Thursday, 5 May 2016

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy.

For me reading Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge comes hot on the heels of Hardy's A Laodiciean - the latter was a dreadful reading experience so The Mayor of Casterbridge was intended to at least attempt to put it out of my head and move forward. As it turns out I doubt anything could make me forget how much I disliked A Laodicean, but I did, to my relief, very much enjoy The Mayor of Casterbridge

The Mayor of Casterbridge: The Life and Death of a Man of Character was Hardy's tenth published novel, first published in 1886 after Two on a Tower (1882) and in this he returns to his South Wessex, or Dorset. He tells the story of mother and daughter Susan and Elizabeth-Jane Henchard, beginning "One evening of late summer, before the nineteenth century had reached one-third of its span": we meet Susan and her husband Michael Henchard who have been walking for quite some time on their way to Casterbridge. They stop for rest at an inn where Hardy reveals the nastiness of Henchard. Half-jokingly he offers to sell his wife to the highest bidder, and to his surprise a passing sailor offers to buy her and the child for five guineas and Henchard accepts. Susan and the child leave with the sailor and the next morning Henchard, full of remorse, solemnly swears an oath not to drink for twenty-one years:
"I, Michael Henchard, on this morning of the sixteenth of September, do take an oath before God here in this solemn place that I will avoid all strong liquors for the space of twenty-one years to come, being a year for every year that I have lived. And this I swear upon the book before me; and may I be strook dumb, blind, and helpless, if I break this my oath!"
Time moves on and we are forwarded to eighteen years later and we see Susan and Elizabeth-Jane returning to Casterbridge. Susan, following the death of the sailor, Newson, wishes to see Henchard, Elizabeth-Jane believing he is a long-lost relative. The find him and learn that Michael Henchard is now the Mayor of Casterbridge. He is ashamed of what he did, and so he decides he and Susan, concealing the facts from Elizabeth-Jane, must appear to court each other and then marry, putting right the wrongs he did those eighteen years ago. When Susan dies not long after, the complications really begin to rise: Henchard, on discovering something about Elizabeth-Jane (I'll not reveal what), grows very cold towards her and so she leaves and goes to live with Lucetta Templeman, little realising Lucetta is another woman from Henchard's past. Meanwhile Henchard has confided in his friend Donald Farfrae of all his wrongs, something he comes to regret, and after he alienates himself from Farfrae his business begins to fail. His life slowly but surely begins to irredeemably fall apart. 

This is a very bleak tale: we are a long way off now from Hardy's first novel, the sensationalist Desperate Remedies (1871) and quickly entering into Jude the Obscure (1895) territory. Fate and coincidence play a great part in The Mayor of Casterbridge and solace and hope are slightly out of grasp, circumstance and personality (which is framed by the inescapable past) make it nearly impossible to attain them. A redemption of sorts is possible but only by giving everything else up (bringing in the question of determinism). Another interesting aspect of the novel is what it has to say on marriage - Susan Henchard was married, sold, kept by another man, then married again - it seems marriage is for outward appearances and love is a different matter altogether existing very often outside of marriage. Furthermore love is a difficult concept in itself in Hardy's later novels - it's confused, betrayed, fragile, and abused. However miserable I'm making it sound, though, it is a very well-crafted novel and one of Hardy's best. As ever the descriptions of the Wessex countryside and its inhabitants are beautiful and nostalgic, and I loved reading it for that. As for the story, it's very impressive and I do admire it and was quickly hooked into it. It's an interesting thing, reading Hardy's novels almost in order of publication (there has been a little deviation) seeing the slow build up to the crescendo of Jude. Hardy's next novel was The Woodlanders (1887) which I read almost a year ago (I remember finding it fairly grim): after The Woodlanders, his next work was his short story collection Wessex Tales (which I'll be reading in June, ending the '1880s phase' of Hardy's fictional writing), and following that Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891) which I'm very excited to read. 

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare.

The Merry Wives of Windsor is a comedy by William Shakespeare (first published in 1602 though written in the late 1590s) and is set in the reign of Henry IV who reigned from 1399 - 1413 and was the subject of Shakespeare's two plays Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II (both from 1597). John Falstaff, one of the main characters in the two Henry IV plays, is the central character of The Merry Wives of Windsor.

