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[820] Belchamber – Howard Sturgis

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“He had an almost painful intuition of her sacrifices, her hopes, her frustrate ambitions for him, and of the disappointments he must inevitably be to her; he probably read into her not very complex emotions fine shades of sensibility from his own consciousness . . . It was this habit of deference to her lightest wish they sent him off against his wish . . . ” (V, 55)

Set in 1890s England, Belchamber is a novel of aristocratic life told in the perspective of a misfit. Its originality lies in how the protagonist, a high-minded, high-born weakling, slightly effeminate heir to a marquisate, is at odds with what the high society expects of a gentleman. Born Charles Edwin William Augustus Chambers, the Marquis and Earl of Belchamber, he is commonly known as Sainty. He has no taste for games, girls, or money; he dislikes sports and hunting but adores gardening and interior decoration. Another eccentricity that shows his unfitness for his social status is his exaggerated propensity for work. He has a genuine aptitude for scholarship and loves erudition for its own sake. In short, he is a loner content in his own world.

And he launched out a tirade, . . . on the barbarism of the English upper classes, their want of education and refinement, their inability to appreciate intellectual pleasures, their low standard of morality, and, above all, their entire self-satisfaction and conviction of their own perfect rightness. (VII, 87)

The great moment of Sainty comes early on, when he becomes friends with his tutor Gerald Newsby in Cambridge. Then his life is shaped, or shattered to pieces, by two powerful women if very strong will. His mother, Lady Charmington, with her severe morals and puritanical obduracy, exercises a tight reign over him. Lady Eccleston, a tireless schemer who constructs the marriage plot to ensnare him. Cissy herself, though also in a way a victim of her mother’s deceit, is a fortune-hunting girl who makes the most of her situation. She despises Sainty but spends his money with insolent abandon. She’s a heartless monster, an adulteress, who epitomizes the very vices of high society that Saint renounces. All the sympathy one might feel for her would quickly desiccate as the novel nears the end.

The book portrays a series of betrayals against Sainty and his spinelessness to fight back, for the sake of preserving appearance and avoiding scandal. He is crushed by the race for luxury, since he himself is rich enough to absorb his losses and quite indifferent to his possessions. There’s a ponderous, contemplative quality to the writing, often supplying psychological stings after a plot narrative. Despite being a misfit, Sainty remains an aristocrat; he is bored and repulsed by his class yet never ceases to belong to it. It’s a story about individualism thwarted and innocence deceived, and, after all, virtue is not its own reward.

334 pp. New York Review Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Some Shakespeare-Coined Expressions

Shakespeare’s impact on everyday speech is extraordinary. He introduced around 1,700 words and a multitude of phrases to the English language. You probably find yourself quoting him more often than you realize.

“A dish fit for the god” (Julius Caesar) Spoken by Caesar’s murderer Brutus, who described how his father should be elegantly and respectfully killed instead of being butchered.

“All of a sudden” (The Taming of the Shrew) Taken from the context in which how a servant marvels at how his master has fallen in love.

“As luck would have it” (The Merry Wives of Windsor) Taken from the context in which the aspiring seducer is detailing his escape from the adultress’ house in a laundry basket at the arrival of her husband.

“Brevity is the soul of wit” (Hamlet) Cutting to the chase.

“Discretion is the better part of valor” (Henry IV, Part I) Used to explain how the tactic of playing dead on the battlefield has saved one’s life.

“The dogs of war” (Julius Caesar) A vivid image taken from Mark Anthony’s speech in the play predicting the bloody conflict that will follow his friend’s assassination.

“Fair play” (The Tempest) Originates where Mrianda accuses her lover Ferdinand of cheating at chess but admits she doesn’t mind.

“Good riddance” (Troilus and Cressida) The word “riddance” was used more widely in Shakespeare’s time and you could wish someone different kinds of riddance.

“Love is blind” This expression crops up in many plays.

“Wild-goose chase” (Romeo and Juliet) Mercutio uses the phrase to refer to the fact that he and Romeo have been trading witticisms and one-upping each other in turn, a pastime clever, smart-arsed young men still enjoy today.

