When Breath Becomes Air ⎟ Book Exchange Series

Dear Reader,

I recently took part in a Book Exchange. A friend of mine posted a status asking if anyone wanted to take part in a gift exchange. I had often seen posts like this before. In the past, I’ve never answered the call because I felt uncomfortable giving my address out to total strangers. This time, I decided, I was just going to jump in. My friend sent me a long message immediately after I replied that asked you to send your favourite book to Person A; you would make a similar post on your wall and those who responded would send a book to Person B (the person who’s post I had seen and to which I had responded). One swapped addresses as the chain of connections grew.

At first, I was a little overwhelmed. I was about to say, oh, maybe this isn’t for me. But, I embraced it. I embraced that I would be asking my friends to send my friend a book and that their friends would be sending me a book.  I was to send a book to the person who caught her in this web of gift-giving, and those who responded to me would send my friend a book.  I kind of liked that this whole experiment was at least once-removed. It felt like a connection wherein you shared part of yourself to someone you did not necessarily know. I didn’t even think about the books I would get, I just thought about the book I wanted to give and the person who would receive my book.

Since money is tight and our government insists that young people just need to get used to precarious employment, I told the friends who responded to my post that it was perfectly okay to send a used book or to buy from cheaper online shops, an advantage being that one can ship directly to their person. I know that we should be supporting independent shops, but there just aren’t any around me. I suppose the ideal situation would be to send a book with a care package and a small gift, but that wasn’t in my budget and I didn’t want to ask anyone to spend beyond what they were able. The only downside of this method is that the person who receives the book doesn’t know who sent the book. I’ve decided to make a post for every book I receive and extend my most heartfelt thanks and bow in humility to those who sent the precious gift of a book to me.

 

***

Yesterday, I received a book from the book exchange. At first, I was trying to remember what books I had purchased. I was awaiting some Roald Dahl books and Black and British, and when I opened the bubbly envelope, out popped When Breath Becomes Air. Afterwards, I realized this wasn’t a book I’d purchased because of the name on the label, it had my nicknameI was a bit shocked. I knew that everyone was super hyped about this book; I was not. Two humans in my life had told me about Paul Kalanithi, one before Kalanithi’s death and one who had fallen in love with this book.

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I really wasn’t convinced. He was sold to me as someone who had crossed the invisible but very tangible boundary between the arts and sciences. It seemed ludicrous to me. In my experience, science has heralded itself as the worthy occupation, and arts are usually sidelined as a luxury. It felt that science was a career, but literature, art, history, economics (not commerce), philosophy, etc., those things are considered to be hobbies. I’m wary of this crack in the earth, this line in the land, this unfathomable fissure. I never used to feel that divide so strongly when I was younger, I had studied physics and maths in secondary school, and I loved reading and history. I, myself, debated between studying engineering and history. My dad’s friends, engineers that had lived through Nortel Networks, told me to do history. So, I did.

As I studied, the prejudices against the arts from the sciences ruffled my feathers. It was like constantly going against the grain, and even though I was moving through molasses, people believed that work was somehow meaningless in the greater scheme. I had many existential crises in the library: what was the meaning of anything? History and revisionists and philosophies, oh my!  So, I let those experiences inform my opinion on this book, and I decided against reading it. I was wrong to have those prejudices.

Certainly, Kalanithi understands his own prejudices, the arrogances and ego that come with medicine or any career, really, and he conscientiously works against them. He notices it, and he remarks that it doesn’t feel right. Next time, we do better. I think that is one of the most refreshing aspects of this book; he recognizes that we are not always going to have the answers or be the same person day after day. Each day we have to struggle with the good and bad things that inform our past actions, we must be held accountable, and we must strive to shift our experience beyond what we know to be true.

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Although Kalanithi doesn’t explicitly state: BE EMPATHETIC, his entire memoir is an ode to empathy and understanding. It does not bridge the gulfs created by class, race, and gender, but it does remind us that privileges may make us heedless to how others think and feel. We might become solipsistic, the sole ego that denies souls to others.

