In The Age of Piracy: Reading and Watching Captain Blood

As I’ve mentioned once or twice before, I have something of an obsession with tall ships. This is probably a result of my love for stories set during the Age of Sail. One such story is Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini, first published in 1922.

This book wasn’t on my original Classics Club list. I’d already read it and hadn’t intended a reread, especially after being disappointed by Sabatini’s Bardelys the Magnificent. But I ended up with a digital copy on my phone a year or so ago and started reading it while in a waiting room. So of course I had to finish it — one simply doesn’t abandon an adventure novel in the middle of the story.In The Age of Piracy: Reading and Watching Captain Blood |

I’m (once again) in the midst of a pirate obsession, for which we can thank the recent release of Daughter of the Siren Queen (sequel to my 2nd favorite novel of 2017, Daughter of the Pirate King). So I started reading a book on the history of pirates in reality and fiction, which prompted me to watch the 1935 version of Captain Blood. And that brings me to my decision to write a post for the classic novel.

But first, a brief digression about the film, which is really quite impressive. $1 million went into its production (to put this in perspective, online estimates tell me that $1 in 1935 has the same buying power as $17-18 today). It launched Errol Flynn’s and Olivia de Havilland’s careers and made an overall profit of $1.5 million. And it was scandalously realistic for a 1930s audience. In fact, a screenwriter named Robert Lord wrote to the producer, Hal Wallis, asking “Why do you have so much flogging, torturing, and physical cruelty in Captain Blood? … Women and children will be warned to stay away from the picture — and rightly so” (quoted in Under The Black Flag by David Cordingly, p.174). Read more


Watership Down’s HSP Rabbit

I just started rereading Watership Down by Richard Adams last night. Normally I wait to write about the books on my Classics Club list until after I’ve finished them, but I’m also rereading Elain Aron’s The Highly Sensitive Person In Love and I was struck by a connection between the two books.

In her research on high sensitivity (also known as Sensory Processing Sensitivity), Aron discovered that it’s found in 15 to 20% of the population. And it’s not just humans. The trait “can be observed in all higher animals — mice, cats, dogs, horses, [and] monkeys” at about the same percentage. I’m going to add rabbits to the list as well.

Research on HSPs had barely started by the 1970s, so I doubt Richard Adams would have been familiar with it as a scientifically validated trait when he published Watership Down in 1972. I think he was writing about it anyway, though, with his character Fiver.Watership Down's HSP Rabbit |

When publisher Rex Collins acquired the book, he wrote to a friend saying, “I’ve just taken on a novel about rabbits, one of them with extra-sensory perception. Do you think I’m mad?” Fiver’s insights do go beyond simply being a highly sensitive rabbit, but it’s also true that Fiver would pass the HSP test. Easily overwhelmed by strong sensory input? Check. Aware of subtleties in the environment? Double check. Made uncomfortable by loud noises, startles easily, has a nervous system that feels frazzled, and so on down the list.

He was small, with side, staring eyes and a way of raising and turning his head which suggested not so much caution as a kind of ceaseless, nervous tension. His nose moved continually, and when a bumblebee flew humming to a thistle boom behind him he jumped and spun round with a start that sent two nearby rabbits scurrying for holes (Fiver’s introduction, Watership Down)

As a Highly Sensitive Person myself, I know that feeling all too well. The heightened awareness of the smallest noise. The tension so familiar you barely notice it until an unexpected sound startles you out of your chair (in fact, right after writing this sentence I jumped at a Facebook notification on my phone). And it’s kind of nice to see a character like that in a book, especially one with friends who don’t tell him he needs to change. They accept him for who he is, work with his weaknesses, and appreciate his unique strengths.

Can you think of any other HSP characters in fiction?

Click here to get a copy of Watership Down. Please note that this is an affiliate link. This means that, at no additional cost to you, I will receive a commission if you click on the link and make a purchase.

A Modern Reader’s Frustrations With The Mysteries of Udolpho

I’d been excited to read Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) since I first came up with my Classics Club Book List a few years ago. I haven’t read much Gothic fiction, but when I do I tend to enjoy it. And I knew this was one of the main inspirations for Jane Austen’s Gothic satire, Northanger Abbey (and you know how much I love Austen), so of course I was intrigued. Strangely, what surprised me most about Radcliffe’s most famous “classic work of Gothic fiction” is how much of it isn’t very Gothic at all.

The book is 223 years old, but still … spoiler warning.

