North and South and flawed lovers

I love a flawed character. I think that started around the same time that I started specifically looking for truth and authenticity in art. I loved Ed Sheeran’s first album because he wrote about the pain of losing a child (“Small Bump”) and a girl with a drug addiction (“A Team”). I love Once Upon a Time partly because classic heroines like Snow White and Belle are complicated and sometimes make bad decisions. I loved Disney’s live-action Maleficent because it reinterpreted the motives and history of a classic villain. Don’t get me wrong, I still believe that goodness always wins, but I like when art reflects life’s messiness. If Snow White is still Snow White when she makes mistakes, then maybe it’s okay to stop pretending to be perfect.

Last year around this time, I wrote about the danger of waiting for a Perfect Mr. Darcy to come along. This year, I want to talk about another classic romance that I like more than Pride and Prejudice.

You might have heard of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 novel North and South. You might not. It was published around 40 years after Pride and Prejudice by a woman who was friends with Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.* Like her friends, Gaskell wrote novels about social problems. North and South was a story about industrialization.

The novel follows Margaret Hale as her minister father quits the Church of England and her family flees their comfortable Southern country home for a city in the North. Because he can no longer preach, her father begins to teach rich men in the city. One of these men is John Thornton, the New Money guy who rose to the top and now owns one of the major factories in town. Thornton falls in love with Margaret immediately, but she Does Not Like Him because 1) she sees him beat up a worker, 2) her best friend works in the mill, 3) she’s Old Money, and 4) both of them are proud.

It’s a story about social dynamics. Margaret’s family has always been middle class. She grew up with certain social customs and manners, and she’s disgusted by this man who doesn’t know how to respect her in the way that the other men from her class respect her. She’s used to her old standard of living, and it’s difficult adapting after her father publicly renounces his faith. She’s a sympathetic character, but she’s proud. She believes that she’s better than her father’s new friend Mr. Thornton because she’s educated and respectable and actually likes the working class.

North and South is a romance novel about social classes and a union strike at cotton mill. Actually, I don’t know that “romance novel” is the best description, but since I’m comparing it to Pride and Prejudice, I’ll use it anyway.

Pride and Prejudice and North and South are both novels about people disliking each other before falling in love. Both feature flawed characters. Elizabeth Bennet and Margaret Hale are both women who are, well, prejudiced against their respective love interests. Mr. Darcy and Mr. Thornton are both men who are proud of their circumstances. Everyone has to learn to look past their own noses and learn from each other.

I think it’s easy to forget that Elizabeth Bennet is indeed proud. We forget that she decided to hate someone because he said that she wasn’t pretty enough at a party. She only thought nice things and fell in love with him after he 1) revealed that her favorite flirt friend Mr. Wickham was a scoundrel, 2) said he was shy, and 3) paid off the scoundrel to stop shaming the family.

I love how North and South is so clearly a story about two flawed people. It’s hard to read it and not think, “Oh, they’re both wrong here.” I love how both characters have to grow. Much like reality, no one person gets to stay stagnant. They argue, they accuse each other of murder, it’s great. And they both get over themselves.

This Galentine’s/Valentine’s Day, instead of marathoning the six hour BBC Pride and Prejudice, marathon the four hour BBC North and South.

Here’s a fan trailer for the miniseries starring Richard Armitage and Daniela Denby-Ashe. It’s fan-made because the BBC hasn’t put an official trailer on Youtube, but it’s worth posting anyway just so no one gets this miniseries confused with the American show with the same name about the Civil War.

*Casual. I can only imagine their dinner parties.

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Dickens’ festive bedtime stories

My original post for this week was an update on what I’m reading, but it didn’t seem quite appropriate for Christmas week.

As far as literature goes, Charles Dickens is nearly synonymous with Christmas. He wrote a ghost story that was adapted into roughly twenty different Hallmark movies. That ghost story was referenced in two Doctor Who episodes in the last 11 years.

Dickens wrote another seasonally appropriate work.

 

Actually, it’s not just appropriate for the Christmas season. You can read it any time of the year. But it begins with Jesus in a manger.

The Life of Our Lord is a short book written for Dickens’s children. It’s definitely not like his novels about poor kids and cruel Scottish boarding schools. It’s not a comment on the inefficiency of government. That’s what some reviewers on Goodreads and Amazon seem to have expected. It’s a children’s story that was never intended to be published.

