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Monday, 27 February 2012

A Classics Challenge: February Prompt

The prompt for A Classics Challenge this month is 'character'. My text is Bleak House (reviewed here) and my chosen character is Mr John Jarndyce.

Mr Jarndyce is one of those characters who remains consistent in his goodness. In fact, though some characters doubt him, I don't think the reader ever does. This is probably because we see him primarily through the eyes of Esther Summerson and, since we trust her judgement and honesty, we trust him. Jarndyce is the epitome of a good man: secretly giving money to sustain people who need it, settling debts for irritating people like Harold Skimpole, wishing good will towards people like Richard Carstone who have started to doubt his integrity. His relationship with Esther is a highlight of the novel, and I admit to being a little upset when he sacrifices her to the younger doctor whom she loves. However, this act settles his placement as the unchanged and decent man in the novel. Several characters - Mr Smallweed and Mr Tulkinghorn for instance - are unchanged but comparatively few are unchanged for the better (another one that springs to mind is Mrs Rouncewell, Sir Leicester Dedlock's faithful housekeeper). In a novel populated with unsavoury characters, Mr Jarndyce is an unmovable rock.

I find him to be very believable, due to his consistency in personality and relationships with Esther, Ada, Richard and Harold Skimpole. However, I do accept that his inherent goodness could cause others to label him as one-dimensional. Still, I find that his odd little romance with Esther defies that categorisation and I persist in liking him, whatever anyone says. He's the kind of father/uncle figure that is prevalent in Victorian fiction but I haven't found a specimen that I like quite as much.

Mr Jarndyce was portrayed in the 2005 adaptation by Denis Lawson. I haven't yet watched this but I look forward to enjoying the character on screen as much as I did in the book.

Book Review: Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Bleak House is one of those books that you look at and consider it to be your weapon of choice if a burglar happens to break in one night. My Penguin Classics edition weighs in at just under 1000 pages (without introduction or appendices) and it really felt as though I wasn't moving forward at all as I was going through it. That said, I wasn't particularly eager for it to end.

The story of Bleak House is complicated by so many characters that it's difficult to put into a short sentence. I suppose this is the closest I can get: a long-running court case brings together an odd collection of characters (and that's paraphrasing the blurb slightly). The case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce provides the backdrop for the novel but (thankfully) the exposition regarding it that permeates the beginning of the novel soon disappears and leaves the characters to muddle through proceedings as best they can. The spectre of the case looms at all times, particularly having an impact on the young lovebirds in the novel, Ada and Richard.

It's difficult to articulate what I enjoyed most about Bleak House. Seemingly all of the characters were memorable in one way or another (and this is the novel that contains the famous spontaneous combustion!), from the pompous but well-meaning Sir Leicester Dedlock down to the brickmaker's wives, Jenny and Liz. Some of them will linger longer than others: there is Mr Smallweed who is most content throwing cushions at his wife and being conveyed from place to place on a chair and Miss Flite who haunts the courts like the mad old woman she has become. I adored the connections between the characters, guessing who was going to encounter who and getting very excited when characters with no previous connection stumbled across each other. Because of the length of the work I'm finding it difficult to isolate specific scenes but the most famous one is probably the one that will stick with me the longest. After all, it's not everyday you read about a case of spontaneous combustion, is it?

"Here is a small burnt patch of flooring; here is the tinder from a little bundle of burnt paper, but not so light as usual, seeming to be steeped in something; and here it is - is it the cinder of a small charred and broken log of wood sprinkled with white ashes, or is it coal? O Horror, he IS here! and this, from which we run away, striking out the light and overturning one another into the street, is all that represents him." (p519)

Bleak House is worth reading for the lead-up to this discovery alone. However, it's a thoroughly enjoyable book in every respect, alternating between infuriating, funny and heartbreaking. There really is a character to appeal to every reader inside, from the saintly Esther Summerson down to Jo the inarticulate crossing-sweeper.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Upgrade Postponed

You know how it is. You get yourself all worked up in preparation for something and it's put-off. I just found out that my upgrade viva (scheduled for Monday) has been postponed due to one of the panel double-booking themselves. While I know this is really no one's fault, I'm pretty miffed and the mental turmoil I've been putting myself through for the last few days now seems redundant. The lousy thing is, I know I'll put myself through it again ahead of the rescheduled date: it's just the way I am and there's nothing I can do about it.