The Mysteries of Udolpho opens with a pastoral travelog detailing the main character, Emily St. Aubert, and her father’s journey through picturesque Italy. There are a couple scenes with a harrowing flavor in the first of four volumes, but not many. Even after Emily’s father dies and she goes to live with her aunt in volume 2 there’s very little about the novel that feels “Gothic.” The setting isn’t gloomy, decaying, or haunted. There aren’t any supernatural elements. And there are only a few hints at a larger mystery. The heroine is a damsel and she’s in a bit of distress, but not much yet. The only hallmark of Gothic fiction that you see from start to finish in this novel is a focus on intense emotions (you know, the sort that inspire fainting fits and romantic swoons).

A Modern Reader's Frustrations With The Mysteries of Udolpho |
Emily is a master of fainting. Graphic from “How to tell you’re reading a Gothic novel

The novel becomes recognizably Gothic only after we arrive at the Castle Udolpho on page 226 (out of 672 in the edition I read). And now, suddenly, it’s very Gothic. We have a creepy house that becomes almost a character in its own right. We have mysterious rooms, whispered histories of possible murder, unbridled villains (who still manage not to physically harm the heroine), secret passageways, dead bodies, and rumors of ghosts.

This was my favorite part of the novel because it’s what I’d been expecting. But it doesn’t last even half the book, since Emily escapes on page 451 and has no further contact with the villain, Montoni, who conveniently dies off-page before making any further trouble. It’s also a hallmark of Radcliffe’s writings that she leaves nothing with a supernatural hint unexplained, so before the story ends all the ghosts, murders, and mysteries are explained in such a mundane or outlandish fashion that it robs the story of a spine-tingling emotional pay-off.

For example, in the Blake Veil incident Emily lifts a curtain and swoons because what she saw behind it was so dreadful. That happens shortly after arriving at Udopho, but it isn’t until the end of the novel that readers learn she thought she saw the body of a murdered woman. Emily is left under that illusion. For us, Radcliffe explained that it was actually a wax figure molded to resemble a decaying corpse that a previous owner of Udolpho was assigned to look at every day as penance to remind him of his mortality. He put it in his will that all future owners of Udolpho should do the same or forfeit a good chunk of their land to the church, but they just hung a curtain over it ans locked the room. Mystery solved! (though honestly the idea that Montoni left a murder victim in the room would have been less fantastic).

A Modern Reader's Frustrations With The Mysteries of Udolpho |
Illustration from The Mysteries of Udolpho
(1806 edition)

I haven’t mentioned the romance yet because honestly there isn’t much to tell. Valancourt is a character throughout most of the novel but he doesn’t really do much. He befriends Emily and her father then spends most of his time after the father’s death moping around Emily’s home hoping she’ll step into the garden so he can declare his passionate love for her. While she’s in Udolpho he’s in Paris ruining his reputation. And when she returns, they get so tangled in miscommunication that they almost don’t get married. I found the romance incredibly frustrating because they were always so emotional that they wouldn’t just talk with each other.

In case it’s not clear by now, I didn’t really like this book. If you want to give Radcliffe a try I’d recommend The Romance of the Forest (which I read in college for my research project). It’s much shorter and, in my opinion, a more enjoyable read. So why was The Mysteries of Udolpho a best-seller in it’s day and now Radcliffe’s most famous work?

Perhaps the answer lies in an observation made in the introduction to my Oxford World’s Classic’s edition. This intro points out that while Radcliffe rationalizes the supernatural in the outside world of her novel, she “presents the mind itself as a kind of supernatural entity.” It is the characters’ perceptions of what is going on in the world around them that adds a magical, mysterious flavor to the story. Radcliffe gave the novel’s first readers “a fantasy about the mind itself” being haunted.

For modern readers this idea isn’t anything new. We live in a post-Freud world where we’re accustomed to thinking of our minds as having layers that we don’t fully understand and reading stories that explore how a character’s psyche unravels under stress. But for Radcliffe’s readers it was a new kind of thrilling, escapist reading even when the plot was a mess. The way she accomplished this psychological character exploration isn’t what we’re used to today and it feels sloppy to me an I suspect other modern readers. I usually find 18th and 19th century literature very accessible, but in this case I just couldn’t connect with the story.A Modern Reader's Frustrations With The Mysteries of Udolpho |

Click here to get a copy of The Mysteries of Udolpho. Please note that this is an affiliate link. This means that, at no additional cost to you, I will receive a commission if you click on the link and make a purchase.

Lady Susan: Jane Austen’s Comedic Seductress

Once upon a time (in this particular case the 18th century) quite a few novels were written entirely as series of fictional letters. These were called epistolary novels. Evelina by Frances Burney is one example, but far more well known was Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa. Jane Austen had probably read both Burney and Richardson when she penned her own epistolary work, Lady Susan.

