Earthly Powers, by Anthony Burgess

first published: 1980

edition: Vintage Classics edition, 2004

provenance: purchased from Waterstone’s in pre-travel mania mode

read: early April 2015, on various trains between London and Hampshire


This is going to be an unusual Classics Club post for various reasons. One is that I’ve covered Earthly Powers, to some extent, in a previous post, which contained my initial reactions and a general description of what the book is about. The other is that I won’t be able to quote much from the book, or even refer to it, except by way of Google Books, because I’ve left it at the house of the Revered Ancestors. With little spare space in the suitcase and a possible impending move (keep your fingers crossed!), I couldn’t really bring it back with me once I’d finished it. So, after a marathon on Easter Monday wherein I read about three hundred blissful pages in a day (and did very little else), the elegant volume has been popped into a large plastic box in the RAs’ garage, where it is keeping company in hibernation with perhaps fifty other books, the majority of my little library.

As a result, this will be a much looser review than my Classics Club mini-essays usually are, but in a way this pleases me. Earthly Powers is so fat and crammed with incident and idea that the notion of trying to corral my reactions to it all into some sort of order is daunting. Herewith, a very patchwork piece. For specifics, you will have to read it yourself.

Much of the book is concerned with the nature of good and evil. Burgess doesn’t engage with the issues in the abstract, although there are probably half a dozen Serious Philosophical Conversations scattered throughout the novel. Instead, he positions his protagonist’s life, and the lives of his sister, brothers-in-law, mother-in-law and friends, during the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, so that we are faced, unavoidably, with historical events that comprise both the best and the worst that humanity has to offer. Mostly, though, it’s the worst. There is homophobia; there are race riots; there is cult religion; there is the nuclear threat; there are the dying throes of the British Empire; there is tropical disease. There is, of course, the Holocaust. This looms large. Toomey, in attempting to arrange a passage out of Nazi Germany for the Jewish Nobel laureate Jakob Strehler, is arrested himself (the war breaks out a week after he arrives in the country) and can only ensure his safe deportation home by making a deal with the government. If he speaks in favour of the Nazi regime, or at least not against it, on Berlin radio, he will be returned to England safely; if he refuses, he will be interned in a civilian POW camp for the duration of hostilities. He chooses, of course, the get-out option.

I say “of course” because Toomey is distinctly unheroic, from page one all the way through to page six hundred and fifty. It makes him sometimes quite grubby to read about, but mostly what it does is remind the reader, again and again and again, that compromising ourselves morally in favour of survival is perhaps the most human act imaginable. We are all weasels. Heroes have a place only in the sentimental pap that Toomey writes for the lower middle-class British public, hungry for fantasy. In reality, we collaborate with revolting regimes if we think it might ensure us life, or even just greater comfort. Even those who appear heroic–for instance, Toomey’s mother-in-law, who dies trying to assassinate Heinrich Himmler–act from a variety of motives, almost none of them pure. (In Signora Campanati’s case, she is dying of cancer and would prefer to go out with a bang than with a whimper.)

In this context, the actions of Toomey’s brother-in-law, Don Carlo Campanati, while Bishop of Moneta in Italy, seem frankly praiseworthy: he constantly agitates both against Italy’s Fascist government and against its Nazi affiliations. Yet Campanati also permits a teenaged girl to be tortured in front of him, instead of giving up the whereabouts of a resistance group. He claims not to know where they are; the whole horrible scene plays out (it isn’t gratuitously graphic, but it involves amateur dentistry and it made me feel a bit sick anyway); the girl passes out. Then, like a bombshell, one sentence on its own: Carlo knows perfectly well where the resistance is hiding. The girl awakes; Carlo remonstrates with the SS colonel, who is unimpressed; he addresses the man with the dental drill, whose first name he knows. The torturer, moved and disturbed, walks out. The colonel remains unimpressed. What happens to the teenaged girl? We never find out. Carlo, of course, becomes pope.