I feel like I'm balancing on a tightrope stretched upwards between two buildings. I'm facing an uphill struggle once I get going again but, for now, I'm in limbo. I can go over everything I've already done but I'm not prepared to start on any fresh research until I know what's going on. Feels too much like counting my chickens. I'll have to stay where I am for now and just hope I don't fall off and break my neck in the interim.

Sometimes you need a little Gilbert and Sullivan combined with a little Angela Lansbury just to take the edge off.

"But at present I'm afraid I am as mad as any hatter..."

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Upgrade Panic

On Monday (27th) I have my upgrade viva. Now, despite my supervisor telling me I 'should be fine', this is me and I am positively, absolutely, undeniably and reliably dead. Sorry, I slipped into Munchkinland for a moment there. I'm probably not going to be crushed by a flying house on Monday but I'm not counting my chickens until I'm home safe. A run of bad luck could easily spiral out of control.

In theory, my upgrade really should be fine. I've made more progress in the last four months than I thought was possible. I fully expected to be gently told I shouldn't continue and see the doors of postgraduate education close on me forever. That hasn't happened. My upgrade chapter is unrecognisable and - I think - pretty good. I'm evaluating a lost author alongside one of the masters of sensation fiction - what can possibly go wrong? Well, I'll have to be at the upgrade viva for a start.

I turn into a mute under pressure. It's just the way I am. Call it lack of confidence, lack of training or whatever you like, but if I lose my step in any conversation (be it friendly or official) then I turn into a statue, only known to be human by the periodic shaking and shivering. And once I slip out of my stride I find it very difficult to get back into it. One memory sticks out, one time I managed to pull myself back from the brink. It was during my undergraduate degree, for a drama unit, where my group were doing a scene from Othello (I was Emilia) and then a presentation on it. I got through the scene fine but during my presentation segment I lost it. I said 'ummm.....' and there was silence for well over a minute. No one stepped in to help. Don't ask me how I pulled myself back, I only know I managed it somehow. But I'm arguably worse than I was a few years ago so Monday will be more difficult than that was. Besides, I'll be on my own. Me against the world (unless I can pick up a few friends along the way but will they let a Scarecrow in?).

I'm keeping myself awake by posing potential questions in the middle of the night. This is after my supervisor told me to relax and not to pick holes in my argument before the viva. If I'm like this on Thursday then by Sunday I'll be a wide-eyed monster rocking back and forth in bed whispering the names of Edmund Yates's novels on a loop.

One thing is clear: I have to keep talking on Monday. I'll try not to get hit by a house. In fact, I'll go into the viva with the spirit of Dorothy Gale on my shoulder and I may even drop a house on the upgrade panel. Hang on...would that affect my chances?

Thursday, 16 February 2012

The Books I'll Never Read

There's a fantastic line in Stephen Sondheim's Follies that particularly attracts me as a reader. Benjamin Stone is lamenting the fact that life only permits so much in 'The Road You Didn't Take' and he asks:

"The books I'll never read wouldn't change a thing, would they?"

It's not exactly a fear of mine, that I'll miss a book that could potentially change something in my life. While I believe that books can be profound, I think there has to be something in the reader already open to the possibilities contained within them. Maybe that's even demonstrated by picking up that particular book in the first place. Nevertheless, I do worry that I'll miss something by not reading a book. But with so many books in the world, how do I prioritise? I suppose I have to decide what I want to read and follow that rather crooked path to reading satisfaction.