Reading King Lear

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“Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these?” (III, iv)

King Lear is a tragic story but it’s also the most human plays of Shakespeare. No ghost, no devices, just plain humans and their vices and shortcomings. One of the major themes of the play is the inability to see things for what they are. The tragedy of King Lear is caused by his inability to recognize reality: (1) He believes Goneril’s and Regan’s lies about their love for him; (2) He falsely accuses Cordelia of being disloyal, when in fact, she is the only one of the three who loves him; (3) He banishes Kent for treason when he is the most loyal of Lear’s servants; (4) Lear falsely believes that he can abdicate responsibility without negative consequences. At this point in the play, Lear recognizes the plight of the poor in his kingdom and regrets not having done more to help them. At last, Lear recognizes his past folly, but it’s too late.

Eyesight and appearance. One who has eyes but is yet blind. It’s so much more relevant today in politics. One is blind to the intentions of cunning politicians. What about blindness to one’s responsibilities? The book is relentless about human vices and how being ignorant and blind to one’s shortcomings could doom him.

[749] The Hireling – L.P. Hartley

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” He saw life as a campaign in which there was no real cessation of hostilities; opposition whetted his nature and agreement blunted it. ” (Ch.6, p.50)

This lesser-known novel (published 1958) tells a rather quirky story of an improbable relationship between a cab driver and a bereaved young widow. Leadbitter, ex-army man, hides behind his dapper, faultless appearance and rather formal disposition a lonely self-sufficiency and a churlish bitterness. Son of a negligent and extravagant mother who haunted his childhood, he adopts a jarred view of women in general, rejecting all the qualities that are supposed to recommend them.

I felt that here was someone I could rely on absolutely, who responded to the true values of life, whose experience wasn’t spurious and self-induced, like mine. You were real and so was everything about you—your wife, your family, and the way you lived— (Ch.13, p.107)

Leadbitter is hired, at frequent intervals, by a rich Lady Franklin, a young, rather fragile widow who only exists in her grief and lives in the memories of her late husband. She has withdrawn herself from high society and shrouded in guilt. She hires Leadbitter to chauffeur her to cathedrals where she visits in an act of remembrance of her husband. As she takes a personal interest in him, he beguiles her with stories of his non-existent wife and children, thereby weaning her from her self-absorption, yet weaving for himself a dream-life with Lady Franklin at its heart.

Still obsessed by his fantasies, his double life, in his protective vigilance, as Lady Franklin prepares to marry a worthless artist, whom he overhears in his cab, Leadbitter contrives to stop her. The novel from the very beginning doesn’t forebode to end rosily; and the turn of events leads to a dramatic end. Like The Go-Between but even more pronounced in direness, the theme of foreignness, of the position of protagonist as outsider even in his life, lies at the heart of the novel. It’s a classic story of irony redolent of a sense of time out-of-kilter.

240 pp. Capuchin Classics. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[747] Nicholas Nickleby – Charles Dickens

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” It seems but yesterday that we were playfellows, Kate, and it will seem but tomorrow when we are staid old people, looking back to these cares as we look back, now, to those of our childish days: and recollecting with a melancholy pleasure that the time was, when they could move us. Perhaps then, when we are quaint old folks and talk of the times when our step was lighter and our hair not grey, we may be even thankful for the trials that so endeared us to each other, and turned our lives into that current, down which we shall have glided so peacefully and calmly. ” (Ch. LXI, p.762)

Nicholas Nickleby is the quintessence of a melodrama with many turns. Dickens derives the central plot of this door-stopper novel from his own primal scene of childhood abandonment. Childhood neglect drives him to crusade against institutionalized forms of child abuse. In this book he depicts the savagery of the regime at Dotheboys Hall, which, despite the often extravagant claims, it offers little in the way of education. It is, instead, a convenient dumping ground for unwanted, illegitimate, or handicapped children. When his family is left penniless by the premature death of the improvident father, the protagonist, Nicholas Nickleby, referred to by his uncle, takes up a teaching job at Dotheboys, where he has been the unwilling witness of cruelty imposed on the children and the coarse and ruffian behavior of Squeers, the headmaster.