Are his acts during the war good or evil of themselves? Are they neither? Carlo’s stint in the papacy, at least, is clearly modeled on that of John Paul II. He is described as revolutionizing the Church with a doctrine of ecumenicalism, universal love; Catholic teenagers shout out affectionate rhymes about him (reminiscent of the “JPII, we love you” jingle); in every city, he preaches to packed football stadia. Carlo–or rather Pope Gregory XVII, as he becomes–asserts that evil is not of human making. Made in the image of God, we are inherently good. Evil is external, of demonic provenance. Those who do evil things are possessed; they are not themselves. Earthly Powers’s power comes from asking us to consider whether Carlo is right, or whether, regrettably, people are most themselves when they do evil things. It’s a question that religion, ethics and philosophy have yet to answer definitively, although contemporary thought seems to be edging towards the latter conviction.

One character whom the contemporary reader will almost certainly enjoy, however, is Toomey’s sister Hortense. Conventionally, her morals are sketchy; she has affairs, drinks, pursues her own happiness (always a questionable path for a woman…) Yet she is the voice of conscience throughout the novel. Where Toomey is prissily hypocritical and condemnatory, she is fierce. She is full of rage at Toomey for failing to stand up for the rights of homosexual writers and artists in the repressive Britain of the 1940s; she has nothing but disdain for Carlo and his oratory. She is utterly herself. Her interpolations are the sound of pure common sense and show a greater compassion for human frailties than we see in either her brother or her brother-in-law. She remains a second-tier character, but an extraordinarily interesting one.

Finally, there is Domenico Campanati, Hortense’s husband, Carlo’s brother, and all-around reprobate. Domenico is a composer, ambitious at first (opera and concertos) but then settling into his true metier: “plastic” music, composing background scores for the new medium of film. (He earns, we are told, an Oscar for his score to a Hollywood version of The Brothers Karamazov.) Domenico and Toomey collaborate on several occasions; the last of these is an opera of the life of St Nicholas (Toomey’s idea), one of whose miracles was that he raised three murdered brothers from the dead. In the opera, the three brothers–one of them actually turns out to be a woman–wreak havoc in their newly restored lives, murdering, pillaging, starting wars, and generally embodying evil. Toomey’s libretto has St Nicholas at the end on his knees, clutching a dead child, crying out to God, before being struck by a vision: this was all a test, Job-like, to see if Nicholas would curse his Creator; he has not done so, he has passed; cue ascent into heaven. Domenico makes some changes at the dress rehearsal, however, and the premiere finishes with the saint still on his knees, the child still dead, and the final words of the opera–Maledico, maledico, I curse you, I curse you–echoing into empty air. God is dead, if he was ever alive. Evil has come from good. There is no heaven.

This, obviously, is an extreme answer to the questions that Burgess is raising, a despairing one. Domenico’s opera is the counter-instance to his brother Carlo’s determined optimism about the human condition: it doesn’t make any grand claims about innate evil or innate good, but it is very clear on the state of our solitude in the universe. In this mindset, no one is coming to save us. We’re on our own.

Depressing as this sounds, it’s probably the take-away from Earthly Powers as a whole. If no one is coming to save you, you’re responsible for your own actions. The weaseling of Toomey and others is perhaps more reprehensible in a Godless universe than in a divinely ordered one; it has consequences. Yet despite the message of human corruption that resonates throughout the whole book, there’s a sense of pity too. As the novel ends, Toomey composes himself to sleep, and considers that death will be coming for him soon: “I hope there are no dreams,” he writes. One gets the impression that an afterlife would not necessarily constitute a good dream. But are we better off without one…?


