It being Valentine’s Day today, the theme for Top Ten Tuesday hosted by the Broke and Bookish is naturally love. It’s an emotion which comes in many guises. Here’s a list of ten different depictions of love in fiction that I’ve enjoyed over the years. Links are to my reviews where the book is one I’ve read in the last five years.
Young love: Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare. Adolescent/teenage love is the mainstay of a lot of young adult fiction but that’s not a genre I read. So my choice is from the pen of a man whose ability to tap into human emotions would be difficult to surpass. Romeo and Juliet is probably the most famous love story in the English literary tradition. It’s a play about intense passion where love is a violent, ecstatic, overpowering force that supersedes all other values, loyalties, and emotions.
In their first meeting we see all the wonder and yet doubts of early love:
Dost thou love me? I know thou wilt say ‘Ay,’
And I will take thy word: yet if thou swear’st,
Thou mayst prove false; at lovers’ perjuries
Then say, Jove laughs. O gentle Romeo,
If thou dost love, pronounce it faithfully:
Or if thou think’st I am too quickly won,
I’ll frown and be perverse an say thee nay,
So thou wilt woo:
But Shakespeare doesn’t give us a hearts and flowers, happy ever after version of love, but the kind where love overpowers all other considerations and sets the participants against the world – in the course of the play, the young lovers are driven to defy their families, friends and their ruler.
Mature love: Anthony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare. Passion isn’t confined to the youngsters, nor does love get any easier with age. In Anthony and Cleopatra Shakespeare shows the two principal characters at war with each other and with themselves. Throughout the play emotion is constantly in battle with reason. In their first exchange the two argue whether their love can be put into words or does it transcend reason.
CLEOPATRA: If it be love indeed, tell me how much.
ANTONY: There’s beggary in the love that can be reckoned.
CLEOPATRA: I’ll set a bourn how far to be beloved.
ANTONY: Then must thou needs find out new heaven, new earth.
Anthony may be a military hero and an esteemed statesman but he cannot help be swept along by the force of Cleopatra’s character, even at the cost of his cherished honour and, ultimately, his life.
Jealous love: The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. Greene is a master of storytelling involving tortured souls. In this moving tale of adultery and its aftermath, Maurice Bendrix, falls in love with his neighbour’s wife, Sarah. She suddenly breaks off the affair, leaving him wracked with anger and jealousy that she continues to live with her husband. The reason for her actions becomes apparent only later in the novel. It’s a superb and compelling portrait of an illicit love affair that one person cannot accept is over.
Unrequited love: Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan. I challenge anyone to read this and not feel desperately sorry for Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting. They are young, newly-wedded and are on their honeymoon. But their first night together goes disastrously wrong. They try to reconcile but angry words are exchanged from which there seems no way back.
Thawrted love: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. Charles Ryder, who narrates this novel, comes from a wealthy but emotionally bankrupt family. Befriended at Oxford by the wealthy Lord Sebastian Flyte, Charles is introduced to an eccentric set of friends, to Sebastian’s socialite sister Julia and their ancestral home at Brideshead Castle. Years later Julia and Charles, now both married, embark on an affair and plan to marry. But Julia suddenly realises she cannot turn her back on her strict Catholic upbringing. To marry Charles would be a sin so she abandons him. Charles, who has always struck me as a bit of a cold fish, is forced to confront his emotions.
Parental love: Silas Marner by George Eliot. You can find a multitude of books on the theme of motherly love but not as many featuring paternal love. In Eliot’s novel, the weaver Silas Marner is thrown out of his Calvinist community having been (falsely) accused of stealing their funds. He makes his new home in the village of Raveloe, becoming a recluse who devotes himself entirely to his weaving and to hoarding money. His life changes when a small child finds her way to his door in a snowstorm. Silas keeps her and raises her as his daughter. Through the strong bond he forms with the girl, he finds a place in the rural society and a new purpose in life.
Destructive love: Medea by Euripedes. A more perfect example of ‘hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’ it would be hard to find than Medea. Abandoned by her husband who fancies a younger model, she plots revenge. Does she throw all his clothes out of the window? Stalk him? Send notes to his new wife telling her what he’s really like? No, all too easy for this tempestuous woman. Poison and the dagger are her weapons of choice and she’s not afraid to use them even if it means innocent people must also die.