  • I like classics and there are plenty of them that I have yet to read. I'm currently working my way through Bleak House and thoroughly enjoying it. Any 'reading schedule' in the future will have to include a liberal sprinkling of classic novels.
  • Since I'm currently writing lesbian fiction I should read as much that's out there as possible. I may have to categorise within though and find stories I'm really interested in.
  • I'm a big fan of historical fiction, primarily set in the Victorian era but I'm open to anything as long as it's well-written. Anyway, I'll have to prioritise here as well. There are readers whose judgement I trust and whose tastes are close to my own. I may have to rely on them for recommendations and hope I don't hit too many duds.
  • I'm always cautious when it comes to memoirs and biographies. Occasionally, it feels like too much hard work to decipher how much of it is actually correct. Sometimes I even give myself a headache by debating whether I need to know it's correct! Nevertheless, there are some good ones out there and I hope to read some of them.
Of course, books don't always fall into these neat categories and I often come across books I want to read but can't justify to myself why I should read that book and not the one over there that I've already told myself I want to read. But I honestly can't read everything. So time for some prioritising. After all, the books I'll never read wouldn't change my life...would they? 

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Lessons in Romance from Judy Garland and Company

I've been ruminating on this post for some time but today seemed the ideal time to write it. As regular visitors to this blog will know, I adore Judy Garland and I'm a writer (not necessarily in that order but who knows?). I've been thinking a lot lately about what makes a good romance and there's a conversation in my favourite Judy film The Harvey Girls that sums it up neatly.

Susan Bradley is part of a group of women trying to bring some civilisation to a town dominated by vice. Ned Trent is the owner of the gambling and dancing den across the street. Of course, they find themselves attracted to each other, but it's not that simple. Susan and Ned meet in the valley when he's decided that his own course of action must be to move his establishment to another town.

Susan - What do you expect me to say?
Ned - I don't know. I guess I hoped you'd be glad. Might make it easier for me to leave.
Susan - All right, then, I'm glad. I only wish you'd left a long time ago.
Ned - So do I. Maybe it wouldn't have happened then.
Susan - What?
Ned - Meeting you. 
Susan - Yes, that was bad, wasn't it? Two people as far apart as we are.
Ned - Yes. Now, for the first time in my life, I've got things to remember.
Susan - I take it that you don't like memories, Mr Trent.
Ned - They don't pay off. They keep you awake nights.
Susan - Will you be awake many nights, Ned?
Ned - Every night. I'll always be wondering if I should've stayed.
Susan - Well, you couldn't. And even if you did it wouldn't make any difference because you'd just be giving into me. A thing like this can't be one-sided, we both have to give in, both of us together. 
Ned - Where would that put us?
Susan - No place in this world. Because it just can't be done.

They go their separate ways. But then comes the twist. Ned decides to stay in Sandrock and gladly waves the train goodbye. Meanwhile, Susan has decided that she will be a dancing girl if Ned wants her to be and is on the train. Ned races after the train on his horse and they reunite, aware that they both gave in and can therefore live happily ever after.

For me, that's the key of a great romance: both characters have to sacrifice something, or they perceive themselves to be sacrificing something. You see it time and again in my favourite musicals but I can't think of a more articulate example than The Harvey Girls.

Romance is about beating the odds, overcoming hurdles, getting to that happily ever after. What happens then, of course, we rarely see in the world of musical film. Do Mr and Mrs Don Lockwood create a storm as a beautiful husband and wife duo after the conclusion of Singin' in the Rain? In many musicals, you have to ask whether the husband will actually give up his vices: Sky Masterson from Guys and Dolls and Ned Trent himself are good examples of that. Some musicals do stray to the happily ever after and show it for the fallacy it can be (Carousel and Showboat strike me as excellent examples) but if you're looking for a romance to tug at your heartstrings in Hollywood musicals then you can't do much better than looking at Judy Garland's movies or, for that matter, Gene Kelly's or Doris Day's.

My post last Valentine's Day celebrated my favourite romantic musical songs - with a twist.

Friday, 10 February 2012


Jeremy Vine just covered this story on his Radio 2 programme, about whether shyness should be considered a mental illness. While I don't want to get into the specifics of that, I took issue with one of his guests who suggested that shyness is selfish and indicates that someone isn't interested in the people they're communicating with. Rubbish! I'm more interested in other people than I am in myself most of the time. I don't think the level of my shyness and my interest in others have any correlation at all.