For more by Anthony Burgess, see:

The Kingdom of the Wicked (London: Alison and Busby, 2009)

A Dead Man in Deptford (London: Vintage Classics, 2012)

The Malayan Trilogy (London: Vintage Classics, 2000)


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

Anthony Burgess and Modernity, Alan Roughley (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008)

A Clockwork Counterpoint: the Music and Literature of Anthony Burgess, Paul Philips (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010)

Anthony Burgess: A Study in Character, Marina Ghosh-Schellhorn (Frankfurt: Peter Lang,  1986)


Apt Reading for Holy Week

For choristers (like, ahem, me), the run-up to Easter is much more about singing than it is about reading. Good luck to you if you sing regularly and can get hold of a spare hour or so between Palm Sunday and Easter morning to chew up a novel (although the glorious Glinda, for one, has managed to go on tour, read a novel, and write a review of it for us at Quadrapheme, because she’s amazing.) This year is the first year for…a really long time…that I haven’t had a regular singing engagement somewhere. I hate it and will be finding somewhere new to sing should my proposed springtime move to London occur (fingers crossed). However, as a result, Holy Week has been all about them books.

The first half of the week was given over to Mark Doty’s new collection Deep Lane, which I’ll also be reviewing for Quadrapheme. I can’t give too much away here and now because, well, then you won’t read the proper review. Contemporary poetry is always difficult for me to start analyzing. I’m not quite sure why this is; possibly because the way I was taught to engage with poetry was formally, looking at its features and techniques. Much of contemporary poetry doesn’t yield to formal technique, or if it acknowledges it at all, it does so with an ironic smirk and twist. Doty’s work is wary of formal technique, but he has that ability to keep it all pinned together which I appreciate; he doesn’t do it through meter, but the lengths of his lines keep pace with each other, and his imagery is so direct, his voice so intimate and confiding.

Damn, there I go, writing the review! Anyway. On to book number two of this week: Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess, proof that a) when traveling I should always be made to keep a paperback in my shoulder bag, because b) if I don’t have one close to hand, I will go into a bookshop and buy one just for the purpose, never mind if I have two books in my suitcase already, because that suitcase will be on the luggage rack of the train for the duration of the journey and what will I read in the meantime, eh?? Answer: Earthly Powers. (At least I only bought one. In the past, as regular readers will know, travel paranoia has induced me to buy three at a time.)

Earthly Powers is a great book to be reading during Holy Week because it is all about religion, although it’s also not. As a teenager, I used to make a game out of seeing how much I could compress the themes and plot of a book whenever anyone asked me “What’s it about?” Were I to play the game with Earthly Powers, I would have to reply, “A gay Catholic novelist and the Pope.” (If I really wanted to compress and confuse, “gay Catholic novelists” would have to do. Maybe just “gay novelists”, or even “novelists”–our narrator, Kenneth Toomey, drops many a name, including Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, “Willie” Maugham, and Norman Douglas, to whom one character rather delightfully refers as Abnorman Fuckless.)

That little pun–Abnorman Fuckless–is a good barometer for Burgess’s linguistic pyrotechnics. I know that’s an overused phrase, “linguistic pyrotechnics”, but the things he does, the wordplay, the vicious, perfect wit, reminds me of Catherine wheels going off one after the other. It’s so fucking funny; not laugh-aloud funny, but definitely snort-into-your-soup funny. There’s a delicate bitchiness to the diction that reminds me, at times, of Blackadder:

“As I foresaw, I am to assist in the canonization of the late Pope.”

“Oh God, oh my God, oh my dear God, you? Oh, Christ help us.”

“Don’t be silly, Geoffrey. You forget certain facts of my biography, if you ever, which I am inclined to doubt, knew them.”

And the one-off observations are peerless, as when Toomey, watching the Archbishop of Malta attempting to equivocate, says that he “played an invisible concertina for two seconds.” The precision of “two seconds”, the absurd picture of “an invisible concertina” and yet the absolute accuracy of how it looks when someone flutters their fingers back and forth, looking for a word… It’s very good writing.

At present, I am with Toomey in Malaya (now Malaysia, then still a British dependency), watching the effects of an exorcism performed by the aforementioned “late Pope”, who happens to be Toomey’s brother-in-law, back when he was merely Don Carlo Campanati.

It’s an incredibly weird book, but I’m enjoying it.