Female love: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. I had no idea what this novel was about when my mother recommended it as a novel her book club had enjoyed. I’ve never met her book club chums but I imagined them as ladies in their seventies whose reading tastes would be conservative. Once I realised that it featured a hot-blooded love affair between two women, I had to completely revise my thinking.
Obsessional love: The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch. This a great example of what can happen when you believe – mistakenly -that someone loves you. Charles Arrowby retires from his glittering theatrical career, to a house on the coast. He discovers that opne of his first girlfriends lives in the nearby village. He gets the idea that she still loves him and needs to be rescued from her unhappy marriage despite the fact she doesn’t give him any indication she is either unhappy or in love with Charles. But he is not a man to give up once he gets an idea in his head so sets about kidnapping her. It’s an ill-thought out plan that crumbles but not before damage is done.
Murderous love: Thérèse Raquin by Emile Zola. Zola’s heroine is unhappily married to a sickly and selfish railway worker when she embarks on a turbulent and sordidly passionate affair with one of friends. The two lovers plot to kill the husband. But what thought was the solution to the problem, proves to be just the start of a nightmare. Haunted by the memory of the murder they suffer hallucinations of the dead man, seeing him in their bedroom every night, preventing them from touching each other and quickly driving them insane.
It’s been a while since I did one of these posts about book related news items that I missed at the time and you may have missed also.
Since September is back to school/college time it seems the right moment to talk about a few programmes and courses offered by some of our educational institutions.
Open University: My Shakespeare
One thing I have certainly missed hearing about is a Sky Arts television documentary series called My Shakespeare in which leading actors My Shakespeare present the stories of, and the stories behind, some of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. In this collaboration with the Open University, Joseph Fiennes talks about Romeo and Juliet for example, while Morgan Freeman explores The Taming of the Shrew. I don’t have a Sky subscription so will not get to see any of these unfortunately but if you do have access, you can read more about the programme via the Shakespeare pages on the Open University website.
Open University: Secret World of Books
Monsieur BookerTalk stumbled across a late night BBC4 programme in which Simon Russell Beale read extracts from Hamlet. His rendition of “to be or not to be…” was apparently the best that my esteemed partner has ever heard (high praise from one who until now had considered Richard Burton’s recording as the bees knees.) It rang a vague bell and then I remembered an email from the Open University announcing this new series together with a free App. I had tried downloading the App but the remote WIFI connection was too slow so I gave up and then promptly forgot about the whole series.
It’s a series of six programmes which revisit original texts, manuscripts, diaries and correspondence of some classic works of fiction including Frankenstein, Great Expectations and Mrs Dalloway. Kudos to the BBC for not only including something from my home country but choosing a text that isn’t as mainstream, The Mabinogian. For those of you who are not from Wales this is a classic work of literature which consists of 11 folk tales and legends.
If you can’t get to watch the programmes in real time, they should be available on the iPlayer. There is more info about the series on the Open University page – it also gives you the option to download a free App for your mobile device and some e versions of the texts.
I’ve seen a number of comments that the App is slow to download – I just had another go and didn’t encounter any problems.
Coursera: Comic and graphic novels
This genre (or is a sub genre?) isn’t something that particularly appeals to me but they do have a huge and enthusiastic fan following. So if these kinds of literary works light your fire, you might want to sign up of a free Coursera module which discusses whether they can be considered as literary art. It’s about to start and will last for seven weeks. To register go to https://www.coursera.org/course/comics.
Hope you find something you enjoy here. Have any of you come across other interesting courses offered by universities or academic groups? If so, did you register or follow them and what did you think about them?
My monthly snapshot of what I’m reading, watching etc on the first Sunday of each month.
I’m reading two books at the moment that could not be further apart in setting, theme or style.
On my e-reader is The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee which is due to be published by Random House in the UK on May 22. It’s set in 1960s Calcutta and is the story of a large Bengali family that is falling apart under the strain of poisonous sibling rivalries, adolescent drug addition and instability in the family business. The fractures in the family mirror the cracks that are appearing in the society around them with the rise of political activism in rural areas. Mukherjee has created some wonderful characters, especially the matriarch of the family and her only daughter, a girl whose venomous nature has ripened over the years of rejection by successive marriage suitors turned off by her swarthy complexion and turned eye.
