as any man has ever salivated over a woman. (That salivation thing is almost literal: later, when she seduces a footman, she refers to him as “meat” and comments,

“I should have thought anyone much out of taste, that could not have made a hearty meal of such a morsel.”)

The male gaze is irrelevant in comparison to Fanny’s opinions and decisions, and the men she chooses are mostly objects to her.

How many prostitutes in eighteenth-century London had lives like this? Not many. Mrs Cole, Fanny’s madam, is presented as a good and moral businesswoman, who cares for her girls as though they were daughters, requiring them to get regular medical checkups, giving them week-long holidays if they show signs of becoming too tired, ensuring that they are well fed and clothed, and–perhaps most importantly–giving them choices about which clients they entertain. Fanny makes a point of telling us how good a woman Mrs Cole is, and how unusual this situation is, but we lose track of the fact because we see no other brothels. There has obviously been some editing of the truth: very few fifteen-year-old virgins in a brothel would have been permitted to choose how, where and with whom they lost their virginity, but Fanny chooses Charles and sails onwards to great fortune. Despite his interest in female autonomy, Cleland is writing for men, and for a story about sex work to be palatable to those who consume it, it has to be tidy. Modern-day pornography is like this too: no one ever fumbles for a condom, trips while taking off their trousers, menstruates (well, not in mainstream porn, anyway), or demonstrates anything too uncomfortably lifelike. It’s fantasy, after all. So Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure is, perhaps, a more unusual fantasy than most, taking an idiosyncratic point of view; but it is still fantasy. We’re a long way from Anne Hathaway’s agony as the shorn Fantine of Les Miserables (which is also fantasy, just on the other end of the spectrum.)

The male gaze, that baleful item, returns near the end of the book. By this point Cleland has worked out that it’s quite difficult to keep writing sex scenes without repeating material. He has exhausted regular sex, group sex, masturbation and flogging (a surprisingly common fetish for eighteenth-century men, and described with remarkable generosity of mind), and Fanny notes, rather wearily, that

“the words…flatten, and lose much of their energy and spirit, by [their] frequency.”

Perhaps for this reason, Cleland switches in the last thirty pages or so to a Thousand and One Nights style of narration, where each of the whores (I use the word with reservations, but it’s the word the novel uses) describes how she lost her virginity. It’s a piece of titillating page-filler, with the women’s experiences always described from an external point of view. It stands out because there’s so little like it in the preceding pages; Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure is not a long book, but one feels that Cleland could have improved it just by cutting this bit.

Nevertheless, when Fanny gets her reward at the end of the book in the form of Charles (who returns from having been rather implausibly shanghaied), it’s deeply satisfying on an emotional level as well as a personal one. The reader likes her–it’s impossible not to, she’s candid about her own shortcomings and thoroughly charming–and wants her to succeed. And we know that she will be happy; Charles is a kind and thoughtful young man who is interested in cultivating her intellect as well as in her body. She is intelligent enough for other patrons to have considered her worth teaching, as well, and given Charles’s family wealth, she will act as the chatelaine of a large estate. There can be no doubt that Fanny lands on her feet. Why punish her for having been a prostitute when, instead, Cleland could show us how capable that life has made her? As she notes herself,

“Our virtues and our vices depend too much on our circumstances.”

A revolutionary assertion in any era, I think, and one that makes this book well worth reading.

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For more classic books that address female sexuality, see:

Moll Flanders, by Daniel Defoe (ed. G.A. Starr (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971)

Justine, by the Marquis de Sade (transl. John Phillips (Oxford: OUP, 2012)

A Sicilian Romance, by Anne Radcliffe (ed. Alison Milbank (Oxford: OUP, 2008)

For more on Cleland’s work and context, see:

“What is Fanny Hill?’, B. Slepian and L.J. Morrissey, in Essays in Criticism 14 (1964) 65-75

“Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure: Pornography and the Mid-Eighteenth-Century English Novel“, Michael Shinagel, in Studies in Change and Revolution, ed. Paul J. Korshin (Menston: Scolar Press, 1972)

Male Novelists and their Female Voices: Literary Masquerades, Anne Robinson Taylor (Troy: New York, 1981)

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Goldfinger, by Ian Fleming

First published: 1959.

