Lo, it is December! The festive season! The perfect time to bring out all the jolly reads with themes of love and hope and family! But my first read was none of these things… in fact, it scared the lights out of me. This month I read The Handmaid’s Tale, Women and Power, Life in the Garden, What Happens in Jane Austen?, The Professor, and lastly, the novelisation of that greatest of Star Wars films: Rogue One.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
I don’t know what Margaret Atwood thinks about all day, but it is certainly not what I think about all day (cheesy crust pizza and Captain Frederick Wentworth).
This is my first Atwood and also my first CanLit. The Handmaid’s Tale was written in the 80s but feels like it could have been written today. It is so poignant, straight-hitting and devastating that I had to get it over with in one gulp—anything to quicken the escape from Atwood’s world of inexorable fear and black despair!
The Handmaid’s Tale is a surfaced ‘document’ out of the uber-puritan regime of the Republic of Gilead. We are told that ecological disaster and disease have caused the Caucasian birth rate to plummet; many women have become infertile and if they do give birth it is often to a disabled child. Offred, our narrator and protagonist, is a Handmaid— these are women who are fertile and have been convicted of adultery or gender treachery or a crime of the state. They are then sent into the home of a high ranking official to bear his children in place of his Wife. Time is important; Offred must bear a child or be sent to the Colonies with the ‘unwomen’. Concealment is also essential—furtive glances are dangerous and conversations against the state are punishable by death. Needless to say, if this novel doesn’t scare the lights out of you, you must be a good deal more than strong boned.
The Handmaid’s Tale confronts. It is like Atwood was given the nuclear codes and has hammered down on the launch button with an iron fist. She’s undoubtedly blown a massive hole into the threshold of disturbing unexplorable territory. It is the loudest cri de coeur for women that I will perhaps ever read. It deals with the complete and utter disparity of the sexes, expected continence in women, and the disrobing of title and value of women in relation to their ability to bear children.
I feel as if the style of Offred’s voice, and the subject matter she takes to describing, are nowhere near as laudable as the genius in the driving narrative. Atwood’s writing is like a post-modernist slushie. I began to feel sorry for the publisher who had to spend money on sentences like ‘Bathrobes, nightcaps.’ (Which is meant to be telling me, the reader, ‘they were wearing bathrobes and nightcaps’). There is a surprising lack of development when Offred’s thoughts and ideas are expressed in this style, and apart from the very obvious dystopian concept, I felt it wanting in the exploration of these core issues (of which there were plenty). It is there; the grittiness is in the backdrop, but Offred seems disinterested about fundamentals and describes her trials almost passively. She is not a character with overwhelming thoughts and feelings of escape and evasion (Ofglen), but a vessel to exploit the concept. I think the way Offred’s story ended is further evidence for this.
I am glad to have read it and learnt from it, but now I shall be content to leave it for all of time and eternity and in every change of the season.
Women and Power by Mary Beard
Women and Power is probably the nicest little present to give at Christmas when somebody has said: ‘Oh, just get me something small!’ This is the epitome of something small and it jumps leaps and bounds to become something vast and impressionable.
Mary Beard is a British classicist, and ‘Women and Power’ is a collection of two essays based on her lectures on the topic. It is about women and their separation from power—culturally, classically and fictionally. Through Athena, Medusa and Clytemnestra she examines the unbelievably endemic male coding in women of positions of power, going so far as to point out that Margaret Thatcher’s very-much-learnt vocal lowering, and Hilary Clinton’s trouser suit, might in fact be used to ‘allow’ some of us to come to terms with their being in places of power. Beard’s point is: this should not have to be the case! And moreover: how does one fix it?
Her insight into women’s voices as lesser when they are public (and therefore ‘unfeminine’) is perhaps the most striking point for me. Having studied in a male-dominant field for many years at university, it took me longer than usual to understand that my place was not secured by my knowledge being more ‘masculine’. It seems ridiculous now. Unfortunately, being surrounded by men and men’s voices, I was made to believe that my knowledge was bound up in this coding, and it is a habit that was, and still is, incredibly tough to break. I am not exaggerating when I say that as soon as I walked into my faculty building, there was an enormous bronze statue of a male physicist, and to this day, I do not know who the physicist was, because I could not get close enough to read the plaque without being attacked by his very-exaggerated manhood.
I didn’t find my womanhood until I read Austen’s heroines and George Eliot’s melioristic denizens of Middlemarch, and now, I find it very difficult to read books that are not written by women writers. In fact, I purposely read women’s voices and I feel like I have finally found my own. The crux of Beard’s writing makes big bold underlines under our notion of power; if it does not include voices of women (which differ only in being technically higher than a man’s), then we must change the foundation of power. I’m sure there are similar manifestos on women and power, but Mary Beard’s is very approachable and captures something of where we are now politically as well as pulling from history and the classicist literary canon.