In [Richardson’s] fiction, resourceful young women record their efforts to resist the advances of scheming libertines. The young Austen signals her audacity by turning the figure of the predatory male seducer into a highly unconventional (and middle-aged) seductress. — John Mullan in “Does Love & Friendship improve Jane Austen’s ending?

Don’t ever let anyone tell you Jane Austen was “just a romance novelist.” By the age of 19 or 20 she was perfecting her signature satiric style, turning Richardson’s well-respected style up-side-down, and inverting gender stereotypes for contemporary fiction. Predatory, aggressive, and manipulative women weren’t unheard of in fiction at the time, but making them the most engaging character in a story wasn’t encouraged. Perhaps that’s why she set the manuscript aside, choosing neither to destroy nor publish it (Lady Susan was first published 54 years after Austen’s death).Lady Susan: Austen's Comedic Seductress #theclassicsclub |

The story follows recently widowed Lady Susan Vernon. We enter the narrative as she announces her intention to visit her brother- and sister-in-law, Charles and Catherine Vernon, at their country residence. Though not happy to host the woman who tried to prevent her marriage, Mrs. Vernon welcomes her sister-in-law as cordially as possible. She becomes less cordial after her brother Reginald De Courcy arrives to meet “the most accomplished coquette in England” and falls head-over-heels for Lady Susan. And that’s after he’d heard from a reliable source that she’d left her previous residence after seducing the married Mr. Manwaring and stealing Miss Manwaring’s suitor, Sir James Martin, for her own daughter.

The first screen adaptation of this novella came out just last year. Titled Love & Friendship for some inexplicable reason (it’s the title of an unrelated work Austen wrote at age 14), I’m still not quite sure what to make of this film. While it preserves the witty, irreverent comedy of Austen’s novella, I still felt something was off about the adaptation. Transferring letters to dialogue made for some character meetings that didn’t make sense (Lady Susan and Mrs. Johnson wouldn’t have been able to meet in person so often; the companion who arrives with Lady Susan in the film isn’t in the book and only exists here to be talked at). And while several female characters were fleshed out more to help them hold their own on screen with Lady Susan, the male characters became even more buffoonish than in the novella (SPOILER WARNING: Reginald in the film is helplessly manipulated throughout the film, while in the novella, he’s the one to break things off with Lady Susan).

Also, why does every single character introduction stop the action with an out-of-context shot of them overlaid with a description of how they fit in the story? The costuming is beautiful, though, and Kate Beckinsale turns in a fantastic performance as Lady Susan. As in the novella, she’s by far the most interesting character.Lady Susan: Austen's Comedic Seductress #theclassicsclub |

I enjoyed reading Lady Susan. I’m a big fan of Jane Austen’s work and this is the first of her writings outside the six major novels that I’ve read. It makes me want to track down more of her juvenilia. It’s fun reading your favorite authors’ early works, especially ones they didn’t necessarily mean for other people to read. I’ve heard that the other stories she wrote as a teenager were even less “proper” than Lady Susan; certainly much less refined than the novels she polished up for publication.

It was also nice to read a short book from my Classics Club list. I love long books as a general rule, but honestly I’m starting to feel intimidated by the number of enormous books I chose. Three Dickens novels? what was I thinking! At least I had the good sense not to put Clarissa on the list (word count for first edition: 969,000).

Click here to get a copy of Lady Susan. Please note that this is an affiliate link. This means that, at no additional cost to you, I will receive a commission if you click on the link and make a purchase.

A Visit To Middlemarch

My main goal before the end of 2016 was to finish George Elliot’s Middlemarch. I’d resolved to read at least one huge book from my Classics Club book list each year and this was my second after Frances Burney’s The Wanderer. Alas, I didn’t finish until January 1st, but we’ll still say it was close enough to count as part of the #ccwomensclassics event.

Though I’m an avid reader of British classic literature this is only the second George Elliot book I’ve read. I’ll admit I wasn’t a huge fan at first. I felt like the story spent far too much time on trivial details while skipping over scenes I would have expected more focus on (like weddings). But even when I was tempted to skim some sections I realized I would loose the plot thread if I missed even a few paragraphs and by the last 100 pages I felt everything coming together. It’s a much tighter story than I’d first given it credit to read article, "A Visit To Middlemarch" |

Middlemarch chronicles the lives of a quite a large cast of characters, but Dorothea Brooks and Tertius Lydgate are the main characters. Interestingly, they are not love interests for each other. Rather, their stories parallel each other and intertwine in unexpected ways that you really don’t start to appreciate until close to the end.