Edition read: Penguin Modern Classics.

Provenance: borrowed from my workplace.

Read: September 2014, scuffing through leaves on Marston Ferry Road as I walked to and from work.

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In my family, James Bond has assumed an importance that verges on the religious. The films are staples of our Christmas holidays; we have all-time favorites and all-time worsts; we rank them by quality of title credit song, by number of explosions, by ludicrousness of plot, by backstory of babes. We all have our preferred Bond, of course. Personally, I think Timothy Dalton is by far the most convincingly cast, and his films–The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill–are both genuinely good (at least as far as Bond goes. At least as far as I am concerned. There tends to be a lot of argument about this.) My younger brother’s English project this year is to write and present a TED talk; he has chosen to talk on James Bond.

Strangely, though, I’d never read any of the books until a few months ago. The closest I had come was listening to my brilliant actor cousin reading aloud the first chapter of Casino Royale in a tone of such pointed mockery that I fell off our porch swing laughing. So when I spotted that my workplace had an old copy of Goldfinger hanging about, I picked it up like a shot.

It became clear fairly quickly that my cousin had had a point. There are lots of good reasons to make fun of Ian Fleming, one of which is that he’s not a brilliant prose stylist. That said, he’s not a bad one, either; his Bond is reflective (up to a point), self-aware (ditto), and possessed of the kind of mordant wit familiar from Dashiell Hammett-type noir. At the beginning of Goldfinger, we meet him at an airport in Mexico, just after a contract killing. He’s conflicted, torn by the knowledge that he’s good at his job but that it’s doing his humanity no favors. He is recognized and hailed by a Mr DuPont, a wealthy American. DuPont asks him to dinner, and then behaves repulsively throughout, making anti-Semitic comments and throwing his weight around in a brash and unseemly (read: American) manner. Bond considers this: “I asked for the easy life, the rich life…How do I like it? Eating like a pig and hearing remarks like that?” It shows remarkable sensitivity for a character notorious for fleshly excess.

DuPont likes to gamble, and suspects that one of his regular partners, an Auric Goldfinger, is cheating. He wants Bond to find out how. It seems like a fairly tame job for a man who’s just murdered a heroin smuggler, but the plot has to get going somehow. The plot, in fact, is one of the most peculiar and interesting things about Goldfinger the novel, as opposed to Goldfinger the movie. The film is very well plotted: all of the nonsense with DuPont is cut, the action is compressed and logical (for a given value of “logical”, and remembering at all times that we are in the Bond universe…), and key scenes are never allowed to sag; the story is always being driven forward. By contrast, the book meanders. One of the subtlest, most interesting scenes in the film is the game of golf between Bond and Goldfinger. At this point they’re still pretending to be friends, still sussing each other out, and playing for high stakes. It’s an outdoors version of the poker games Bond is so famous for. Goldfinger cheats, and Bond traps him into losing without ever outwardly confronting him. It’s brilliantly filmed; the audience is always fully aware of what’s going on; and there’s almost no dialogue. In the book, by contrast, the scene is laborious. It takes up dozens of pages and Fleming spends nearly all of them on a tedious and unenlightening play-by-play. This sort of enthusiasm for sport at the expense of narrative tension plagued Anthony Trollope too, oddly enough, but at least his hunting scenes make a reader feel breathless.

More curiously, the most iconic image of the whole film is missing from the book. The event still occurs, but it is relayed to Bond by another character; Fleming never shows it to us. I refer, of course, to the scene where Jill Masterson, Goldfinger’s paid escort, is found dead and covered with gold body paint. That shot–a beautiful girl, prone on a bed, shining like a bizarre deity–is justly famous. It’s arresting. It stops you in your tracks. And yet Fleming never wrote it. All that Bond hears is a secondhand report from Jill’s sister, Tilly, long after the fact.

Having mentioned both Jill and Tilly, it’s time to get down to the really interesting thing about Goldfinger, which is to say the women. To begin with, at least, the book is significantly less sexist than the film. Yes, Bond calls Jill a “good girl” in a grossly offhand sort of way, but most of the so-called eroticism seems parodic, even faintly absurd, from a twenty-first century vantage point (“Mr. Bond, I’d do anything,” Jill breathes. I kept bursting into giggles.) But then we get to about the halfway mark, we meet Tilly Soames, and we meet Pussy Galore, and suddenly it is visiting hour at the Homophobic Misogynist Asylum.