In this we see Falstaff rather short of cash. He arrives in Windsor (Berkshire) with his "cony-catching rascals, Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol" (a "cony-catcher" is Elizabethan slang for con-men) looking to somehow make some money, enough to keep him in the lavish lifestyle he has become accustomed to, and so he hatches a plan to bed 'the merry wives of Windsor' - Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, little appreciating the two women are very close friends. To Mistress Page he writes,
'Ask me no reason why I love you; for though
Love use Reason for his physician, he admits him
not for his counsellor. You are not young, no more
am I; go to then, there's sympathy: you are merry,
so am I; ha, ha! then there's more sympathy: you
love sack, and so do I; would you desire better
sympathy? Let it suffice thee, Mistress Page,--at
the least, if the love of soldier can suffice,--
that I love thee. I will not say, pity me; 'tis
not a soldier-like phrase: but I say, love me. By me,
Thine own true knight,
By day or night,
Or any kind of light,
With all his might
For thee to fight, JOHN FALSTAFF'
To Mistress Ford - the same letter! As Mistress Page observes, "Letter for letter, but that the name of Page and / Ford differs!", and Mistress Page replies,  "Why, this is the very same; the very hand, the very / words. What doth he think of us?". The two are angry to have received the same letter but with differing names and that Falstaff dares to assume he could even seduce the two. And so they hatch a plot for their revenge, first pretending to fall for Falstaff's letter.

Wesołe kumoszki z Windsoru
(The Merry Wives of Windsor)
by Wieslaw Grzegorczyk (1996).
Meanwhile out of devilment Nym and Pistol decide to tell the wives' husbands Ford and Page of Falstaff's plans of seducing their wives. Page trusts his wife but Ford does not and so he disguises himself as a man called Brooke and becomes friendly with Falstaff and tells him he wishes to court Mistress Ford himself however lacks confidence. He offers money to Falstaff to court her first, and if he's successful, Brooke will have more confidence himself at wooing her at a later date. Of course Falstaff accepts!

Meanwhile the wives hatch their plan and it comes into fruition when Falstaff arrives at Mistress Ford's. They trick him into hiding in a "buck-basket" (washing basket) and then, as Mistress Ford explains to her servants,
Marry, as I told you before, John and Robert, be
ready here hard by in the brew-house: and when I
suddenly call you, come forth, and without any pause
or staggering take this basket on your shoulders:
that done, trudge with it in all haste, and carry
it among the whitsters in Datchet-mead, and there
empty it in the muddy ditch close by the Thames side.
Off into the river goes Falstaff, but as we know from the Henry IV plays and this play so far, he isn't one to be put off! And so the wives next convince him to disguise himself as Mistress Ford's maid's aunt, "the fat woman of Brentford", who Ford hates. He beats 'her', shouting,
Out of my door, you witch, you hag, you baggage, you
polecat, you runyon! out, out! I'll conjure you,
I'll fortune-tell you.
Falstaff makes his hasty retreat and the wives tell their husbands of their plans (at which point Ford apologises to his wife). A third plan is hatched - they trick Falstaff into donning a costume to disguise himself as "Herne the Hunter" - a ghost said to inhabit Windsor Forest (Shakespeare is the first author to mention this legend). Mistress Page explains,
There is an old tale goes that Herne the hunter,
Sometime a keeper here in Windsor forest,
Doth all the winter-time, at still midnight,
Walk round about an oak, with great ragg'd horns;
And there he blasts the tree and takes the cattle
And makes milch-kine yield blood and shakes a chain
In a most hideous and dreadful manner:
You have heard of such a spirit, and well you know
The superstitious idle-headed eld
Received and did deliver to our age
This tale of Herne the hunter for a truth.
Falstaff falls for it and waits at the haunted oak tree whereupon the people and children of the town set upon him to terrorise him, all pretending to be fairies ("Let the supposed fairies pinch him sound / And burn him with their tapers" says Mistress Ford). Here Falstaff is forced to apologise.

At this point the side plot of The Merry Wives of Windsor is resolved - Mistress Page's daughter Anne has three suitors, Slender, Caius, and Fenton, who all battle to win her hand, but Anne truly loves Fenton and the two elope, revealing this in Windsor Forest: she told all three she would be wearing  a certain white costume (as all the 'fairies' were), and Slender and Caius get confused and accidentally marry boys.