The Life of Our Lord is basically an illustrated version of the Gospels, but without the pictures. Dickens uses simple language to tell the big stories: the shepherds and the wise men at Christmas, John the Baptist baptizing Jesus, the wine at the wedding, the calling of the apostles, healing of disease and demon possession, feeding the crowds, and the crucifixion.

Reading this warm fuzzies children’s book made so much of Charles Dickens’ novels make sense. It reveals something of his faith, and while it’s not quite theologically sound, it explains the motivations of the characters he enjoyed writing.

Children’s literature, and much of classic literature, aims to teach lessons about morality and the benefits of being kind. That’s a good thing. We want to raise our children to love others. It benefits society to raise children to obey the law and not to hurt other people. It is good and right to teach and preach that.

This is when I think we start getting into the Victorian culture and morality that shaped Charles Dickens’s works.

At least in my experience, 19th century literature is a celebration of Being a Good Person. If you are nice and kind to people, your soul is nice and kind and good. If you are unkind, your soul is bad. Pip is a kind orphan, and Miss Havisham is a misandrist villain. Nicholas Nickelby is a giving teacher, and Ralph Nickelby is a wicked banker. To jump forward by a few decades, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is about an evil man who pretends to be good.

It’s a view that the purpose of Christianity is to be kind to people.

There is a child born to-day in the city of Bethlehem near here, who will grow up to be so good that God will love Him as his own Son; and He will teach men to love one another, and not to quarrel and hurt one another; and His name will be Jesus Christ; and people will put that name in their prayers, because they will know God loves it, and will know that they should love it too.

In The Life of Our Lord, this is the speech given by the angels to the shepherds in the field. It’s quite lovely.

I find myself throughout this book saying, “Yes, but…”

This children’s version of the Gospel is easy to understand, and it teaches lessons about loving your neighbor, but it doesn’t talk about the salvation that the angels announced to the shepherds. Sin is something a bit too heavy for Dickens’ “Jesus for Children.”

It’s a happy story to read, and if you’re looking for a nice little book to read before Christmas, I definitely recommend it. I think I understand a little bit more of the mentality of the Dickensian hero.

It’s a nice story.

And that’s all I’ll say.

Merry Christmas, friends.

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(I’ve been waiting to use this gif from Classic Alice. It doesn’t really go here, but I wanted to use it, so here we go.)

Lunch break Romanticism

It’s been quite a month, hasn’t it?

I’ve started reading a new book by Alfred de Vigny, a French poet and soldier. The original title is Servitude et grandeur militaires; I’m reading the 2013 translation entitled The Warrior’s Life (different translators have translated the title as Lights and Shades of Military Life, The Military Necessity, The Military Condition, and The Servitude and Grandeur of Arms). It seems hard to translate the entire meaning of the French title into English.*

de Vigny was a poet who was born just after the French Revolution ended and grew up in Napoléon’s empire. He was an aristocrat who went to military school so he could fight for his king… and then he didn’t actually get to fight. He belonged to a generation of men who dreamed of finding glory through valiant military acts, but didn’t get it because they were serving a king who didn’t want to expand territory.

It’s interesting reading a Romantic work of literature that’s not fiction. The Warrior’s Life reads like a novel. For comparison, it was published around the same time as Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame). The stories talk about love and beauty and honor and duty. They read like some of my friends’ post-election Facebook posts: “What’s the point? Here’s a story about someone else. What makes us human?”

I’m mainly reading this on my lunch breaks, so I’m only about halfway through the book, but there was one story that I haven’t stopped thinking about. A bride goes crazy after witnessing her husband’s execution. She isn’t supposed to see it. She isn’t supposed to see the gunshots. But she does. And then the executioner adopts her because she has no family and no way to get food.

It sounds like a scene from Les Misérables. It sounds like a sad story written in beautiful language that never happened. But it did. This woman, and many other women, watched their husbands die during the French Revolution. He died, and so did she.

Writing that summary makes it seem less powerful. I read that recollection, and then I returned to work grieving for this woman who died 200 years ago.