Also, it’s on my Classics Challenge list! So perhaps a fuller review once I’ve finished it. I’d like to finish it by tomorrow; goodness knows if that will happen. I’m off for a cup of tea and a good natter with the great-granddaughter of the Duchess of Warwick now, my dears. (This is actually true, although not as pretentious as it sounds. I’m staying with the Revered Ancestors for Easter and they live in one of those villages where everyone is either a great-granddaughter of a duchess or a retired brigadier colonel.) Toomey and Geoffrey would no doubt approve.

February Superlatives

I read eleven books in February, which is pretty decent for someone with a full-time job in the shortest month of the year. As I’m trying to get into writing something, even a small something, about most of the things I read, I thought I’d try this: a sort of mini-awards for all the books I’ve read in each month. It’ll make sense, I promise (/hope). Like high school senior superlatives–most likely to succeed and so on–only less shit.

most oddly anticlimactic: It’s a tie between Imperial Life in the Emerald City, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, and Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay. I wanted so badly to be blown away by both of them. Chandrasekaran was writing on the mismanagement of the initial (2003) US occupation of Iraq, and Baghdad’s Green Zone in particular, while Gay is now more or less the Internet’s foremost feminist, as well as being consulted on virtually every other societal/cultural issue, especially those involving race, gender and sexuality. The books were almost guaranteed to be exceptional, only, with both of them, I kept having an odd “is this it?” feeling halfway through a sentence. Both books, I think, suffered from having started out life as a collection of separate pieces which were then forced together to make a whole. Bad Feminist is still marketed as a collection of separate essays, but no one seems to have sat down with them to work out which bits are repetitive, which are flabby, which aren’t pulling their weight, and so on. It’s a real shame; I’d still like to read Gay’s recent novel, An Untamed State.

most physically nauseating: Far and away, the honour goes to Edward St Aubyn’s short, vicious novel Never Mind. It encompasses one day in the life of five-year-old Patrick Melrose, who is on holiday in the South of France with his aristocratic parents, alcoholic doormat Eleanor and sadistic abuser David. If you have ever been in an abusive relationship or know someone who has, do not read this, or read it very carefully; St Aubyn is perfect on the dynamics of domination and control, which, although I admire the technical and emotional skill required, makes the reading experience sickening. I was going to read the three sequels straight afterwards, but just couldn’t face them. Maybe one a month.

most like a ‘90s indie teen movie, only with Mennonites: There can really only be one contender for this: A Complicated Kindness, by Miriam Toews, which is about Nomi Nickel, whose strictly religious upbringing has caused both her mother and sister to rebel and leave, and who is considering doing the same herself. One of the curious things about this book is that nothing really happens in it. It’s all about charting the progression of someone’s mindset from idly thinking about something to being determined to do it, and not in an intense, Macbeth sort of way. But Nomi is a charming protagonist: intelligent, impatient, and kind of just done with everything. Very good.

most unabashedly comforting: A tie, between The Wind In the Willows and Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction, both of which I read whilst having a long weekend with my grandparents at their house on the South Downs. The Wind In the Willows basically defines my childhood: there was an animated film made in about 1994, with such voice talent as Alan Bennett (Mole), Michael Palin (Rat), Rik Mayall (Toad) and Michael Gambon (Badger), and I watched that thing hundreds of times. About ninety-six percent of the dialogue and narration is lifted directly from Kenneth Grahame’s original text, so re-reading the book is almost like having a nostalgic audio track of the film in my head. Not to mention that the writing is simply beautiful without ever tipping into sentimentality. God bless the Edwardians. (Adrian Mole is, I should hope, self-explanatory.)

most impressively disturbing: Under the Skin, by Michael Faber. This has also been made into a film, starring Scarlett Johanssen, which I would like to see, although I am a little worried that it will be too violent to enjoy watching much (I’m squeamish about on-screen blood, though reading about it is okay.) It’s a hard book to discuss because there’s a huge spoiler which occurs fairly early on, but I can say that it flips a reader’s idea of “normal” in the way that the best speculative fiction (or indeed any sort of fiction) does, and that I had to lie down for a bit after finishing it.

most ludicrously enjoyable: No Bed for Bacon, by Caryl Brahms and SJ Simon, which is a novel that partakes very much of the 1066 And All That school of historical interpretation. It reads like what would happen if Terry Pratchett decided to do a mash-up of the life story of Shakespeare. There is an ongoing subplot about a potato, and another, smaller subplot about Sir Walter Raleigh’s cloak. Reading this is the very definition of “nerding out”, and it’s great.