Life in the Garden by Penelope Lively
How did I not know who Penelope Lively was before now? Man-booker prize winner for Moon Tiger and one of the most insightful voices on memory and time? Yet again, I have been hit for six by my own stupidity (however charming and Emma Woodhousian it may be).
Life in the Garden is Penelope Lively’s newest book and garden memoir. This sterling woman is in her 80s and is one of the most insightful, supremely intelligent and straight forward examiners of everything from archaeology to literature to gardens, horticulture and beyond! Her writing is wise, intelligent and just enough learned that my mother would describe her as ‘not overly enjoyable’ (which suits my tastes just fine). Life in the Garden is an examination of gardens—their history, what they mean to us, how they are presented in literature (Paradise Lost, Jane Austen, George Eliot and Beatrix Potter) and how the garden has been shaped by catalogues, garden centres (we call them nurseries here) and notable horticulturalists and landscapers—the likes of which include Gertrude Jekyll, Elizabeth von Arnim and Capability Brown. She talks about her own gardens too—a childhood in Egypt and her marital gardening ventures with Jack in Oxfordshire and then in London.
Perhaps the most crucial take away for me, as someone who wants to explore gardens in writing, is their relationship to artists and the way in which our gardens become contrived and landscaped into serving a purpose. Penelope Lively discusses this point at length in relation to Claude Monet and his garden in Giverny which served as his grand experiment for colour, producing the very famous series of Water Lilies. She also touches on novelists in relation to their own gardens—Virginia Woolf and the wonderful Vita Sackville-West, the latter interestingly chose the lesser of the garish flowers for Sissinghurst.
Penelope Lively leaves the impression that gardeners turn into writers, or writers turn into gardeners, and both might be contrived from the other. She talks about gardens and plants and flowers in collaboration with life, which makes this book essential reading for anyone—not just gardeners, readers and artists, and I will be happy to hand it over to my mother for Christmas (which was its original purpose, ‘accidently’ swayed from). It has made me unspeakably happy to have read it and I think my mother will be grateful for having a very thorough daughter indeed!
What Matters in Jane Austen? By John Mullan
If you are unfamiliar with who John Mullan is, I implore you to find out! I’ve been watching his lectures at the Hay Festival and the infamous iq-squared debate on YouTube for years! He is the darling among Austenites, the top of the class! a national treasure! Someone give him a bonnet!
Jane Austen is my favourite author of all time, and I know she will remain so— her novels have become a bit of an obsession since I first read Pride and Prejudice when I was eighteen. Not a day has passed where I have not read a blog post about her, or listened to a podcast, watched an online lecture, or read a bit of criticism. However, if you think I am immersed up to the shoulders in Austen material, John Mullan makes my obsession moot—he is drowning in it! You go to John Mullan when you need to know things like: how many times is the word ‘must’ in Emma? or how many of Darcy’s nine smiles are directed at Elizabeth? (All excepting one!)
What Matters in Jane Austen? is a collection of twenty essays prompted by questions the author has asked himself, each of them are simply magnificent. ‘Why is the Weather Important?’ or ‘Is there Any Sex in Jane Austen?’ and ‘Why is it Risky to Go to the Seaside?’. Mullan utilises each of the novels in the Austen inventory—this is a guide for readers who know their Robert Martins from their Dr Grants and their Allenhams from their Rosings’. You can tell he loves all these novels with a heart entirely their own. When put to the test, he might have a slight preference for Emma or Persuasion or Mansfield Park. It is hard to tell, but I think there is a greater focus on these three, and they are my partiality too.
John Mullan undresses Austen’s themes and characters in a way that is thoroughly entertaining. At the end of the text, he lays down some very good criticism and insights about her personal style—how experimental she was, or what she had done differently that perfected her contemporaries. The whole text leaves you having experienced enormous specificity. For me, it has created a new-found appreciation for the patterns across her work… when Austen has a proposal rejected by her heroine, or when she lets some characters gamble and some characters not, she is buttering us up all the while, so that we may understand some nuance better in the next one, or allow our knowledge of our previous reading inform our expectations. Austen can then play on these expectations, or have them subverted.