I suppose you can argue that this book was written in 1959 for a very specific demographic, that it was only a few shades up from pulp, that attitudes about women which we now consider outdated and offensive were rife, even normal, at the time. I wouldn’t contradict any of that. I would, however, note that some of the things Fleming comes out with are genuine shockers even by these standards, and that no matter how much you defend them by saying that the generic conventions of mid-century thrillers demanded this sort of writing, there is a lack of coherence to it which makes its violence even more disturbing. There is, for instance, the first encounter between Bond and Tilly, which apparently is characterized by a lot of subtextual “masculine/feminine master/slave signals.” That’s a direct quote. How those signals can coexist with Tilly’s role as avenging sister and competent sniper is left conveniently unclear.

There is also the fact that Tilly is a lesbian, or at least is attracted to Pussy Galore, who is definitely a lesbian. (Fleming states it repeatedly. How else, pray tell, could a female crime boss even exist, unless she were a dyke? Inconceivable!) The consequence of this decision–that Fleming has invented a gay lady mafia–is kind of hilarious, and kept me chortling for most of the last forty pages, but then I reached the end. Bond is hearing about Galore’s childhood. She was raised in the South, she tells him, and then she says this: “You know the definition of a virgin down there? It’s a girl who can run faster than her brother.”

Oh. Right. She’s a lesbian because she was molested as a child. Well, that clears that up.

I will admit that this line is kind of funny, if you keep thinking of the book as being a parody of itself (in the same way that Jill’s breathy innuendoes are hilarious). Unfortunately, in context, it’s awful; you either understand why straight away, or you don’t. In brief: it’s awful because people still think this, still believe that lesbians are only “that way” because they were raped, or because they “had a bad experience”, or because they just haven’t found the right guy with the right, ahem, equipment, yet. In Goldfinger, guess who the magic Right Guy is? Congratulations. In the final scene, Bond is bonking Galore, who seems implausibly relieved and even grateful to him for rescuing her from being gay. It’s a pervasive and nasty and dehumanizing attitude, and even reading it in an outdated book which was never intended to be serious social commentary is like getting punched in the stomach. This is what I’ve taken away from my adventure with Bond books: they’re enjoyable, they’re silly, and they have the potential to be really hurtful. Read them, but read them with that in mind.

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For more by Ian Fleming, see:

Casino Royale (London: Vintage Classics, 2012)

Doctor No (London: Vintage Classics, 2012)

You Only Live Twice (London: Vintage Classics, 2012)

From Russia With Love (London: Vintage Classics, 2012)

For more on Fleming’s work and context, see:

The Politics of James Bond: From Fleming’s Novels to the Big Screen, Jeremy Black (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001)

Goldeneye: Where Bond Was Born: Ian Fleming’s Jamaica, Matthew Parker (Hutchinson, 2014)

Licence to Thrill: A Cultural History of the James Bond Films, James Chapman (London: I.B. Tauris and Co., 2007)