Why am I so shy? I can't put it down to one thing. Maybe this is what happens when you're a tomboy with very few friends as a child, one who much prefers to read Enid Blyton than play dress-up for her hypothetical wedding. I was a mucky kid, always out in the garden making a mess, but I can't recall shyness having an impact on my life until I got to secondary school and the bullying started. I was told by one teacher that I was visibly different and therefore brought it on myself. Perhaps that was when it happened. In order to stop 'bringing it on myself', I became ultra-conscious of everything I said and did before eventually evolving into Lucy 2.0: the person who has health problems partly due to her fear of interactions with other people.

It's irritating and I certainly didn't choose to be this way. Plus, I make a conscious effort to force myself into things that set my nerves on edge. I meet up with friends in public places, occasionally I sing karaoke and, later this month, I have to go through my upgrade viva as part of my PhD progression. Does it sound like I'm not pushing myself? Of course, I allow myself my 'me' days. I hide behind the computer - still completely invested in what's going on outside of my bubble - and relax a little bit more than I can when I'm out and about. Writing and study are inherently isolating and this also impacts on my life: these two things take up much of my time and hinder any efforts I might make to combat my shyness. As a distance student, reliant on public transport, I don't really have the option to participate in much that goes on at Sheffield but, frankly, I find much of it pointless. I'd rather be at home researching a political piece for 2020UK than discussing a long-lost poem with some English students. Not that I don't enjoy poetry; I just spend enough of my time on literature and want to focus on something that, I feel, can make a difference in my (rare) spare time.

All this said, I lose my inhibitions on occasion. Nothing makes you less self-conscious than having children to worry about. I've been known to hop, dance and sing my way around Asda in order to keep my twin nieces semi-amused and quiet during a shopping trip. I've had altercations with charity workers accosting me in town centres and, on one memorable occasion, I almost got myself beaten up by arguing with a scary bloke who criticised me at a climbing wall. Something else takes over my body sending my perpetual shyness away for a few minutes. Do I wish I could be that person full time? Well, no, because I wouldn't be me then. Do I wish I could have a few more periods of inhibition? Yes! If only for the sake of my sanity.

You may also be interested in the post I wrote last year on Recluses.  

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

My Favourite Dickens Passage

Jeremy Vine asked the public on his Radio 2 show to share their favourite passage from Dickens to celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth today. I thought I'd share one of mine on this blog. I read Oliver Twist last month and noted in the review that I particularly enjoyed Mr Bumble's flirting with Mrs Corney. My favourite passage from that novel comes at the end of chapter twenty-three.

"Mr Bumble's conduct on being left to himself, was rather inexplicable. He opened the closet, counted the teaspoons, weighed the sugar-tongs, closely inspected a silver milk-pot to ascertain that it was of the genuine metal, and, having satisfied his curiosity on these points, put on his cocked hat corner-wise, and danced with much gravity four distinct times round the table. Having gone through this very extraordinary performance, he took off the cocked hat again, and, spreading himself before the fire with his back towards it, seemed to be mentally engaged in taking an exact inventory of the furniture." (p210)

I don't know why I love it so much. Perhaps it's the image of Mr Bumble putting his hat on especially to dance around a table. Whatever the reason, when I think of Oliver Twist, I don't think of the orphan or Fagin or the Artful Dodger - I think of Mr Bumble and his spoon-counting.

Happy birthday, Mr Dickens!

Friday, 3 February 2012

Book Review: Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay

Red Dust Road is Jackie Kay's memoir about her journey to discover her birth parents. It could easily be a boring run-of-the-mill tale but the unique situation and Kay's endearing way of examining events makes it something very special indeed. Born to a Scottish mother and a Nigerian father, Kay was adopted by a white couple in the 1960s and eventually decided to track down her birth parents while pregnant with her own son. I've wanted to read this since I heard Kay read an extract from it in 2010 and on my last trip to London I managed to pick up a copy signed by Kay herself. That'll induce me to never loan it out!

I don't want to say too much about Kay's journey because I'd love you to read the book. However, I will say that there are several scenes that stick in the memory afterwards - moments aching with bitterness but also fundamental honesty. I found myself marvelling at how Kay could open up these wounds to the public but then I realised the open air was probably a good way of healing them. Her story is both heartbreaking and difficult at times but - and this is important - it reaffirms the family she already had before she set out to find her birth parents. It's hardly a happily-ever-after type of adoption story, yet that's what makes it so touching.