The book is chockfull of references and allusions to erudite and esoteric literary works, and, by applying texts that might seem elusive, dusty tomes directly to his professional and personal experiences, Kalanithi encourages us to think of them as relevant to our own lives. Things that seem elitist are within our grasp; he evidences this by the fact that his mother’s revolutionizing force in the previously somewhat bereft local education system gave opportunities to all students.

Indeed, I’m still figuring out how education and elitism go hand-in-hand, particularly when so many  young people are educated but lack the hoards of moveable property that accompany the elite. Moreover, I know reading classics of western literature is laden full of privilege and historical prejudices, and, surely, our sense of their beauty is tied to the colonialism that accompanied(s) them. And yet, words, literature, and thoughts are profound and full of meaning. Canonical western literature is not the be-all and end-all. There are so many voices to whom we should listen. We must actively make social and public spaces for those voices.

We must also not forget that Kalanithi had an extraordinary education, Stanford and Cambridge. I cannot ignore this in my review because it would deny the fact that many persons will not and do not have access to these kinds of experiences. I would also like to make note that the book does contain some privileging of able bodies and able minds. The book, at times, seems to preclude a world inclusive of neurodivergence, but that these are problems to be solved. I am not well-informed enough in this area to speak to it fully.

Kalanithi’s bridge between Literature and Neuro-science and -surgery echoes his investigation of the mind/body nexus, a philosophical problem as old as time. We accept that language gives us the tools of expression, meaning, feeling, intelligence. ‘Man’ has believed that what made him man was language. (Animals, meanwhile, have argued that it was the red-flower.) And then there is the brain that controls the lot. If we want to understand how we think and what we think, do we engage in philosophy or neuroscience? If parts of the brain that become damaged or put under the pressure of a tumour influence how we behave and act, then what does that mean about what it means to about selfhood? Kalanithi doesn’t give us a straight-forward answer; rather, he engages in a well-thought discourse that attempts to meaningfully untangle the seemingly unsolvable. Unsolvable things such as life, death, mortality, suffering, the liminal experience of the patient who may or may not return from the cusp of death, and the place of those who remain after death.

To me, and I think most people will agree, it is the abridged and purpose-driven autobiographical narrative that a parent would hope to leave their child, especially if the parent will die before the child can ask the parent questions about their life.

Finally, I’d like to finish by quoting one of my best friend’s favourite lines: ‘You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving’. A life in motion, a life that moves forward, learning from others, ourselves, and how to engage with people as people and not as problems or a ticking clock.

 

Heaps of Love,

Kat Xx

[Edit: see below]

P.S. In my desire to publish this before I had to take my dog out, I forgot to emphasize a few things. The main takeaway that I want people to have from this book is the importance of reading and the act of reading as a tool to build empathy. For all of its flaws, children that grew up reading the Harry Potter series have been shown to be more empathetic. Because so many young people have this shared experience, they are also able to connect through it. Likewise, we may not agree on which religion or why, we might agree that Hermione’s activities through SPEW are indicative of white feminism. We were given a language to discuss child abuse and the loneliness that teens and young adults feel alongside the loneliness and isolation of adults (re: Sirius). Literature is important. People who study literature are important. Their brains work in wonderful and often uncelebrated ways.

In addition to noting the importance of literature, I did make the point about the prevalence of western literature throughout the text. When I was studying, I was co-Chair of an off-shoot of a charity that builds local-language libraries, supports local-language publishing, and gives money for girls to go to school. When I was part of this charity, it was always important to me that the books that were placed in the libraries and the books that were published were not western exports. Those books are usually readily available, but it was important that money was given to regional and local authors. It is never about exporting the western canon elsewhere; it is about recognizing that we need to support local publishing. This is why writing, and empathy, and developing our individual and shared vocabularies through reading, writing, and supporting authors is important.

Look at the ways in which my own world was broadened by this book. Those are the things that are important.