Thematically, Middlemarch explores the nuances of marriage (among other things. It is, after all, 800 pages long). This aspect of the novel brings to mind the Tolstoy quote from Anna Karenina that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

The main characters’ marriages happen for various reasons and become unhappy in different ways. Dorothea’s was made because she wanted to marry, and support, a man whose mind she could admire. Her husband wasn’t actively trying to deceive her, but he wasn’t at all the person she expected and turned out to be far more small-minded than she. Lydgate married because he fell in love with Rosamund, who married him because she expected him to rise socially. When he didn’t become her mental image of who he should be, she stopped loving him and Lydgate discovered he was trapped trying to make her happy while struggling to not completely abandon his dreams.

There are also three happy marriages made in this novel. And that gets us to the first part of Tolstoy’s quote: “Happy families are all alike.” Middlemarch’s happy marriages have one thing in common — they start from a place of honesty. The man and woman have known each other for years, neither is trying to deceive the other, and their expectations of their spouse are (at least mostly) realistic. It’s kind of sweet to see how the two marriages that take place near the end of the story develop throughout the novel. The two unhappy marriages are made quickly and soon deteriorate, but the ones that we see grow and develop over several years end up thriving.

After reading the first 700 pages or so with a fairly low level of engagement, those last hundred pages made me not want to put the book down. My two month investment with this book (I started it at the beginning of November and took a couple breaks to read shorter books like Heartless) was more than paid-off with the conclusion. This might seem weird to say for a book that’s 145 years old, but I don’t want to say too much more and spoil it for you. Sufficient to say everything really does go together and there’s a satisfying ending in store if you keep going through all 800 pages.

Click here to get a copy of Middlemarch. Please note that this is an affiliate link. This means that, at no additional cost to you, I will receive a commission if you click on the link and make a purchase.

Reading Henry IV

Warning: English nerd content ahead.

I’ve been quite fond of Shakespeare since high school. Freshman year I watched Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V and then read the play for extra credit. I loved it so much I choose to read it again the year we studied British literature, along with Taming of the Shrew (my mother’s choice) and As You Like It (recommended by a teacher).

Since homeschoolers can pick their own curriculum and my mom hated reading Shakespeare’s tragedies when she was in school, I didn’t get a hold of those until college. There, I discovered Hamlet was almost as good as Henry. Almost, but not quite. When I took a Shakespeare class where the professor included Henry V on his syllabus I was in literature nerd heaven.henriad

The only strange thing (to me at least) about this whole Henry obsession is that it took me so long to read Henry IV, Part One and Henry IV, Part Two. In these plays, the character I knew as noble King Henry V is the riotous Prince Hal. I did put them on my Classics Club book list, but I probably wouldn’t have read these plays for another year or so if I hadn’t decided on a futuristic/sci-fie re-imagining of Shakespeare’s Henriad for my NaNoWriMo novel (click here to learn more). I’d seen them, though, in BBC’s The Hollow Crown.

This brilliant adaptation is remarkably faithful to both Part One and Part Two (it leaves out more scenes and changes a few parts of Henry V, but that play’s not the topic of our post today). I enjoyed reading the Henry IV plays, in part because of associating the on-paper scenes with what I’d seen in The Hollow Crown. Here’s a small clip of Tom Hiddleston as Henry, but you should really check out the series and watch it for yourself.

For reading Part One, I picked up a copy without annotations or notes. I was rather pleased with myself that I didn’t feel like I needed them. This is also the play I enjoyed most. It feature a more straight-forward and active story line, and more scenes with Prince Hal. I tend to prefer Shakespeare’s main plots and noble characters to the sub-plots and more comedic characters, and that held true for these history plays.

Part Two follows the Henrys less and I’m glad I had a Folger edition to read for that. There were whole sections of Falstaff’s speeches that left me puzzled (the notes made me feel better, though — apparently scholars can’t figure out some of his lines either). You need this play to get from Part 1 to Henry V, but it’s my least favorite of the three.

Whether or not you already love Shakespeare, I’d recommend starting with The Hollow Crown if you’re interested in these plays. They’re really meant to be seen and heard more than read. I suspect the man who begged pardon of his 17th century audience for daring “On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth / So great an object” as Henry’s life would approve of the scope film provides for storytelling (Henry V, 1.1.11-12).

Click here to get a copy of Henry IV Part One, here for Part Two, and here for The Hollow Crown. Please note that these are affiliate links. This means that, at no additional cost to you, I will receive a commission if you click on the link and make a purchase.