Top Ten 2014 Releases I Meant To Read But Didn’t Get To

  1. An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay. Already released in the States in May 2014, but only just being released in UK hardcover in January, this debut novel by one of the Internet’s most famous fem-columnists explores the tensions between money and poverty in Haiti, when the wealthy daughter of a Haitian construction tycoon is kidnapped. The body of a woman becomes the playing field for the economic struggles between men, and it’s all done in the most breathtaking prose (apparently). Obviously, I’m desperate to read this.
  2. Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel. “Survival is insufficient”: a line from an old Star Trek episode, a strong candidate for best life advice ever, and the slogan painted on the caravan of a group of traveling Shakespearean actors as they flee the mysterious pandemic sweeping the American continent. One of the most highly feted books of the year, also a debut novel, also speculative fiction, also has Shakespeare in it. CAN IT PLEASE BE IN PAPERBACK SOON PLEASE
  3. How to be both, by Ali Smith. I’ve only ever read one Ali Smith novel, The Accidental. I barely remember any of it because I was fifteen and at that time of my life I read novels the way children pop M&Ms at Easter, but bits of it sometimes return to me in a fugueish sort of way. This meditation on art and gender should, according to most people, have won the Booker Prize, and it comes in two different versions, where different halves of the story are presented first. It’s a clever conceit, and forces you to think about how you perceive the same piece of art when you return to it repeatedly, with different concerns and experiences each time. Love a good thinky-arty book, me.
  4. The Wake, by Paul Kingsnorth. At Quadrapheme, we got to this book early last year, and our reviewer Martin Cornwell loved it. As a big fan of Beowulf, I’m hoping I’ll enjoy it too; it’s told in a kind of faux-Old English (not super-difficult to work out words, though, and there’s a glossary), and describes the experience of the Anglo-Saxon population of Britain just after the Norman invasion. Medieval post-colonialism: yes please!
  5. Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay. This isn’t a novel but a collection of essays, and the title alone makes me think that Roxane Gay and I are going to get along pretty well. Writing on why her favorite color is pink, as well as on topics within art and politics, she declares, “I’m human, full of contradictions, and a feminist.” YES MATE. Let’s all just write that on our foreheads.
  6. The Children Act, by Ian McEwan. Raised in a legal family, I have a particular interest in novels that address topics of law, ethics and self-determination. McEwan’s novel is the story of a young man–though still, as a seventeen-year-old, legally a child–who, for religious reasons, wishes to refuse a treatment that could save his life. The book is told from the point of view of the High Court judge in charge of his case. The title refers both to an English statute of 1989, designed to protect the rights of children, and to the young defendant’s attempt to exercise his right to self-determination. I’m often dubious about McEwan, particularly his recent outings, but this looks very promising.
  7. Lila, by Marilynne Robinson. I loved Gilead, and Lila revisits those characters from a different point of view. Combining Robinson’s usual golden, numinous prose with the darker edge provided by a homeless protagonist, wary of trusting anyone and distinctly uncomfortable fitting into the role of “minister’s wife” that she ends up adopting, this book looks like just the sort of thing that will simultaneously break your heart and fill you with hope.
  8. The Rental Heart, by Kirsty Logan. Anything subtitled And Other Fairytales, which Logan’s debut collection is, is bound to appeal to me. I tend to be very wary of short stories, particularly canonical ones, but Logan’s “exploration of substitutions for love” (as Amazon curiously terms it) looks like it has a strong dollop of the surreal and the poignant–always a winning combination.
  9. The Book of Strange New Things, by Michael Faber. Partly this looks so wonderful because it has a similar premise to Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, which blew my mind last year. First contact with an alien civilization, with a particular focus on how Christianity chooses to evangelize other planets: how could it be anything other than fascinating, meaty and moving? Especially since it’s coming from the pen of the ridiculously imaginative Michael Faber, who already gave us both Under the Skin and The Crimson Petal and the White.
  10. The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, by Tom Rachman. A Welsh bookseller named Tooly Zylberberg had a childhood she cannot understand: abducted, but then adopted by her abductors, she traveled around Asia and Europe with this unlikely family for years. The Rise and Fall of Great Powers is the story of why, featuring (amongst others) a chess-playing, avocado-eating Russian named Humphrey, a pot-bellied pig, and the shadowy Venn, who seems to have all the answers. Just the thing to get lost in.

A Journal of the Plague Year, by Daniel Defoe

This is a super-weird cover, but this is the edition that I read, so here’s a Martian in a plague burka for you.

First published: 1722.

Edition: Signet Classics ed. 1960, J.H. Plumb.

Provenance: found on my mother’s bookshelves and “borrowed” about 2 years ago, never to be returned.

Read: August 2014, on a rainy holiday week in Cumbria.

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A Journal of the Plague Year occupies a curious position, chronologically, in the history of literature. It comes at a point in the development of fiction where “the novel” doesn’t yet exist, as such, but where technically made-up pieces of writing are frequently garlanded with such strong elements of reality that they read more like reportage. It’s an extreme way of trying to assure verisimilitude, and it’s not really surprising that writers dropped it, because it’s time-consuming and distracting to constantly provide the reader with evidentiary back-up. Nevertheless, this is how Defoe presents his account of the great plague that swept London in the year 1665-1666.