Some people, I believe, have no hearts to break. (Ch. III, p.42)

Nicholas decides to escape, taking with him the orphan Smike, one of the most abused young charges, and embarks on a series of picaresque exploits that bring him, eventually, comfort and joy. Nicholas is provoked to into thrashing Squeers, a money-grubbing sadist who is friends with his uncle, a money usurer. While Nicholas assumes responsibility for his family, his mother, vain and ignorant, with her snobbery and gullibility, nudges her daughter to the brink of sexual ruin. Nicholas wards off those lecherous suitors who are associated to nobody but his uncle. Ralph revels in Nicholas’s degradation, which he has engineered, and orchestrates a sinister scheme to marry an innocent girl to a disgusting old moneylender, Arthur Gride.

It is one of those problems of human nature, which may be noted down, but not solved;—although Ralph felt no remorse at that moment for his conduct towards the innocent, true-hearted girl; although his libertine clients had done precisely what he had expected, precisely what he most wished,…still he hated them for doing it. (Ch. XXVIII, p.367)

The novel, no doubt, is a social commentary; but more powerful than its social protest against injustice, is the exuberant and absurd comedy that suffuses its narrative. The main plot is no more than a stage melodrama; the subplots proliferate, linking disparate scenes and characters with a complex of bizarre echoes and resonances. The characters abound, but they seem to have taken refuge within the walls of a narrowly defined identity—each of them represents a human virtue or a vice. They are most remarkable, therefore, not for their realism or originality, but for their absurdity. The book culminates in a fulfilling and square manner in which justice is served and everybody is put in their rightful position. It’s an epic work that proclaims the theme of poverty engendering an honest pride.

810 pp. Barnes & Noble Classic. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Reading Nicholas Nickleby

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June sees the beginning of my reading Nicholas Nickleby.

The writing and serialization of Nicholas Nickleby, during 1837 to 1839, overlapped with that of Oliver Twist, and encouraged by the popular success of that novel with its indictment of the workhouses of the New Poor Law, Dickens began with the idea of taking on another social injustice which he had learned of from press reports: the scandal of the “Yorkshire Schools” and in particular the notorious case of William Shaw, headmaster of Bowes Academy in Greta Bridge.

Dickens decided that he would expose these schools in his new novel. Indeed, where Nicholas Nickleby is sent to teach, is one of those schools where unwanted children were incarcerated in squalid conditions, malnourished and tyrannized by brutal adults. The schools were often advertised in the London newspapers,

EDUCATION.—At Mr. Wackford Squeers’s Academy, Dotheboys Hall, at the delightful village of Dotheboys, near Greta Bridge in Yorkshire, Youth are boarded, clothed, booked, furnished with pocket-money, provided with all necessaries, instructed in all languages living and dead, mathematics, orthography, geometry, astronomy, trigonometry, the use of the globes, algebra, single stick (if required), writing, arithmetic, fortification, and every other branch of classical literature. Terms, twenty guineas per annum. No extras, no vacations, and diet unparalleled. (Chapter III)

Dickens’s painful experience of childhood neglect drove him to crusade against institutionalized forms of child abuse wherever he found them. Fresh from his devastating exposure of the sufferings of workhouse children in Oliver Twist, he embarked on Nicholas Nickleby with the express intention of attacking the notorious Yorkshire schools. Despite their often extravagant claims, these institutions offered little in the way of education; instead they were convenient dumping grounds for unwanted, illegitimate, or handicapped children.

Although the book contains all the requirements of melodrama—-secrets, coincidences, dramatic confrontation and bold declamatory speeches—cannot contain the exuberant comedy of the characters

Ali Smith

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I must have mistaken Ali Smith for another author who writes chick-lit. With much gratefulness for a friend who points me to her direction, I have been on a hunt for her books although luck hasn’t been on my side. The Scottish writer has a long roll of honors and merits. She has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize, and winner of Scottish Book Award, Clare Maclean Prize, and Whitbreak Book Award.

To say that Smith plans her writings conscientiously gives the impression that she might be an over-deliberate, uninspiring writer, but this is very far from the truth. The themes she chooses to write about are ambitious: love, particularly but not only, that between women, death, loss, guilt, grief, illness, time and the chasms of misunderstanding between couples or the generations, where affection can become lost in impatience and incomprehension. They are themes that most writers touch upon, yet she seems to see them in a new, fresh light.

I will begin my Ali Smith journey with The Accidental, the story of the Smart family and Amber, the strange girl who comes into their lives one hot summer holiday. Her mysterious tales force each member of the family to view themselves in a new light.