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.)

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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.

Three fictional characters

If you’re wondering where I have been for the last month, I’ve been working, writing cover letters, and creating new career goals. I had jury duty, but did not get picked, and I’ve started reading my third classic Russian novel (Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev). I’m also studying for an exam that I’m taking in a few weeks. What I mean is, “Hello, I’m alive, and it’s nice to meet those of you who just discovered me.”

I haven’t finished my new short Russian novel, and I’m still reading Richard III and Henry VI Part 2. Obviously, I have a really bad problem with reading four books at a time, and never finishing any of them. Let’s talk about something more familiar instead!

You might have seen that meme Describe Yourself in 3 Characters meme this week. I saw it twice on Facebook before I decided to submerge myself in Tumblr gifs for an hour to find my best characterization. If we’re friends on Facebook, you may have seen that my characters were kind of awkward. A transitional phase of life leads to many awkward feelings, and I think that’s why certain characters speak to me.

Alice Rackham from Classic Alice

I loved Classic Alice because the project seemed like something I’d do. This perfectionist is told that she doesn’t measure up (she gets a B- on a paper, and her professor says she doesn’t understand the material), so she picks random books and characters to be life models. She makes mistakes, and she learns that real people deviate from their fictional counterparts (ie the Macbeth storyline). She’s awkward and intense; and while I think her project is a terrible idea because classic characters are known for their flaws and poor decisions, I’d be a liar if I said I never based a decision on something I read in a book.

Jane Hayes from Austenland

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I saw and loved this movie. Then I read the book, and I cringed so much that I never wanted to read a “Girl enters Jane Austen’s world” book ever again. The third step was reading a post on Tumblr about Jane and realizing that I loved the movie and hated the book because Jane is my MBTI. In the book, Jane is a 30 year old woman who starts planning a wedding after going on one date with a guy. She’s intense, and not in a good way. I hope I’m not like her when I’m 30, but I’m okay with being the less intense movie Jane. Sure, she needs to throw out her creepy Darcy collectibles, but her apartment (sans Pemberley dollhouse) is cute. And she goes to a resort where she gets to step back in time and learn that she actually prefers the 21st to the 19th century.

Darcy!Jane from The Lizzie Bennet Diaries

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Am I comparing myself to a costume theatre version of a male character famously played by Colin Firth? Yes, though Darcy was played by Daniel Vincent Gordh in The LBD. Everyone always wants to say that they’re Elizabeth Bennet because she’s so spunky and intelligent and beautiful, but I’m definitely more introverted than her. The LBD interpreted Darcy as someone who’s shy, hates large parties, and gets nervous around someone he finds attractive. He fake texts so he doesn’t have to word vomit in front of Lizzie. That interpretation focuses less on his pride and more on his awkwardness.

 

Maybe books, webseries, and movies always have awkward characters because that’s how the audiences feel about themselves. I love The New Adventures of Peter and Wendy because the characters are making mistakes as they figure out what they want to be when they grow up. I love Mansfield Park (and From Mansfield with Love) because Fanny is the calm protagonist in a sea of insanity. I love Northanger Abbey (and The Cate Morland Chronicles) because Catherine has an untrue sense of reality. These characters learn about themselves and their worlds through saying the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person. They make mistakes so I don’t have to.

I can live vicariously through my favorite awkward characters, and I’m thankful for that.

Poe’s party of books and murder

In what would make a fantastic musical in the vein of Million Dollar Quartet, Edgar Allan Poe once threw a dinner party for Emily Dickinson, Mary Shelley, Charlotte Brontë, Oscar Wilde, George Eliot, Louisa May Alcott, Ernest Hemingway, HG Wells, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Agatha Christie as an excuse to flirt with Annabel Lee. If you don’t remember hearing about it in your history/literature classes, it’s probably because it was an Invite Only, For Friends Potluck. Also, someone died.*

Honestly, if anyone thought this particular group of writers could get together for a Murder Mystery party without someone actually dying, they were mistaken.

We knew this night was coming. Poe and Lenore sent invitations last year. They crowdfunded their party games six months ago (I bought my internet invite, because I’m classy). They showed us all the people who were not invited.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s FOMO was my favorite.

Now the ravens have been (semi-) trained, the soup cooked, and the place settings laid. Lenore the Lady Ghost can carry plates and vodka, so it’s time to party and make no jokes.

Lauren Lopez as George Eliot is my favorite part of this first episode. “The name’s Eliot. George Eliot. Likes: beer, sporting, talking about sporting,” she says as she carries what looks like a single rib for the potluck.**

Who killed Eddie? Was it a jealous Edgar Allan? Was it an uninvited writer? Was it the uncast, unmentioned Alexandre Dumas, angry because this banker guy shares a name with his character? Was it John Proctor? Was it the bass from the barbershop quartet? Was it Lenore???