One of the first things you notice with Defoe–it doesn’t matter which one of his works you’re reading–is his narrators’ passionate dedication to the reporting of material minutiae. In Robinson Crusoe it’s how many guns he gets off the ship, or what his crop yield in any given year happens to be; in Roxana it’s the obsessive cataloguing of her possessions and fluctuating finances; in A Journal of the Plague Year, of course, it is the death toll. Crusoe was written before Journal, and Roxana was written after it, but both of them use that obsessive tracking as a method of characterization. In Journal, the data is used only to give you a sense of immediacy, which is one good reason, I think, for not categorizing it as a novel.

On the other hand, there are some clever touches in Journal which are characteristic of fiction. Our unnamed narrator decides to stay in London during the plague as a result of Biblical divination. This is a rather dubious form of fortune telling which involves flipping to a random page in the Bible, then pointing to a random sentence thereon, and making your decision according to what it says. It was widely used in the eighteenth century, and represented a kind of capitulation to Providence, which was seen to order all of human history. (There are obvious parallels to be drawn between the concept of Divine Providence and the role of the omnipotent author, who orders the plots and characters of all his works.) But Defoe uses it as a plot device: his narrator must stay in London in order to observe the effects of plague, since that is what the whole book is about, but the narrator can’t just stay in an infection zone for no reason. His belief in divination makes the decision to stay in London more explicable.

And what a hellish London it is. Journal is perhaps most famous for its descriptions of an infected, deserted metropolis, and the more you read it, the more you realize that it is an uncanny precursor of the post-apocalyptic tales that are riding the zeitgeist at the moment. Civil and individual liberties are curtailed in the name of containing the disease: houses in which even one inhabitant is infected are “shut up”–forcibly quarantined–and a system of watchmen is established to prevent any possibly-infected people from leaving. Religious feeling, except for a vocal minority of “atheists and mockers”, is increased: much of the populace believes that the plague is a symptom of divine vengeance. Normal behaviour breaks down: insanity, robbery, and suicide all increase. Rumour runs wild: tales circulate of nurses to the sick who, instead of healing their charges, deliberately smother them. The narrator decides that these reports must be made up, partly because they are too repetitive and similar to one another, and partly because they are too hard to corroborate. Cleverly, his focus on how to determine truth also pulls a reader’s awareness back to the half-and-half nature of Journal.

Defoe is not just interested in compiling the death lists of each parish, although he does that too; the effect of the disease on the city causes him to ponder some very serious ethical questions. On the forced quarantining, which became a source of major public unrest, he writes,

The shutting up of houses…had very great inconveniences in it, and some that were very tragical…But it was authorized by a law, it had the publick good in view…and all the private injuries that were done…must be put to the account of the publick benefit.

Journal was written in an England that had experienced the traumas of the Civil Wars not terribly long before–Defoe didn’t live through the wars himself, but they would have been within living memory for a person slightly older than he–as well as the extraordinary strictness of the Commonwealth. Governmental action that was “authorized by a law” was, in some of these contexts, generally seen as positive (e.g. Parliament’s ability to refuse to grant the king’s request for additional taxes); in others, it proved deeply destructive (e.g. the Rump Parliament’s crackdown on public leisure activities such as theatre). Defoe notes the policy’s legality, but that does not make it less ambiguous. The reader is left uncomfortably aware that many deaths might have been averted by taking a different approach, but also that the quarantine policy clearly seemed to be the best solution at the time.

The authority of personal experience is a particularly prominent bridge of the gap between non-fiction and fiction in this period, and here Defoe’s narrator does not disappoint. He claims believability for his account in part because he works as one of the quarantine watchmen; the job is a duty for the men of a parish much as being an air raid warden might have been during WWII. His meticulousness about recording details,  strengthens his claim to authority by virtue of having been present. When, eventually, he decides to move away from central London with a group of merchants (they stop in the small village of Hackney; one of the uniquely contemporary delights of reading this book is discovering how tiny the city of London was in 1665, and how comprehensively the growth of the modern city has swallowed all of the smaller communities for nearly forty miles around), they camp in a forest, and must answer the challenge of the townspeople. Our narrator is careful to note the particularities of this first meeting: “It seems that John [their leader] was in the tent, but hearing them call he steps out…” It’s the sort of detail that is often cited in arguments about the historical veracity of the Gospels: a circumstance unusual enough to complicate the subsequent action, but which a straightforwardly fictional account would, one imagines, have excised in favor of simplicity. That Defoe chooses to include it in his narrator’s story suggests, again, the balance between reportage and deliberate shaping of the story that characterizes Journal.