Most of all, it's an entertaining book. The humour that permeated Jackie Kay's demeanour when I saw her in Sheffield is evident on almost every page of this book. It's that humanity that struck me most of all. An excellent memoir, and one I'd certainly recommend.

Second-Class Citizens?

Two posts about my grandmother in two days. Never mind, I think she's a worthy subject.

I was reading Jackie Kay's memoir Red Dust Road last night and one section towards the end particularly struck a chord with me. Kay's mother had just been rushed to hospital after a fall and a constant nosebleed and the way she's treated is unacceptable - to say the very least.

"I shine a torch up my torch up my mum's nose, and he inserts implements. It's all brutal. He talks softly and she can't hear a word he's saying. He's slick and full of himself; he has the horrible arrogance of the young doctor. He's treating her like she's stupid because she can't hear. I want to kill him." (p240)

Apart from linking directly to my post yesterday about my grandmother's new hearing aid, this pretty much summed up the relationship I see between the older generation and many younger people. By no means all. I don't want to tar any group with a single brush. Nevertheless, the implication is that when you're older you cease to be an important person. People talk over you, talk about you. That isn't right.

Kay's rage grows as she tries to engage the doctor who she sees treating her mother like a "second-class citizen". However, it's what happens when she and her mother leave the hospital that got to me most.

"Another hospital orderly appears to tell me a taxi is here for me. She looks at me and then she looks at my mum and says, 'Are you taking the old biddy back to her care home?' My mum doesn't hear her, thank God." (p241)

Old biddy?!! I was incensed, primarily because I see people thinking that about my grandmother all the time. I have the urge to hit people in the supermarket on a Saturday, jostling her small and slight frame as they rush around, treating her as if she was invisible. I also - and at this point I don't care who knows it - resent her daughter for treating her much the same way. How dare they treat her as nothing more than an old biddy? And how dare they think that the only reason you're with an older person is because you're paid to care? Even if she hadn't been her adopted daughter, Kay could still have been a friend - someone not paid, simply someone who cares. Jackie Kay then lists all the things her mother has done in her life that these people disregarding her don't know about. I suppose ignorance is something of a defence (a lousy one) when it comes to this issue. What I'd like to know is how people who have known these elderly people for decades, and perhaps all their lives, can turn around and disregard them as second-class citizens. I can't answer that because I've never had the urge to do it.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

All The Better To Hear You With

Yesterday, my grandmother went to have her hearing aids adjusted and her ears checked out generally. For the last three years she's been growing steadily worse and several trips to specialists yielded hearing aids that looked nice under her little bob of hair but really didn't make a difference to her hearing. We grew used to talking very loudly and repeating ourselves and if we happened to be in the room when she put the television on we tried to protect our poor eardrums. However, this latest trip worked wonders. When my father spoke to her, she told him the phone had startled her and the television had scared her to death when she'd put it on earlier. When we went to see her, she listened to the soft comments we were making taking the mickey out of her (entirely usual and light-hearted) and jumped out of her skin when my father coughed. It was almost beautiful to see. Even though she's getting some feedback and they may need a little adjusting, the change is miraculous. I never fail to be astounded by what we can achieve in the modern world when we use our powers for good.

It did make me think though. My grandmother had to go through a few years of muffled voices, feeling she wasn't party to most of what was going on around her. Personally, I always made the effort to talk to her (because I enjoy talking to her) but it's easy to imagine her fading into the background of conversations and her quality of life suffering as a result. That must've been painful for a woman who has been something of a chatterbox as long as I can remember. I think we all have to go through our own versions of this isolation. As a writer I frequently feel as though I'm blindly ambling around. Perhaps I need to in order to appreciate the end of the road. I don't know, I'm just speculating. I only know that my grandmother, despite the noisy feedback, looked so happy yesterday. As if she'd been let in on a secret the rest of the world was keeping from her. I can't even imagine how great that must feel.