By my bedside is Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. This is only the second work by Taylor that I’ve read. My first experience of her novels was A Wreath of Roses which I didn’t care for very much asI explained in this post. But so many other bloggers whose opinion I trust rate her highly so I thought she was worth a second chance and I am so glad I picked this up when I spotted it in the library. The collection of characters she assembles at the Claremont Hotel are beautifully crafted and Taylor does a wonderfully job of delicately balancing the humour of their various foibles with the note of sadness at the recognition that these residents are people who are approaching the twilight of their years. Forced by circumstances to live in a second class hotel instead of with family members, and with their resources dwindling, they are still determined to keep up appearances. The novel started lightly but it didn’t take long for more deeper ideas to come through, in particular the theme of loneliness in old age to develop. If this is a truer example of Taylor’s writing prowess than A Wreath of Roses, then I’ll be looking forward to reading more by her.
The BookerTalk household has been working its way through the entire series of Foyles War, staring Michael Kitchen who is an actor so accomplished I don’t understand why we don’t see more of him. In this series he is a Detective Chief Superintendent based in Hastings, a seaside resort on the south coast of England, during World War 2. He gives a masterfully understated performance as the policeman with high moral standards and a very shrewd understanding of human nature but with many a twinkle in his eye. No doubt there are people who have spotted anachronistic items of clothing, household goods or army equipment) but the period setting seems pretty convincing to me. We’re almost at the end – just two more episodes left unfortunately.
I’m a little behind with my favourite radio program — the daily episode of The Archers. For those of you who live in the UK you’ll know this radio program is a national institution with around 5 million listeners some of who are extremely devoted and get very passionate about some of the story lines. It’s set in the fictional English village of Ambridge, featuring the daily trials and tribulations of the local families, many of whom have been farming the land for generations. Which means we get plenty of info about seasonal activities like lambing mixed in with the drama of family life and village events such as the annual pantomime and the quiz in the village pub. The story lines do dip now and again which is to be expected for a series that’s been running since 1950 but I still miss it when I’m away. Actually, many years ago on holiday in France, we managed to pick it on the car radio and so sat in a field somewhere in Normandy, eating our Camembert and munching on a baguette, listening to a people talking about sheep shearing or potato planting and the price of milk. Quite bizarre.
The Future Learn on line course about Shakespeare’s World is now coming to an end. It’s sustained a high level of quality throughout and introduced me to new interpretations of his plays which I’d love to explore further when I have some time. It’s likely to be on offer again so keep an eye out for it.
I enjoy those photography projects where you take a picture of the same location on the same day every month or year. So I thought I’d copy the idea and do a snapshot of what I’m reading etc on the first Sunday of each month.
So here goes with the first one…..
I have two books on the go at the moment: Keri Hulmes The Bone People which I’m reading as part of my Booker Prize project and Mary Ann Shaffer’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. The latter is the next selection for our book club. I can see why it’s hugely popular and parts of it are enjoyable. I’m learning a lot about the impact of World War 2 on the Guernsey islanders that I didn’t know before but overall the book isn’t grabbing me much.
I’m playing catch up with the BBC series The Plantagenets. The first program was about the origins of the dynasty and how they grew to be rulers of a huge swathe of land from Scotland, through England and as far as the middle of France. In between laying the foundations of the British justice system and taking off for the Holy Land on crusades,they seem to have spent much of their lives fighting each other. Talk about dysfunctional families! It’s a fascinating series – you can still watch the first three episodes on BBC I Player.
For years I listened to the radio news programs on my commute to work. But I stopped that when the interviewers became more interested in their own voices than in what their interviewees had to say. So I’ve switched to podcasts and audiobooks instead. After a spate of Peter James crime fiction featuring Superintendent Roy Grace, I’ve now moved onto Christabel Kent’s A Time of Mourning which is set in Florence and just has me wishing I was strolling in those piazzas right now. I’ve also caught up with some of my favorite podcasts like The Readers.
Future Learn is running a MOOC course on Shakespeare and his world. I’ve taken about five of these MOOC courses either through Future Learn or Coursera and found the quality is very mixed. This is one of the best I’ve done so far. It’s a collaboration between the University of Warwick and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Straord‐Upon‐Avon and looks at the plays from a historicist perspective. We’ve covered his interest in classical stories and in war for example, reading a different play each week. This week’s featured play The Merchant of Venice discussed the theme of money and trade and how Venice could represent the way London was emerging as the centre of a global trading nation. Next week we move onto the historical plays in the Henry cycle.