Tudor potato

most apt reading for a cough syrup fugue state: Both of the books I’ve been sent for review this month, oddly: The Anchoress, by Robyn Cadwallader, and The Well, by Catherine Chanter. The Anchoress is about a young woman in thirteenth-century England who decides to become, essentially, a hermit, and the repercussions of her decision; The Well is part murder mystery, part eco-thriller, and part domestic drama. I slightly preferred it, out of the two, although it is slightly longer than it ought to be. Both of these were ideal for sick reading, focusing as they do on altered states of consciousness, memory loss, visions, hallucinations, etc. And I’ll be reviewing them at the end of the month in Shiny New Books!

most straight-up infuriating: Oroonoko, by Aphra Behn. This was February’s Classics Club read for me, and it is very racist. Yes, it was written in the seventeenth century, when this sort of thing was par for the course; and yes, it is easy and enjoyable to analyze other elements of the work; and yes, the racism is in part what makes this a valuable window into the development of Western attitudes towards Africans and slavery. But it also makes for rather eyebrow-raising reading. More on that when I post a full Classics Club review, later!

Wise Children, by Angela Carter

First published: 1991.

Edition read: Vintage Classics, pub. 1992.

Provenance: purchased from Bookends in Carlisle.

Read: December 2014, curled up in an armchair next to the Christmas tree.


Angela Carter was a revelation. I started her book of cultural criticism, The Sadeian Woman, in my second year of university, given it by a friend who was two years older and who, as a Finalist, had attained a level of world-weary knowingness that awed me. I didn’t manage to finish the book because, frankly, I hadn’t read enough secondary material to know what to do with it, and it scared me. Even then, though, I could recognize that this writer was totally unique. No one else thought like this, or if they did, they didn’t write it down so sensibly. Last year, I read The Bloody Chamber, her collection of re-imagined fairytales, and made the wonderful, rare discovery that every line in the book was quotable in its brilliance, beauty and wit. When it came time to make this list of fifty, I put her novel Wise Children on it, keen for more of the same. It wasn’t quite the same.

Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy it. Wise Children is a novel that pays homage to, among other things, Shakespeare, especially Shakespearean comedy and the later romance plays; it has twins, doublings, the possibility of incest, a contrast between “high” and “low” culture and lifestyles, and a persistent questioning of legitimacy. The two sisters at the heart of the story are Dora and Leonora (known, mostly for brevity’s sake, as Nora) Chance, chorus girls, dancers and sometimes actresses on the vaudeville and chorus hall circuit of early twentieth-century London. They are the bastard children of Sir Melchior Hazard, the greatest Shakespearean actor of his generation, an Olivier figure who never acknowledges them as his own and who is quite content to let the world think that they are his brother Peregrine’s by-blows. The two names–Chance and Hazard–are playfully resonant: both mean “luck” or “fortune”, though Chance is a simple word and Hazard a grander one. These names are Carter’s first warning that Wise Children will be about the differences between subcultures within the same country, and the potentially awful consequences that may visit you if you choose to ignore the less picturesque aspects of your own history. You could, I suppose, call it an allegory.