There is suspicion, cruelty and brigandry in the book, but there is also extraordinary kindness: the bargeman who continues working to support his children, the country folk who leave bread and meat on a stone for the London refugees. I came away from the book full of admiration and pity for the people who survived such apocalyptic events and continued their daily lives with what Defoe calls “a sort of brutal courage.” Such brutal courage has formed part of the English self-image for centuries; its value as a survival tactic is nowhere more obvious than in A Journal of the Plague Year.

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For more by Defoe, see:

Robinson Crusoe, ed. Michael Shinagel (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1994)

Roxana, ed. John Mullan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Moll Flanders, ed. G.A. Starr (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971)

Captain Singleton (This appears not to be in print by any reputable house at present, but there are a few non-academic versions online. Try the one by Hardpress Publishing, 2012.)

For more on Defoe’s work and context, see:

The Rise of the Novel, Ian Watt (London: The Hogarth Press, 1987)

The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Daniel Defoe, Richard West (London: Harper Collins, 1997)

Nicholson Baker on “Daniel Defoe and A Journal of the Plague Year” in Second Read, ed. Marcus James (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012)

Dislocating the End: Climax, Closure and the Invention of Genre, Alan Rosen (New York: Peter Lang, 2001)

For more on the Great Plague, see:

Year of Wonders, GeraldineBrooks (London: Viking Press, 2001)

Introducing the Classics Challenge

In August, I found and joined the Classics Challenge. (I think it’s actually called the Classics Club, but I really don’t like the word Club. It sounds too much like the Babysitters’ Club.) You pick fifty classic books (and your definition can be as broad or as narrow as you like) and commit to reading them over the course of five years. That means roughly one of these a month, and I’ve read five now. One reason this is useful is that it will force me to slow my reading. Quite often, I read fast, without reflecting as much as I could. Sometimes things sink in or percolate; other times, I know that a little more mental application would open up more interesting angles on what I’ve just read, but tend to feel as though I haven’t got the time. For the Classics Challenge, I’ve got a notebook (with an owl on the front, of course) and am taking a few pages of notes on each book I read, which should help to clarify and expand reviews. The second reason this is useful is that, despite having taken a degree in English, there are some surprising gaps in my reading (A Tale of Two Cities, anyone?) and, in addition, I want to continue reading good books, old books, unusual books. Just because I’m not in formal education is no reason to stop reading them. Here’s the full list. There’ll be a permanent link to it in the header. And I’ll be posting catch-up reviews to each of the books from the past five months, before writing monthly Classics Challenge reviews (along with regular reviews of other books, of course). At the moment, crossed-out titles are ones I’ve finished but not reviewed yet, and the red links are to reviews.

