Nothing says ‘treat thy self’ like re-reading your favourite book for your birthday month. I enjoyed it so immensely that I feel this year will turn out to be one of many re-reads. I already have a burning desire to pick up Jane Eyre again and I only read that a couple of months ago!
Emma by Jane Austen
Choosing your favourite Jane Austen novel is like choosing your favourite child; the answer, to both, is Emma.
If Pride and Prejudice is too funny, Mansfield Park too serious and Northanger Abbey not serious enough, Emma seems to combine all these ‘misgivings’ and flaunts them like Kate Moss in some satin number walking down a catwalk in the 90s. It is the perfect novel, and I probably shouldn’t have compared it to Kate Moss, but what is done is done.
Emma Woodhouse is handsome, clever and rich. Like Austen’s other novels, we are told what the entirety of the book is about in the first sentence. Such economy! Emma is the vegemite of the Austen heroines, in fact, Jane Austen had said so herself, ‘I am going to be the only one to care for this regency vegemite’- Jane Austen (1799, probably). But no one should be in doubt as to Emma Woodhouse being an extraordinary creation, because, like our other heroines, her depiction is an honest one. Nothing is shined over. If Emma is actually the anti-christ disguised in a cinnamon coloured frock– we love her for it. And how much merit is there in that!
Jane Austen is a genius of scene and drama in the same way that Shakespeare is. Her dialogue and narrative intervention are rhythmic; each revelation is placed at the exact right point in the novel as if the whole piece is a sheet of music and Jane Austen has gone through and immaculately crossed the middle c’s and dotted the bass clefs.** Emma’s rejection of Mr Elton is such a solid example of Jane Austen’s rhythm and style. What’s more, none of her characters are fleeting and all of them are given dialogue that only they could say. The effect of her depiction is that these characters are so real, that even when one closes the endpaper there is no question that their lives continue on in the village of Highbury. This novel is not only an extraordinary work of art but it’s existence has defined what the ‘novel’ is, and it is wonderful. Mrs-Elton-on-the-back-of-a-donkey level of wonderful.
**I am not proud of this metaphor.
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
This was my first Agatha Christie novel and I suppose I have the same sort of thing to say about it as thousands of other reviewers. It was fast, enticing, thick with plot and was presented very soundly. The writing was distinct, not at all flowery and the opening chapters provided so much raw atmosphere and quickness that it wrenched hold of my eye balls and held my usually-limited attention span. I normally do not bother sprouting a warning at this point, but due to the nature of the narrative it is probably wise to advise you… hop off the train here if you do not want the plot revealed—all remaining folk, the Spoiler Express is now departing!
Let me first talk to the air. What is the literary purpose of a murder mystery novel such as this one? Though the writing is concrete, Christie’s pen is only there to service the plot. And the purpose of the plot is to provide a guessing game of clues to the reader (as well as being drop-dead entertaining). Christie presents these clues methodically as a series of events and questions, and you the reader as well as Poirot begin to take a stab at the big question; ‘who dun eh?’ But there is a bigger problem here, the author has complete creative control and she undresses her plot so that it can change at any moment. It is impossible for you to guess correctly without knowing who Agatha Christie has chosen herself! So again let me ask– what is the literary purpose of this novel? And my answer is: Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!
The truth is, that I do not much know what the purpose of this novel is and it is why I tend to avoid a mystery like this all together. My reading is so much affected by these semantics that the text loses focus and I start to look at the novel as a foundational being. It was a page turner most assuredly, but when Christie brought the Armstrong case into the narrative, I knew then that I had not a chance at discovering the murderer, because I could not at any time be met with all the facts. I lost some of my importance as the reader and the bewitching spell of the text (which I am convinced is cast my Poirot’s magical moustache) began to deteriorate. I do not quite know if I can forgive it for that.
The Tempest by William Shakespeare
Oh, so that is why this one is on a lot of school syllabuses. The Tempest is quite astonishing because it defies taking one form. This play is a comedy, a tragedy and hovering above it all like a shifting storm, is the essence of the playwright (Shakespeare and Prospero) creating and recreating the bounds of time, reality and the universe.
The right Duke of Milan, Prospero, and his daughter Miranda, are exiled to a magical island. Here, Prospero and his magical staff control the course of nature, calling to service a collection of spirits and nymphs to do his bidding. Among them is Ariel, trapped by the wicked witch Sycorax, he is freed by Prospero only to become mastered anew; he will serve Prospero, we are told, until the very end of the play. Ariel enacts the title tempest at sea, bringing to the island the usurping Duke of Milan, Antonio, the King of Naples, Alonso, his son Ferdinand and a small handful of conspirators, including Sebastian, Stephano (a drunk) and Trinculo (a jester). Ariel separates them and hovers by, and we watch as these pairs of characters develop parallel ideas on mastery, love and fate.
The Tempest is genuinely laugh out loud funny, in parts romantic and tragic, and we are also given a meaty mix of complexity to set our teeth into. All of it works seamlessly. This work is the work of an artist in his prime and I am not surprised that so many literary people have continued to explore its beneath-the-surface genius.
P.S. Some heavenly creature has posted the entirety of the Globe production on YouTube and is truly worth many moments of your attention. The actor who plays Caliban (whomever he was) has done so perfectly.
If you have read any of these books I’d love to know what you thought of them! Comment down below or you can reach me here on my twitter. Which is your favourite Jane Austen novel?