Spotting the Shakespeare references scattered throughout the book is highly diverting; there is, for instance, the fact that Melchior Hazard’s mother met her husband while playing Cordelia to his King Lear, an imaginary incest which parallels the Chance girls’ childhood crush on their famous father. (This also mirrors the uncomfortable father/daughter dynamic in Pericles, where the exiled king encounters a girl in a brothel who turns out to be his long-lost daughter, Marina.) My favorite, however, has got to be a scene set during a game show broadcast. The Chance sisters have an extended unofficial family which includes “little Tiffany”, their goddaughter, who is now in her early twenties, and an extended official family, which includes Tristram Hazard, their half-brother. Tiffany and Tristram, both carrying on the family line by working in show business, co-host a game show called “Lashings of Lolly” (I don’t think you’re meant to understand what this means; I certainly don’t.) They are also dating, and as the novel opens, Tiff is pregnant with Tristram’s baby. In a rather extraordinary scene, she descends a staircase on the set of Lashings of Lolly during a live broadcast, apparently out of her mind, alternately singing and talking nonsense, before taking off her clothes and dashing, naked and unstoppable, from the studio. It’s painfully funny, and it’s as obvious a parody of Ophelia’s mad scene in Hamlet as I’ve ever read.

Mostly, Wise Children (like Shakespeare) is about generation, and generations. The novel’s title comes from an old saying: “It’s a wise child who knows its own father.” The traditional view of parenthood, where paternity is nearly impossible to establish but maternity is nearly impossible to deny, is interrogated and turned inside-out by the book’s events. Where paternity is so often disputed, we have, in the end, a disputed maternal line for the Chance sisters as well; there is some suggestion that their mother might have been the woman who raised them and whom they considered to be their grandmother. This totally destabilizes the idea of heredity: if women no longer occupy a position of immobility, their children could be anything, could inherit all manner of undesirable traits, from unknown forebears. Even unbroken heredity is as much a curse as a blessing: you have to destroy your progenitor in order to become your own person, but more often than not, you become the thing you thought you’d put behind you. Melchior, on his 100th birthday, dresses as his famous father, Ranulph, who killed Melchior’s mother, her lover, and himself. Is he being his father, or defeating him? Is it possession or exorcism, damnation or redemption?

This is a hugely entertaining book, but not a particularly easy one to review. It’s not even particularly easy to describe, or analyze. I have not pulled any quotes from it; few leap out. It addresses large questions but makes no claims about any of them. Carter’s point, presumably, is that supposedly clear demarcations between the known and unknown, the legitimate and illegitimate, the normative and deviant, are actually very blurred lines. I’d recommend Wise Children, but it’s more diffuse than her most notorious work, lacking the intensity and precision of The Bloody Chamber. Still–as the Lucky Chance sisters would no doubt tell you–different doesn’t have to mean bad.

The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins

First published: 1868.

Edition read: Oxford World’s Classics, 1985, ed. Anthea Trodd.

Provenance: purchased from Bookends in Carlisle.

Read: November 2014, sitting up in bed late into the night.


There are a few reliable old warhorse-facts you can trot out about Wilkie Collins and his novel The Moonstone: it was the first detective novel in the English language (dubious), he was friends with Dickens (true), he was a theatrical impresario, also much in the vein of Dickens (also true), he did not behave well to the various women in his life (perhaps this depends on your definition of “good behavior” but I am inclined to say “true” to this as well.) After you’ve mentioned these, you can add that The Moonstone is about the theft of a priceless Indian jewel, make some hrrrumph-ing noises about the legacy of colonialism, and turn the conversation to some more convivial topic. That’s usually as far as it gets.

If you actually read The Moonstone, you’ll notice, first of all, that the whole question of India and the “Hindoos” who seek the jewel is a bit of a red herring. English xenophobia is not the point of this novel at all; what Collins’s plot really does is allow him to examine the myriad ways in which the society he depicts fails to exercise imaginative compassion. It’s about power, usually economic power, and its warping effects on an individual’s judgment, morals, and behavior. It’s also about class differences, about which I think Collins is kinder, subtler, and more interesting than Dickens.

As per usual, though, Wordsworth Classics takes the prize for most-irrelevant-and-vaguely-alarming cover design.