And that is The Merry Wives of Windsor! It is great fun, very silly but very light-hearted. On a sad note, however, this is the last time we see John Falstaff alive - in Henry V (which I'll be writing about in a few weeks) Pistol announces his death, "Boy, bristle thy courage up; for Falstaff he is dead".

Until then, here's a selection of illustrations by Hugh Thomson for the 1910 edition of The Merry Wives of Windsor published by William Heinemann:

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Hecuba by Euripides.

Hecuba and Polyxena by Merry-Joseph Blondel
(after 1814).
Hecuba (Ἑκάβη) is a tragedy by Euripides, first performed around 424 B.C. and based on the events after the Trojan War though still in Troy. In it Euripides tells the story of Hecuba, the wife of King Priam, the king of Troy during the Trojan War.

By the beginning of the play Priam has been killed in the war by Achilles' son Neoptolemus (this is described in Virgil's Aeneid) as have all Hecuba's children except her daughter Polyxena. The play opens with the ghost of Polydorus, one of Hecuba's sons, who was murdered by Polymestor, the King of Thrace:
... But when Troy fell and Hector lost his life and my father's hearth was rooted up, and himself fell butchered at the god-built altar by the hands of Achilles' murderous son; then did my father's friend slay me his helpless guest for the sake of the gold, and thereafter cast me into the swell of the sea, to keep the gold for himself in his house. And there I lie one time upon the strand, another in the salt sea's surge, drifting ever up and down upon the billows, unwept, unburied; but now am I hovering o'er the head of my dear mother Hecuba, a disembodied spirit, keeping my airy station these three days, ever since my poor mother came from Troy to linger here in Chersonese...
He then explains that to appease the ghost of Achilles his sister Polyxena must be sacrificed.

We meet Hecuba next, supported by the chorus, in mourning for all of her losses and in great fear of the pending sacrifice of Polyxena. Polyxena arrives and Hecuba tells her of what is to happen and she too mourns, but she mourns her loss for her own mother's sake:
Alas, for thy cruel sufferings! my persecuted mother! woe for thy life of grief! What grievous outrage some fiend hath sent on thee, hateful, horrible! No more shall I thy daughter share thy bondage, hapless youth on hapless age attending. For thou, alas! wilt see thy hapless child torn from thy arms, as a calf of the hills is torn from its mother, and sent beneath the darkness of the earth with severed throat for Hades, where with the dead shall I be laid, ah me! For thee I weep with plaintive wail, mother doomed to a life of sorrow! for my own life, its ruin and its outrage, never a tear I shed; nay, death is become to me a happier lot than life.
Odysseus arrives to take Polyxena telling Hecuba it is all for the greater good:
Endure these sorrows; for us, if we are wrong in resolving to honour the brave, we shall bring upon ourselves a charge of ignorance; but as for you barbarians, regard not your friends as such and pay no homage to your gallant dead, that Hellas may prosper and ye may reap the fruits of such policy. 
Meanwhile Polyxena declares she would prefer death to being a slave in a very moving speech -
Why should I prolong my days? I whose sire was king of all the Phrygians?-my chiefest pride in life, Then was I nursed on fair fond hopes to be a bride for kings, the centre of keen jealousy amongst suitors, to see whose home I would make my own; and o'er each dame of Ida I was queen; ah me! a maiden marked amid her fellows, equal to a goddess, save for death alone, but now slave! That name first makes me long for death, so strange it sounds; and then maybe my lot might give me to some savage master, one that would buy me for money,-me the sister of Hector and many another chief,-who would make me knead him bread within his halls, or sweep his house or set me working at the loom, leading a life of misery; while some slave, bought I know not whence, will taint my maiden charms, once deemed worthy of royalty. No, never! Here I close my eyes upon the light, free as yet, and dedicate myself to Hades. Lead me hence, Odysseus, and do thy worst, for I see naught within my reach to make me hope or expect with any confidence that I am ever again to be happy. Mother mine! seek not to hinder me by word or deed, but join in my wish for death ere I meet with shameful treatment undeserved. For whoso is not used to taste of sorrow's cup, though he bears it, yet it galls him when he puts his neck within the yoke; far happier would he be dead than alive, for life of honour reft is toil and trouble.
Hecuba Blinding Polymestor by Giuseppe Maria Crespi (18th century).
And then poor Polyxena is sacrificed, and, when Hecuba requests cleansing water for her body Polydorus' body is found on the shore. Hecuba rightly suspects that Polymestor is to blame and so plots her revenge, asking Agamemnon (who himself sacrificed a daughter, Iphigenia, for a safe voyage to Troy) to summon him to her. He does so and Hecuba, falsely telling Polymestor she has treasure to give him, leads him and his sons into the tent. The next we hear is Polymestor's cries - "O horror! I am blinded of the light of my eyes, ah me!", then "O horror! horror! my children! O the cruel blow."