I realize now that the books I love are all Romantic works of literature. The writers muse upon the roles of governments, human kindness, love, fear, and fame. They look for beauty in nature. They search for the sublime.

This encounter revealed to me a side of man’s nature which I had not known – of which the country knows little and which it treats so badly. From that moment I placed it high in my esteem. Since then I have often searched round me for some man comparable to him, capable of such complete and heedless abnegation of the self. And, during the fourteen years I have lived in the army, it was in it alone, and above all in the ranks of the poor and despised infantry, that I found men of this antique character, men pushing the sentiment of duty to its final consequences, having no compunction about their obedience nor shame for their poverty, simple of manners and language, proud of the glory of their country and careless of their own, happily shut up in their obscurity, and sharing with the unfortunate the black bread they purchase with their blood.

One moment I’m reading a tragic story that sounds like fiction, and then I remember that it’s true. It’s beautiful and sad and maybe too philosophical for a Black Friday lunch break, but it’s too good to let go.

*Biographical information and edition titles come from Wikipedia, the source of all knowledge and facts on the internet.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child vs fanfiction

Now that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has been out for nearly a week, it seems that it’s finally safe to start discussing the plot. A number of the articles that I’ve read were written by people who were upset because so-and-so did such-and-such thing. Other people were upset because they had expected a different kind of story.

Honestly, as “done” and “fanfiction-y” as the play feels, I loved it. I got into Harry Potter when I was in high school; the same friend who made me want to read the books was the same friend who introduced me to fanfiction in 2009. It’s safe to say that at this point in 2016, I’ve spent a few hours reading Harry Potter.

If you’re not a member of a fandom, you might not know what fanfiction is. Essentially, people start asking themselves, “What if this happened?” or “What if someone was slightly different?” and start writing stories. A few examples might include Fred surviving the Battle of Hogwarts, Harry becoming pregnant with Draco’s child, and Hermione discovering that she’s the long-lost twin of one of her Slytherin classmates.

The first Harry Potter book came out in 1997, while the last novel about Harry was released in 2007. Fans have had 19 years to write stories about Harry Potter. They’ve known the names “Albus Severus Potter,” “Scorpius Malfoy,” and “Rose Weasley” for nine. At this point, it’s unlikely that any Harry Potter sequel or prequel that Rowling writes will have stories or plot details that no one has ever thought of before.

I think J.K. Rowling gave us a preposterous story because she wanted to show her readers that their fanfiction does not work in the world that exists in her mind.

If you haven’t finished reading the book yet, go back now, because there are spoilers ahead. If you want to read my previous Cursed Child post that doesn’t have spoilers, click here.

Continue reading

Shakespeare without supervision, part 2

At the beginning of May, I wrote that I was planning to read all three parts of Henry VI, plus Richard III, in preparation for my June trip to Yorkshire. My thought was that I should probably read some of Shakespeare’s histories before visiting Middleham Castle.

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Reading four plays in one month might have been a bit optimistic. But, I finished Henry VI, Part One and read the beginning of Richard III on my trip, so all is not lost!

Here’s what I have learned so far:

1. Footnotes are your best friend when reading something like Shakespeare. At home, I read a Signet Classics edition that had lots of footnotes and commentaries. On my trip, I read the free ebook on my iPad, which didn’t have those things. Google and Wikipedia were my friends when I didn’t understand the historical events.

2. Henry VI, Part One is about the beginning of the Wars of the Roses. I think.

Plantagenet: If he suppose that I have pleaded truth, From off this brier pluck a white rose with me.

Somerset: Let him that is no coward nor no flatterer, But dare maintain the party of the truth, Pluck a red rose from off this thorn with me………. Ah, thou shalt find us ready for thee still, And know us by these colors for thy foes, For these my friends in spite of thee shall wear.

Plantagenet: And, by my soul, this pale and angry rose, As cognizance of my blood-drinking hate, Will I forever and my faction wear, Until it wither with me to my grave, Or flourish to the height of my degree.

3. Joan of Arc is a French heroine. She fought against the English. Shakespeare does not like her.

4. A significant part of the play is just kings talking about battles. I assume that’s why I don’t really remember many events in this 100-page play. The messengers talk about battles, aspiring kings debate who gets to be king…. and that’s about all that I remember.