 

Book rating: 3.5/5

Great Expectations⎟ When Books Gobble You Up

Dearest Reader,

Do you remember when I was reading Great Expectations, and I even did a lot of legwork to do research via methodologies and theory? Well, a strange thing happened; I read Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. I then got a massive book hangover. Yes, I know that the book is intensely flawed. It is full of white feminism, and that is super problematic. But, boy, oh boy, is it such a good love story. She also does an extremely good job at representing 19th-C strikes, and the need for employers to listen to their workers as they communicate their needs. I even purchased the audiobook because I know that I am going to want that shiz in my life pretty much always. Cue Snape references, now. After this dramatic and rather romantic literary interlude, I got sucked into E.M Forster’s Maurice (that’s Morris not More-eece, for the non-Brits out there). Dear lord, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Well, as you can imagine, I got sucked into a whirlwind of really good reading material. It totally detracted from my Great Expectations of producing multiple podcasts for you guys. Sometimes, books just manage our lives more than we’ll ever know. Please read these books and get sucked away with me.

This means that I am rather unsure if I should try to write a Dickensian podcast when I am no longer in the mood for it. My somewhat odd mood is due to the fact that I am now reading George Gissing’s The Odd Women. It feels like the type of book that every feminist should read, except that they should not. I am almost halfway through the text, and I find it dreadful. The writing is not awful, but it is too close to the daily lives that women lead. It isn’t telling me anything new. At the time, it was super revolutionary because Gissing’s female characters were espousing a marriageless life in favour of a working life.  The book is also super classist. Only a particular type of woman could have this life. Some women, according to some of the characters, are just to weak-willed to marry. Or, the poor women, they were too unintelligible and unrefined to be ‘saved’. Ugh, how patronizing. Additionally, women of colour do not feature at all. I suppose I wanted to read this book and hear myself go ‘YES!’ that is exactly how I feel about this and this. Rather, I find that I am forcing myself to read through it. I’m almost tempted to ‘did not finish’ (DNF) this book. It isn’t exactly the book I want to open my podcast. If I am not enjoying it, then how will a listener?

In all likelihood, I will finish it–haha! But, I do not think I am going to make notes whilst reading. I’m just going to read in the moment. Maybe, I might begin with Maurice. It made me love EM Forster so much. I have not been the biggest fan of A Room with a View. It felt a little hollow for me, but I am also struck by the thought that I may want to revisit A Room in the future to have my mind changed. That is one of my favourite things about reading; you don’t have to like a book the first time you read it. You can leave it there, or, on some future date, you can pick the book up and give the relationship another chance. And, in this case, you won’t feel like your ex is still as annoying as ever.

Books I’ve Been Reading: 

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I’ll leave it there, dear Reader. Keep very well!

 

Heaps of Love,
WordPlay Xx

Great Expectations ⎟ Pip’s ‘sympathetic’ narration

 

great expectations Pip's 'sympathetic' narrations

Dear Reader,

I have read the first two months worth of Great Expectations [on page 132/457]. I have begun reading the third month’s releases, and I have to say, Dickens is really great at the cliff-hanger. I intended to do reviews based on each section, but I now consider it might be a bit dull to just garble plot at you. I want to do some character sketches on Miss Havisham and Mrs Joe Gargery; I want to pick out the ways women, femininity, and the disavowal of woman-ness (ooooo, such a loaded invented term) is treated by Dickens and our narrator, Pip. I know that I am going to want to include Estella and Biddy, too, so I thought that I would finish my re-read before I endeavoured that task.

I’ve read to the part where Mrs Joe has been attacked by Orlick? Did he? Didn’t he? Orlick enrages me because he is that person that reverses Mrs Joe’s nature so she becomes this ideal Victorian woman in the domestic sphere, who causes no strife. Except, now she is unable to tend to the house. I suppose the point is, throughout the beginning of the novel, that Mrs Joe does very little. But that is how Pip represents Mrs Joe to us, and we have to consider Pip’s narrative unreliable. I mean, food just appears in front of Pip at Christmas without much thought given to how much work Mrs Joe put into making the meal. We are given other clues to draw the conclusion of Pip’s unreliability; when he is asked to re-tell his experiences to adults, he does not give truthful accounts that coincide to what we’ve previously been told. Consider, for example, when he describes his visit to Miss Havisham’s to Mrs Joe and Mr Pumblechook very differently than what he describes to us. Later, he confesses to Joe that he made up what actually happened. Throughout these early sections, Pip is often afraid to confess to the truth or tell Joe things because he is afraid he will not be believed because of his past indiscretions.  We should keep this in mind.