Agamemnon now must judge Hecuba and Polymestor to ensure justice is served. In this scene Polymestor makes various prohecies - that Hecuba will die on her way to Greece leaping from the mast by her own accord when she will "become a dog with bloodshot eyes" (an account of this transformation can be read in Book XIII of Ovid's Metamorphoses), and that Hecuba's daughter Cassandra will be murdered by Agamemnon's wife Clytemnestra (this is told in Aeschylus' Agamemnon). At the end of this speech Agamemnon banishes him to live alone on an island:
Haste and cast him upon some desert island, since his mouth is full of such exceeding presumption. Go thou, unhappy Hecuba, and bury thy two corpses; and you, Trojan women, to your master's tents repair, for lo! I perceive a breeze just rising to waft us home. God grant we reach our country and find all well at home, released from troubles here!
Hecuba is a tale of suffering and woe, and there is no relief. Even Polymestor's punishment comes with bleak prophecies Euripides' audience would have known would come true. It is a play of great bitterness and anger, Hecuba, once a victim of men, war, and justice, becomes the revenger not only blinding Polymestor but killing his sons too, yet she is a sympathetic character despite this bloodshed. It is a desolate play, one I couldn't quite get into but nevertheless a valuable read.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street by Virginia Woolf.

1920s postcard of Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, and Westminster Bridge.

Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street was written in the summer of 1922, three years before the publication of Woolf's novel Mrs Dalloway (1925). It is essentially the bite-size version of Mrs Dalloway, a short story that went on to be re-written and become one of Woolf's most famous works with a character Woolf had previously used in The Voyage Out (1915). It begins,
Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the gloves herself.
(Mrs Dalloway fans will instantly recall the first sentence of the novel, "Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself").

We see Clarissa Dalloway in London buying her gloves, beginning at eleven o' clock as she steps out into the street and observing the crowd:
No doubt they were not all bound on errands of happiness. There is much more to be said about us than that we walk the streets of Westminster. Big Ben is nothing but steel rods consumed by rust were it not for the care of H. M.'s Office of Works. Only for Mrs Dalloway the moment was complete; for Mrs Dalloway June was fresh. A happy childhood - and it was not to his daughters only that Justin Parry has seemed a fine fellow (weak of course on the Bench); flowers at evening, smoke rising; the caw of rooks falling from ever so high, down down through the October air - there is nothing to take the place of childhood. A leaf of mint brings it back: or a cup with a blue ring.
It is a stream-of-consciousness work, Mrs Dalloway's thoughts are shared against the sound of Big Ben (which, I can't help but mention, will be silent in 2017 for urgent repair). As she walks to Bond Street she, and we, get lost in her thoughts, from Milly (inspired by bumping into Hugh Whitbread), votes for women, Kensington Gardens and the Queen (Queen Mary, wife of the King George V), walking, ageing, even Shakespeare and Gaskell's Cranford. Cars pass by, the hustle and bustle of London matched almost by Clarissa's thoughts, until she reaches Bond Street to buy her gloves. There she purchases them, and a mention of the war ("Gloves have never been quite so reliable since the war") leads her to consider the sacrifice of the soldiers - "Thousands of young men had died that things might go on". Finally the gloves are bought, and the story concludes (in another echo of Mrs Dalloway the novel),
There was a violent explosion in the street outside. The shop-women cowered behind the counters. But Clarissa, sitting very upright, smiled at the other lady. 'Miss Anstruther!' she exclaimed.
It is, I think, an ideal introduction to both Mrs. Dalloway and Woolf's novels - stream-of-consciousness, as I mentioned, but a more manageable, less intimidating length (6 or 7 pages). This is Woolf at her finest - the inner workings of the mind on the busy London streets, time marked somehow (in this instance Big Ben), with no real conclusion or definitive path, simply the enjoyment of, for a brief moment, knowing someone else and their thoughts and though processes, a tiny snapshot into another life, another moment of being (to paraphrase a line from Woolf's Sketches of the Past). In Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street Woolf succeeds in capturing all of this. So far, this is my favourite short story by Virginia Woolf.