The story is told by seven narrators, which understandably tends to alarm first-time readers. The actual events, however, are linear: each character is being asked to write down what he or she remembers about the events leading up to the theft of a diamond, and each character’s memories cease to be relevant quite conveniently at the point where the next character’s memories begin. The diamond in question is a yellow gem which was left to Rachel Verinder, the daughter of a prominent Yorkshire family, by her uncle, who is rumored to have done some rather unsavory things in military service in India. She is to receive the diamond on her eighteenth birthday. The day arrives; the diamond is delivered; she wears it throughout the evening and all through her birthday dinner; the guests retire; she puts the diamond away in a cabinet in her own room; the next morning, it’s gone. No one knows where it is. After a good deal of incompetence from the local police force, enter Sergeant Cuff from London, who is a celebrity in the vein of Sherlock Holmes and possesses the tenacity and implacability of a Poirot. (He is also, rather charmingly, a keen amateur rose grower.) It is Cuff’s idea to ask witnesses and guests to write down what they remember of the whole affair, in an attempt to get at the truth.

In this sense, of course, The Moonstone looks very much like a detective story, although whether it’s the first in the English language or not depends on your opinion of The Murders In the Rue Morgue (published twenty-seven years earlier) and Bleak House (published sixteen years earlier). The details of the plot, however, show how easily detective stories lend themselves to social commentary, especially on a microcosmic level. Much of the novel is concerned with the idea of privacy, particularly women’s privacy, and the violation of private female space. You don’t need to have read Freud to realize what kind of story this is: a young woman has a priceless jewel stolen from her bedroom in the dead of night after a celebration of her newly minted adulthood, and reacts with strong but inconsistent emotion to her loss. The men who busy themselves looking for her lost treasure–her cousins, the detective, the butler of the house–are bewildered by her response: “Why–having lost her Diamond–should she object to the presence…of the very people whose business it was to recover it?” The novel isn’t an allegory about lost virginity, I should add; there are too many other competing and contradicting themes for it to be so straightforward. But there are very intriguing resonances, as Rachel desperately tries to keep the theft a private or at least a family matter, and the men around her first annex for themselves the authority of “recovering” the jewel, and then insist on dragging all the details into the light, much against her wishes.

The question of female privacy also feeds into the heavy class focus that Collins brings to the novel. The Verinder family’s female servants are forced to submit to a police search of their bedrooms and personal belongings, which alienates them almost at once from any desire to be cooperative. The servants, most of whom have served the house faithfully for generations, are resentful and ashamed that the facade of their being “part of the family” can break down so easily, and that their masters can demonstrate how little they think of their inferiors. The lack of regard for the feelings of poor women is most painfully demonstrated in the subplot between Rosanna Spearman, a crippled servant at the house, and Franklin Blake, Rachel’s cousin and the family’s prodigal son. Rosanna falls in love with Blake instantly, and although he never looks at her twice, she forgets her place–as a poor woman and an unattractive one–so far as to dream about what would happen if he did. Her misery drives her to commit suicide. Her fate is viewed with sorrow, but without particular pity, by most of the characters, including the otherwise-sympathetic butler Gabriel Betteredge, and by Blake himself. The very idea of the loss of social hierarchy is absolutely inconceivable in the world of The Moonstone; the realization that Rosanna was aiming high, even if only in her imagination, prevents either of the men from mourning her death humanely, distracted as they are by the perceived impudence. Her love is described as “monstrous”. Only Lucy Yolland, the daughter of a local fisherman and one of Rosanna’s few friends, declares, “I loved her”, and refuses to call Blake “Mr. Franklin” (a deferential form of address) because of what she sees as his responsibility for Rosanna’s death. Betteredge, who despite being likable is also a pompous blowhard, is enraged by her disrespect in precisely the same way as he is disappointed by Rosanna’s. Both women fail to accept the codes of behavior and belief that more powerful members of their society use against them. It is not just that they are women who dare to express their feelings, although that is bad enough; it is that they are poor women who dare to do this. “People in high life,” Betteredge notes, “have all the luxuries to themselves–amongst others, the luxury of indulging their feelings. People in low life have no such privilege.”