5. You know when you’re watching a movie, and the villain goes off on a soliloquy or a monologue, and the prisoners sit and wait because they’re too polite to escape when their captor is talking? Absolutely no preservation skills. That’s how I feel about a scene near the end when the Earl of Suffolk has a captured Margaret of Anjou.

Margaret: Say, Earl of Suffolk, if thy name be so, What ransom must I pay before I pass? For I perceive I am thy prisoner.

Suffolk: [Aside] How canst thou tell she will deny thy suit, Before thou make a trial of her love?

Margaret: Why speak’st thou not? What ransom must I pay?

Suffolk: [Aside] She’s beautiful and therefore to be wooed; She is a woman, therefore to be won.

Margaret: Wilt thou accept of ransom, yea or no?

Suffolk: [Aside] Fond man, remember that thou hast a wife; Then how can Margaret be thy paramour?

Margaret: I were best to leave him, for he will not hear.

Suffolk: {Aside] There all is marred; there lies a cooling card.

Margaret: He talks at random; sure, the man is mad.

Suffolk: [Still aside, but more loudly] And yet a dispensation may be had.

Margaret: And yet I would that you would answer me.

Suffolk: [Aside] I’ll win this Lady Margaret. For whom? Why, for my king!

Seriously, Margaret, you could have escaped 15 minutes ago, and he still would have been trying to figure out who he could marry you off to.

6. The play ends with King Henry, who’s apparently an idiot, sending Suffolk back to France to “agree to any covenants” so he can marry the daughter of the guy he literally just fought in a war.

I’ve started Part Two, which begins with the logical result of “agree to anything they say because I want to marry this beautiful woman.” There’s quite a bit of a gap between the events in Henry VI, Part Two and Richard III, but Margaret seems to be the one character present in both/all. In a way, Shakespeare’s plays teach history, albeit a dramatized one that has puns and ghosts. They’re confusing, but entertaining.

Cheers to my first experience with a semi-historically accurate Shakespearean play! Once I finish the other three plays on my list, I’ll let you know how I feel.

Keeping some secrets of Harry Potter

I just returned from a trip to Europe for a wedding and some visits with friends, and while I was there, I got to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in previews. Audience members are sworn to secrecy, though apparently some have managed to share the secret with the general Internet. I, however, am determined to keep the secret and not invoke the fury of our literary queen, JK Rowling.

My friend asked me the other night, “What’s the Cursed Child?” and I’m honestly still trying to figure that out. There are multiple interpretations of the title, probably equally valid, and they all spoil the story. What I will tell you about the plot is this: Harry is trying to figure out this whole fatherhood thing, and it’s understandably difficult since he grew up without a dad. The kids are the children of people who fought for both sides during the wizarding war, and that’s hardCursed Child is an adventure story about family, and we understand everyone better at the end of it.

Here are some general thoughts about the play and/or story:

  1. It’s definitely worth the money. I mean, it’s new Harry Potter. We see flashbacks of Harry’s childhood, and we learn how the wizarding world has progressed in the 19 years following the Battle of Hogwarts.
  2. Rowling has obviously been listening to her fans. We’ve been asking, “What if such-and-such happened?” for literally years, and she shows us how that would work.
  3. If you’re into fanfiction, you’ll recognize some things. I mean, this is a next-gen story. It was bound to happen. But even if you read a ton of fanfiction, I think you’ll be surprised by some of the plot twists.
  4. Numbers 2 and 3 being said, some headcanons are canonized in the play.
  5. I had forgotten how funny Ron is. Fanfiction made me not like him, and Cursed Child again made me want to be friends with him.
  6. I feel like the kids are my babies, and I want to give them hugs. Albus Severus Potter, your dad will love you no matter what house you’re in, so give him a hug and get on that train. (I am such a Hufflepuff, and that’s not a spoiler because that’s literally part of the Epilogue)
  7. Did I mention the flashbacks? Yeah they made me cry.
  8. The script is obviously being published as a book, but I hope they record the cast and release it on dvd. The production design was incredible. I hope the lighting designer wins an Olivier Award, because that was one of my favorite parts of the show. And the effects! There were stuntmen flying near my face at one point. There’s some Polyjuice. When they cast spells, they shoot fire at each other. Then there’s some beautiful use of a turntable, and beautiful choreography. In short, this play is perfect, and it’s better than a book.
  9. The actors are the characters, and anyone who thinks Black Hermione is a bad thing needs to sit down, because Noma Dumezweni was absolute perfection. Of course she would be the grownup version of Emma Watson’s Hermione. When she’s acting, she is Hermione Granger, with all her faults and strengths. That’s what matters, and I hope we get some broadcast version so everyone can see that.
  10. Remember how minimal Ginny was in the movies? She’s better in the play, and she’s vulnerable and incredibly strong. The series was always about Harry Potter, so she’s a smaller role, but she doesn’t let us forget what Tom did to her. She doesn’t let herself be overshadowed, and she doesn’t stay in the background. I love that.