  1. The Epic of Gilgamesh, by Anon. (13th-10th century BC)
  2. The Iliad, by Homer (~8th century BC)
  3. The Odyssey, by Homer (~8th century BC)
  4. The Poetic Edda, by Anon. (10th century AD)
  5. The Mabinogion, by Anon. (~11th century AD)
  6. The Masnavi, Book One, by Rumi (1258)
  7. The Kalevala, coll. Elias Lonnrot (collected 19th century AD)
  8. The Book of Margery Kempe, by Margery Kempe (1490s)
  9. Essais by Montaigne (1580)
  10. The Blazing World, by Margaret Cavendish (1666)
  11. The Princesse de Cleves, by Madame de Lafayette (1678)
  12. Oroonoko, by Aphra Behn (1688)
  13. The New Atalantis, by Delariviere Manley (1709)
  14. A Journal of the Plague Year, by Daniel Defoe (1722)
  15. The Beggar’s Opera, by John Gay (1728)
  16. Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, by John Cleland (1748)
  17. Clarissa, by Samuel Richardson (1748)
  18. The Adventures of Roderick Random, by Tobias Smollett (1748)
  19. Cecilia, by Fanny Burney (1782)
  20. A Simple Story, by Elizabeth Inchbald (1791)
  21. The Mysteries of Udolpho, by Anne Radcliffe (1794)
  22. Zofloya, or The Moor, by Charlotte Dacre (1806)
  23. Major Works of John Clare (1820-1835)
  24. Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte (1847)
  25. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Bronte (1848)
  26. Shirley, by Charlotte Bronte (1849)
  27. North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell (1855)
  28. Aurora Leigh, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1856)
  29. The Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals, by Dorothy Wordsworth (pub. 1897)
  30. A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens (1859)
  31. The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins (1859)
  32. Lady Audley’s Secret, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1862)
  33. The Last Chronicle of Barset, by Anthony Trollope (1867) 
  34. The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins (1868) 
  35. The Fortune of the Rougons, by Emile Zola (1871)
  36. The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James (1881) 
  37. Hester, by Margaret Oliphant (1883)
  38. The Moon and Sixpence, by W. Somerset Maugham (1919)
  39. Lolly Willowes, by Sylvia Townsend Warner (1926)
  40. August Folly, by Angela Thirkell (1936)
  41. Selected Stories of Katherine Mansfield (1937)
  42. For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway (1940)
  43. Under the Net, by Iris Murdoch (1954)
  44. Goldfinger, by Ian Fleming (1959)
  45. Beloved, by Toni Morrison (1987)
  46. Here Be Dragons, by Stella Gibbons (1956)
  47. Earthly Powers, by Anthony Burgess (1980)
  48. Nights at the Circus, by Angela Carter (1984)
  49. Wise Children, by Angela Carter (1991)
  50. A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth (1993)

In 2014

I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. I don’t believe in the New Year starting in January, either; for me it has always started with a new academic year, in the autumn, and all of that post-Christmas guilt stuff is just an excuse for self-flagellation and meanness. What I do for New Year’s, instead, is to list what I’ve done over the past year. That seems more likely to produce, on the whole, happiness. And even bad memories are worth more than half-assed, panic-induced vows to improve my life.

So, in 2014, I have:

recorded a CD with Exeter College Choir

written my first review for Quadrapheme Magazine

danced at Burns Night

Burns Night

planned an alumni event at Freshfields on my own

met J.K. Rowling, and talked to her about her shoes

staffed Founder’s Day (hungover and on four hours of sleep)

endured sixteen consecutive days of fatigue, alcohol, singing, and jet lag

sung at the National Cathedral

made friends at a gay bar called Freddie’s in Crystal City, in the company of my darlings Theresa McCario, Jonathan Giles, Chelsea Meynig, and Ella Kirsh, and new darling Michael Divino

Freddie's

attended a keg party

found emergency medical care in lower Manhattan

skipped May morning for the first time

met A.S. Byatt

shaken the hand of the Queen of Spain

gone drinking with a platoon of Marines

become poetry editor at Quadrapheme Magazine

Quadrapheme logo

performed the second most ludicrous gig of my singing life so far

purchased an ostrich feather wrap and a tiara

sung my final evensong at Exeter College naked (except for the cassock)

attended a white tie ball

ball me and N

danced around a bonfire with Will Michaelmas Watt

written my first lesson plan

marked someone else’s coursework for the first time

adopted winged eyeliner

started a novel

milked a cow

become managing editor at Quadrapheme Magazine

composed precisely forty job applications and cover letters (I’ve just counted)

moved house

This is not actually my house, but it is my street.

This is not actually my house, but it is my street.

gotten my first adult full-time job

learned how to use Twitter properly

vetted, purchased, installed and learned to use a new database

had a poem accepted at Boston Poetry

strategized, recruited for, and implemented a new after-school programme

stuffed 2,705 individual pieces of paper into ~540 envelopes

seen the Late Turner exhibit at Tate Britain

The Blue Riga, JMW Turner

The Blue Riga, JMW Turner

sung harmony with my little brother on guitar

read 102 books

I don’t believe in predicting the future, either: not five years into the future, not one year, not even six months. Experience has taught me that such predictions take a particular delight in confounding you. But I can say that I fully expect 2015 to fill the shoes of its predecessor.