John Mullan does so much justice to the enormity of these novels and their author, Jane Austen—the great pioneer of free indirect style, of idiolects, of the contraction of time within the literary monologue, how she enters not only the mind in narration, but the physical body. To me, Jane Austen is incredibly formulaic and dramatic and strategic (which has led to so many successful adaptations) but, through all of this, Austen’s formula never feels contrived! It is because her writing tricks us, or addresses us, or gives the reader room for insertion, and this lends itself to the not noticing of any coincidence in her plot! Even when we strip everything back and recognise these coincidences impartially, she has been kind enough to us that we could never wish to find fault in her narrative. Mr Knightley knew this best; such is the paradox of love!
If you’re interested in consuming this divine fruit of study, then definitely check out John Mullan’s Hay Festival talk, the IQ squared debate or the Guardian article for the 200th anniversary of Emma. Any of these would make for a phenomenal starter!
- Jane Austen vs. Emily Bronte Debate
- John Mullan at Hay Festival
- Guardian: How Jane Austen’s Emma changed the Face of Fiction
The Professor by Charlotte Bronte
A good word to describe how well my French is, is ‘awful’. For this reason, I wanted to have read The Professor after Vilette and Shirley. But when you spot it in the sales bin at Big W, you do not ask questions, you simply let le jeu commence.
This is Charlotte Bronte’s first bang at that great enterprise: ‘the novel’, and it is also her first attempt at her later work Vilette. The Professor is narrated by William Crimsworth and thankfully, it is Charlotte’s only novel that is narrated by a man. After years of high education at Eton, and having survived off of his late mother’s aristocratic benefactors, William seeks to extricate himself from their favour. He finds out his despotic brother, now a wealthy business man in the north, and gains work under him in the counting house of the mill. William is intelligent, thorough and hard-working, and his southern delicacies offend so immensely that his brother turns into an uncompromising pancake. William leaves for Brussels and finds new employment as a teacher, first in a boy’s school and then quickly into a girl’s school. He consequently falls in love with one of his pupils who we are told is plain but heightened with moral feeling. It is not hard to see that Charlotte is drawing from her own experience in Belgium as a student, what’s more—she is quite probably writing out the fantasy that she longed for herself. Combining these two things with the knowledge that this is her first attempted novel, the whole experience is just big bags interesting.
Even though there are very obvious connections to Jane Eyre; the techniques in the narrative voice, the themes, the feelings, the characters— ‘The Professor’ comes nothing close to Jane Eyre for quality. In fact, it is to the point where I am completely bamboozled by it. This novel is esoteric and unkind, it has nothing of the genius in plot, it doesn’t know how to construct a scene and it is incredibly high-minded and brimming with youthful confidence. Charlotte chastised Jane Austen for having no feeling, but this novel passes off logic for feeling— Crimsworth is as reasoning and detached as Sherlock Holmes, but when he opens his mouth to Frances, it is in the voice of Rochester. Sometimes there are long sermons about life and man, had they been in the kinder voice of Eliot, I would have paid greater attention to them.
It is undeniable that Charlotte would have learnt the art of story telling from her talented sisters, which makes reading The Professor absolutely remarkable. The novel is by no means horrible either. Quite the contrary! It has all the makings of a fine piece of literature. She has proven this and cemented it in history on her very next attempt! The Professor still has something of the Bronte formula which has been struck upon so well in the Haworth goldmine; it succeeds in telling us the stories of characters who prefer to sit in their own poverty rather than appeal for the aid of favour. A good portion of Charlotte’s genius is in this novel, but it is certainly finessed elsewhere.
Rogue One by Alexander Freed
A movie must have just the one attribute to make it into my top favourite films; it must have a perfect narrative structure. In other words, the artistic direction and pacing needs to mimic one of those graphs they show you when you are first learning how to create a story. Examples of such a film include Stand By Me (Rob Reiner), Cinderella (the Disney original), Tangled, The Adventures of Tin Tin (Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson), Pride and Prejudice (Joe Wright) and of course, Rogue One: the extraordinary 2016 Star Wars film directed by Gareth Edwards.
Alexander Freed does famously well to bring this rag tag crew of Alliance fighters to life. The novel doesn’t do anything absurdly different to the film in terms of plot and tension, but it does give a gentle dose of emotional exposition and depth to each of these enormously appealing characters. Jyn is both evasive and bullish, Cassian is gentle, troubled and intuiting, and their co-stars are fleshed out with back stories; we get to see how their past has affected their actions and cemented their motives. Freud would probably get a kick out of it!
It really is no shock to me that the story within the film was able to transcend the medium. Alexander Freed has managed to capture the pacing, the colour of the world and the urgency of the characters. The only sore point I have was that by the end of the novel I had exhausted myself from crying, which really is just further credit to Freed.
Have you read any of these books? I would love to know what you thought of them! You can talk to me down on the comments or you can catch me here on Instagram and Twitter. Click the links to activate the Port Key!