If you’re like me and it’s been a few years since you last read Harry Potter, I would definitely recommend that you reread the series before you read the play. They make a lot of references to the past. The program had a recap of the important details and characters from each book, and that’s helpful, but there’s nothing like reading the books themselves. If you don’t have time to read all seven books, I would say to at least reread the ones about the Second Wizarding War (Goblet of Fire through Deathly Hallows). You’re going to do it anyway, but that means you have four books instead of seven to read in one month.

Oh, and if you haven’t ordered the book yet, here it is on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Five gold stars, 10/10, definitely recommend.

Happy reading!

April Fool’s, cleverness, and honesty

I slept in this morning, and when I checked my clock, my first thought was that it was somehow pulling an April Fool’s joke on me. Then I realized that technology usually doesn’t make jokes, unless a programmer somewhere decides to be “funny.” This got me thinking about all the times when people try to be funny on April Fool’s Day, and then have to apologize on Facebook two hours later because everyone took them seriously. After that, I thought of all the times in literature when jokes and badly thought out plans go wrong.

Here’s a list of 11 times* that fictional characters tried to be clever and found that secrets don’t make friends.
*Hopefully not directly labeling this list with the books will make this slightly less spoiler-y. Novels and plays are tagged so you can find them if you want to read them.

  1. Guy “forgets” to tell his Fiancée that he’s already married. Fiancée finds out when Wife #1’s lawyer crashes the wedding.
  2. Girl misses own wedding because she goes to the wrong church. Groom marries someone else.
  3. Guy decides to make Girl fall in love with him before breaking her heart, because “girls like that kind of thing” (not a direct quote). Girl breaks Guy’s heart.
  4. Girl doesn’t tell Guy that she has a secret brother staying with her. Guy sees Girl and Brother in the place and time of a murder.
  5. Guy Hannah Montana leads double life and doesn’t tell Girl. Girl swoons over Celebrity.
  6. Girl and Guy keep engagement secret. Guy flirts with other girls. Girl gets accused of being someone else’s mistress.
  7. Guy gets out of jail, inherits fortune, then returns to hometown with a fake name. Sucks for the people who put him in jail.
  8. Girl and Guy keep engagement secret. Guy falls for someone else. Guy also loses fortune. Girl marries someone else.
  9. Guy gets his eloquent Friend to catfish the girl they both like. Girl thinks eloquent letters are sexier than Guy’s face.
  10. Guy creates secret identity so he can flirt with girls. Friend steals Guy’s secret identity to flirt with Guy’s cousin.
  11. Guy keeps marriage secret so Wife can inherit a fortune. Wife leaves and dies, and Guy never knows his Child.

This list wasn’t quite as entertaining as I thought it would be, but I think it’s because the moral of each story is “Don’t lie.” It’s funny, albeit sad, when all the churches in town have the same name and the bride picks the wrong one. It’s satisfying when the innocent convict gives his enemies their comeuppance. But secrets and lies in literature usually end in tears.

Chances are that in real life, people aren’t starting secret relationships on April Fool’s Day. Hopefully they’re not asking shy people on dates that they never intend to go on. The holiday is usually not mean-spirited. All the same, cleverness tends to bite people in the butt. Honesty is usually the best policy.

Note: Yes, I did fall for someone’s “We’re dating!” Facebook post today. That might be indirectly connected to this Facebook post, but that’s not the only reason why I’m anti-April Fool’s Day. I just don’t have the right sense of humor.