This was my eighteenth Deal Me In title. Next week - Lady Windermere's Fan by Oscar Wilde.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

May.

'May' from Edmund Spenser's
The Shepheardes Calender
illustrated by Walter Crane.
May is here, all cloud and grey and cold! It's not the cheeriest beginnings, the weather's bleak, snow still caps the hills, and my little hen Tilly is very poorly (especially depressing as poor Charlotte, who I mentioned in last month's post, died two weeks ago; all this illness is rather upsetting). So a subdued start, and I'm looking to distract myself with this post and think of positive things. 

Good things: my budgies are well, as are Ruby and Agnes. I planted some seeds last week and nearly all of them are sprouting, which is always exciting. Decided this year I'd grow potatoes and onions, and I've been working on improving the soil and that I'm happy to say has been a success, so the potatoes are ready to plant later today (assuming the weather is more hospitable!). About two years ago I wrote that I wanted to have a nice garden and I was sure it could be done despite the chickens (who love digging more than anything). I'm happy to say things are taking shape. It's still very 'young' looking, my garden, but it looks better than it ever did. On some sunny day I'll take some pictures. Also, wonderfully - the swallows are back! Saw the first three yesterday evening. I'm now listening out for the cuckoo, and actually I think I saw the cuckoo a few days ago, but I'm not certain at all. 

Now then, reading plans. Firstly - I'm participating in the #WoolfAlong (which I am loving, by the way), but for May and June I'm going to take advantage of the "no rules" rule (so to speak!) and rather than focus on Woolf's short stories I'm going to go for letters and diaries. I started this afternoon Woolf's A Passionate Apprentice (diaries) and next month I'll hopefully read Congenial Spirits (letters), two books I've owned for years but never read. So late spring is the time!

Also on the 2016 Challenge front: histories. I've been reading Shakespeare's histories for the Bardathon and last weekend I read Henry V, but rather than post straight away I thought it would be more appropriate to read then review The Merry Wives of Windsor first (which I read yesterday) then, once that's done, I'm going to watch Henry V (it was on television last week as part of the BBC's Hollow Crown series - Richard II, Henry IV Part One and Henry IV Part Two) and write about that afterwards. That new plan rather interferes with my plan of reading and blogging about the Henry VI plays this month, but that's no matter, that I'll do in June. So that's Shakespeare. Two other histories I want to read and write about this month are King John by John Bale and Thomas of Woodstock (1582, author unknown). I'm loving reading these English history plays, so I'm excited to read Bale and the unknown author!

On the Greek front: I'm still plodding through Euripides and have Hecuba to write about on Tuesday. After that, The Suppliants, Electra, Heracles, The Trojan Women, and Iphigenia in Tauris (which will take me into June, and I should finish all of them in August). I'm getting close to the half-way point of Euripides, and I'm thoroughly enjoying his plays, but my heart does still lie with Sophocles.

Other plans: I've started Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene and this month I'll be reading and writing about Books I, II, III, and IV: please wish me luck for that! I've finished Book I and my goodness I forgot how hard it is! Also I'll be reading Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman (the 1855 edition) for the 'American classic' section of the 12 Month Classics Challenge, and finally I'm half way through Trollope's The Eustace Diamonds which I'll finish soon. Love it so much! A big relief, I've had bad luck with Trollope for almost a year! And how could I forget Mr. Pickwick?! This month chapters 6–8.

So that is May planned out. Hoping very much my poor hen gets better and I'll have something more positive to write about on that front in June. Hopefully the weather will cheer up as well - so grey here today.

Happy May, everyone :)

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