Time will tell. And so will Mondays.

*Half these people are probably ghosts or in possession of time turners, since Poe definitely died decades before Hemingway and HG Wells were born. But whatever, we’re dealing with an alternate reality here. Or magic. 

**None of these people actually brought enough food to share. Or eat. They should not be invited back.

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.

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Coming soon: Les Mis marathons!

If you missed it, there’s going to be a miniseries of Les Misérables! (Links to articles/news about this here, here, and here.) It will be a six hour show written by Andrew Davies, who wrote the 1995 miniseries of Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle (you know, the one that was faithful to the book, but also takes six hours to watch?). Among his other adaptations of classic literature are the 1996 version of Emma starring Kate Beckinsale, the 2007 miniseries of Northanger Abbey with Felicity Jones and JJ Feild, the 2008 miniseries of Little Dorrit with Claire Foy and Matthew Macfadyen, and this year’s miniseries of War and Peace with Lily James, Paul Dano, and James Norton.

Basically, this is the perfect guy for a six hour period drama.

War and Peace and Les Misérables are both extremely long books. Their exact length honestly depends on who’s translating them from Russian and French, but the Penguin Classics editions with the paintings on the covers of the books are about the same length: War and Peace has 1440 pages, while Les Misérables has 1456 pages. If War and Peace can be done in six hours, Les Mis can too.

I’m excited. I’ve said before that there were scenes and backstories that were cut from the movies and musical. I’ve told my friends that I enjoyed the musical because its length allowed for character development that does not exist in some of the other adaptations. If you want proof, consider that in the 1998 movie with Liam Neeson, Eponine doesn’t even exist, and the story ends with the Javert and Valjean’s last meeting. In the musical, Eponine is indeed a character, and Cosette lives happily ever after. In the movie musical, Marius has a relative.

Hopefully, in the miniseries, Cosette will live part of her childhood in a convent. Marius will have a Bonapartist father. Gavroche will have siblings. Fantine will be a girl who fell in love with the wrong guy. Jean Valjean will meet a child called Petit Gervais.

The miniseries will be twice the length of the stage musical, and we’re going to get a faithful adaptation of the book. That makes me so happy.

It will probably take a little while for us to actually get to see this miniseries, but I’ll be ready with my velvet ballgown and a loaf of bread.

New favorite series: The Cate Morland Chronicles

Today I discovered a new webseries adaptation of my favorite Jane Austen novel. If you don’t know me very well, you might assume that I’m talking about a random new version of Pride and Prejudice, just because I’ve seen so many versions. Sorry, I’m actually talking about a funnier novel.

Northanger Abbey is a novel about a girl named Catherine Morland who believes that novels accurately depict reality. She goes from the country to a city, meets friends and flirtatious men, and basically learns what real life is. It sounds like a heartbreaking story about someone getting her dreams crushed, except that Catherine isn’t reading Nicholas Sparks or watching Disney. She’s reading Gothic romances, the trash novels of Austen’s day, which were known for being terrifying and sensationalist for the sake of being terrifying and sensationalist. The innocent maiden is being held by the villain in the haunted fortress, and only the dashing hero can save her.

Northanger Abbey is ultimately a reminder that real life is better than a stereotypical novel, and I love it.

Before I continue, I should say that another webseries adaptation of Northanger Abbey already existed before this week. Northbound already came and went. From what I could tell, it was well-loved in the Literary Webseries fandom. For me, I watched an episode and couldn’t get into it because I had imagined a different kind of adaptation.

Someone in Utah seems to love Northanger Abbey for the same reasons I do, because The Cate Morland Chronicles is like a better executed version of what exists as a “Hey this would be a cool webseries!” paragraph and folder on my Google Drive.

This adaptation speaks to me in the same way that Austenland and Classic Alice did, and I think it’s because Cate is so clearly a fangirl. I hadn’t realized it before, but in the book, Catherine is a rabid fangirl of these adventures that happened in dark castles. Here, Cate reads Harry Potter and writes about her favorite tv shows on her blog. She loves a good story, and she wants to write her own.

Lin-Manuel Miranda explains the “I Want” song in the footnotes of his book that’s dubbed #Hamiltome on Twitter (I honestly don’t know any other name for it). It’s the driving force and the realization that starts the Hero’s Journey in literature or another work of art. This first video is Cate’s I Want video. She wants an adventure, and she’s determined to make it happen.

I’ve only seen the first video, and this is already my dream Northanger Abbey webseries. I can’t wait to see the next episode.