Many moons ago when I was contemplating taking a course on the performance aspect of Shakespeare’s plays, prospective students were advised to see as many versions of the plays as we possibly could. Somewhat easier to do if you live near a large city than in the provinces of course. But even then, it would have been almost impossible to see some plays since they seldom get staged. There are any number of Romeo & Juliet productions, or Macbeth, King Lear andTam ing of the Shrew but when was the last time you heard of a theatre company staging Two Gentlemen of Verona or Anthony and Cleopatra?
Which is why I began working my way through DVDs of The Shakespeare Collection, a set of 34 dramatisations produced by the BBC in the late 1970s. This was a time when the Beeb knew how to stage a good costume drama. The programmes featured the cream of the acting profession like John Gielgud and Derek Jacobi, and some actors who would go on to greater things like Helen Mirren and Anthony Hopkins. They lack the drama of a live stage performance of course since all except two were shot in the BBC Studios but the production values are what you would expect from the BBC.
Watching these and then the more cinematic approaches of recent years (the superb Hollow Crown series for example or Kenneth Brannagh’s Hamlet ), you see clearly how advances in technology have changed the way Shakespeare is presented. The settings may be more realistic, the costumes more lavish but what hasn’t changed very much is the way the words are articulated. With the exception of a few examples of regional accents, the Bard’s language is rendered essentially in what’s called Received Pronounciation.
That focus on ‘standard English’ helps with clarity of the spoken word but according to one of our most eminent linguistic experts, David Crystal, but it’s a million miles away from how the original audiences of the plays would have heard Shakespeare’s language. Listen to some of the famous soliliquays in what’s called Original Pronounciation and the meaning is completely changed says Crystal. Puns become more evident and many more line endings will sound as rhymes – so for example, you might hear an actor today say water and matter and the two words seem to bear little sound relation to each other. But say them in original pronounciation and water sounds more like watter, hence completing a rhyming couplet. Understand that ‘loins’ would have been pronounced as ‘lions’ andpart of the Romeo and Juliet prologue takes on a different interpretation.
Crystal and his actor son, Ben, put their theory to the test in 2004 when they worked with The Globe Theatre in London for a performance of Troilus and Cressida, the first time a theatre company had staged an entire production in original pronounciation. They talk about this experience and their work in a short film made for the Open University – listening to them read alternate lines in received pronounciation and then original pronounciation is fascinating. Now I understand why so often when I heard Shakespeare in my school days the so-called comedy completely passed me by. If only my teachers could have read it as it was meant to be heard, I might just have understood it better.
Can reading a book change your life? It’s a phrase that seems to get trotted out by marketing departments fairly frequently, especially when they’re trying to flog the latest self help manual that promises everything from marital bliss to millionaire status. But I also noticed that Goodreads has a list of books that readers have classed as ‘life changing’ – some you might expect like Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye or Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird though there are an astonishing number who claim Harry Potter has a transformative effect.
A recent posting on Book Riot along the same lines got me thinking whether, out of the hundreds if not thousands of books I’ve read in my lifetime, have there been any which have made such a huge impact on my life that they could be said to have changed it? After digging deep in the dusty attic of my brain, I realised that there is indeed one that had a marked effect on my life, though it’s a play rather than a novel: Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.
Our first set text for English that year was The Merchant of Venice. It was our first experience of Shakespeare. For some stupid reason the education ‘experts’ had ruled that Shakespeare would not be introduced earlier in our school system so we were fed instead on the deadly dull School for Scandal and The Rivals, both by Sheridan.
Reading the Merchant in advance of our first class must have been the proverbial light bulb moment for me. Because when the class began, I found myself quoting from it, not just the odd line or two but whole speeches. Without ever having intended to, I had memorised large chunks of the main speeches much to the astonishment not just of my classmates but the teacher. Fourty years later and I still remember a good portion of that speech by Shylock where he accuses Antonio of dual standards:
You call me misbeliever, cut throat, dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
And all for use of that which is mine own.
Well then, it now appears you need my help.
From that day, I couldn’t get enough of literature, consuming book after book from my local library (though many times without fully understanding what I was reading) and desperately keen to continue studying it through school and university. Even today I can’t get enough of it, taking an extra degree with the Open University. Maybe it’s too much to claim that The Merchant, completely changed the course of my life but I like to think it did make a significant difference to the quality of my life. So I will raise a toast to the Bard of Stratford and say a heartfelt thanks.
Are there any books that have made a difference to your life? I’d love to hear your story……