It is, therefore, the duty of people in high life to exert themselves to imagine, and to empathize with, the feelings of people in low life: people, that is, who cannot indulge their feelings because they literally cannot afford to do so. The Moonstone abounds with relationships where this sort of imaginative empathy fails miserably between two individuals: Franklin fails to understand Rosanna, Rachel fails to understand Franklin. The most bleakly comic instance of this is the relationship between Drusilla Clack, a poor relation of the Verinders, and Lady Verinder, who is dying of cancer. Drusilla is an evangelical Christian; instead of trying to make Lady Verinder more comfortable, holding her hand, or even listening to her, Drusilla plies her with tracts about hell and salvation, right up to the point of the older woman’ s death. (These are not without comedy value; their titles are masterpieces of hyperbolic hysteria. My favorite is “Satan Among the Sofa-Cushions.”) The evidence of Ezra Jennings, meanwhile, is essential in understanding the irreparable damage that can be done to a person by failing to extend empathy towards them. He is mixed race, hailing from the colonies (probably Jamaica or another Caribbean island), shunned by the locals despite his evident skill as a doctor’s assistant, and we gather that his past is marred by the loss of a loved one and by the weight of unfair suspicion being cast upon him for his racial difference. The introduction to my copy of The Moonstone, written by Anthea Trodd of Keele University, suggests that the vagueness of Jennings’s sufferings is because his real value to the plot lies in his medical knowledge of opium, and that by “passing up prime opportunities for extended pathos,” Collins strengthens his story. Apparently, in other works, his tendency is to push the moral point too far; here, his “concise and inexplicit treatment of the character suggests that he understands that any competent reader needs few suggestions to take Ezra’s history as read.” I agree with her to a point, but I disagree that the purpose of Jennings is solely to provide information about opium (useful though that is). It may be his function within the plot, but within the narrative, he is perhaps the most tragic example of the obscurity that overcomes a kind and brilliant person when the imaginative empathy of his neighbors–fueled, in this case, by racism–does not reach him.

And equally, that imaginative empathy never reaches Rachel. Her male friends and relations are confounded by her; her mother does not understand her either; and any attempt to explicate her is met with the need for qualifications and contingency. Here is Mr Bruff, her lawyer, considering her attitude towards disaster: “Rachel Verinder’s first instinct…was to shut herself up in her own mind, and to think it over by herself. This absolute self-dependence is a great virtue in a man. In a woman, it has the serious drawback of morally separating her from the mass of her sex…I strongly suspect myself of thinking as the rest of the world think in this matter–except in the case of Rachel Verinder. The self-dependence in her character was one of its virtues in my estimation.” She can be made an honorary man; her “self-dependence” bestows that upon her, while the discussion of “virtue” situates her securely in the realm of the feminine, albeit a feminine characterized by special strength, like Britannia or Artemis. Yet she is never allowed to tell any part of the story in her own voice. It is as though the stories of the other men have to prove to us that she is worthy, but by the time they have done that, the story’s over. (Her virtue, in the masculine sense, is also at least partly cemented by the fact that the sole female narrator, Drusilla, disapproves of her.) The Moonstone, at the end of the novel, is found; I’m not sure that Rachel, despite her supposedly happy marriage, ever is.


For more by Collins, see:

The Woman In White, ed. John Sutherland (Oxford: Oxford University Press,  2001)

Armadale, ed. Catherine Peters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

No Name, ed. Virginia Blain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Basil, ed. Dorothy Goldman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

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

Wilkie Collins, Peter Ackroyd (London: Chatto & Windus, 2012)

Wilkie Collins: Women, Property and Propriety, Philip O’Neill (London: Macmillan, 1988)

Wilkie Collins, Medicine and the Gothic, Laurence Talaimach-Vielmas (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2009)

‘In the Secret Theatre of Home’: Wilkie Collins, Sensation Narrative, and Nineteenth-Century Psychology, Jenny Bourne Taylor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)

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.


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.


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)

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.


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.


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)

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.


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.


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)