That Pip confesses his lies to the adults to us works to convince the reader that we are getting the honest narration from Pip. We sympathise, or empathise depending on how well the effect works, with being young and being misunderstood or the anxiety of having to relay our experiences when in the past we’ve not been entirely honest or truthful. Thus, when Pip describes Miss Havisham, thus far, we really only get his account. Mr Pumblechook, when he offers Pip to Miss Havisham, says he has not met her. He cannot give an account of her personal character other than what he has learnt through others, including what Pip will tell him. Joe, who does meet Miss H, does not even respond to her. He does not give an account of her to collude with Pip’s description of her in a decayed wedding dress with spiders emerging from the black hole that is her wedding cake (obviously Joe did not witness this peculiarity, but the point still stands). We take Pip’s word that Miss H is what she is.

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via tumblr

The narration functions such that we are meant to identify with Pip. And, I think that the reason many people dislike Pip is because, perhaps, they do not identify with him–so they find him unreliable, annoying, prone to terrible choices, and a bit whiney. So, I thought my earlier reluctance to re-read Great Expectations was me just being fickle to this Dickensian experience, but I think it has to do more with the ways my skills of empathy have shifted; I remove myself from Pip and his actions, rather than trying to identify with him. Of course, there are things I do identify with, and that’s what makes Dickens so clever–it’s hard to untangle the web. So, perhaps, those readers who find the book dull or difficult to read are just not convinced by Pip and the story he is telling.

Thus, an ongoing thread of discussion that I will maintain throughout this series on Great Expectations is Pip’s narration. Pip does share politely embarrassing accounts of his youth. The story with the convict will become a formative part of the plot and Pip’s (false-)actualization of being a gentleman, but he does share his role in aiding said convict to escape. He thieves from his brother-in-law, Joe, and takes the Christmas pork pie, and gives it to the escaped man. These are fairly damning acts. But they are also the acts of a child, who is alone, afraid, and who has no person(s) but us to confide (as an adult). That is something we need to remember, Pip, as a child, would not have had the language to articulate how and what he feels the way he is able to describe as an educated adult, reflecting. Joe, thus, becomes a foil to Pip’s self-expression. And we should take note of the way that Joe narrates his past (as told to us by Pip) and how Pip expresses his own sense of growing up, coming of age, and years of formulation.

If we need a clear sense of Pip’s inability to express himself, when he is young, we need to look no further than his shyness around Miss Havisham and Estella. The older Pip clads his narrative by explaining that he was gaining a consciousness of his lowly class, but younger Pip is quiet, shy, and rather upset. When he is left alone after this first encounter, he cries. He cannot verbally express his emotions, so we are told that he was overwrought. Tears are important here, too, to contrast Estella’s learned hardness, crafted and fuelled by Miss H, with Pip’s emotional display that enhances his softness and vulnerability. Pip defends his display of emotions in the description of his next visit, when he encounters the young boy who encourages him to fight him. Pip easily wins the fight against this physically soft young man. Thus, we get the older Pip forming his younger self as wronged by a particular kind of femininity that is wrong but more masculine than the supposedly genteel, young man, who performs a false masculinity and cannot defend himself against Pip. Even in this encounter, Pip cannot communicate to the other boy what he feels. He simply does what he is told to do. It is the elder Pip who constructs and contrasts the characteristics of other persons to inform us how we should read and relate to him and his story.

Alright, reader, I had better get back to reading more about Pip. Let me know what you’re reading and what you think about it in the comments. 

Heaps of love,

wordplay xx

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Great Expectations ⎟ Materiality of the Book & Serialization

great expectations - materiality of the book & serialization

I called this project Serial because of the serialization of Dickens’s novels. Serialization is really fascinating; I would describe it as being akin to the scheduled release of television shows. In fact, that is *definitely* the origin of the filmic medium. And, that, to me, is absolutely hilarious—can we all share a group chuckle? I don’t know why I find it so peculiar; we often use analogy to describe things that are historical or out of our current experience, but I just love the idea that the serialization of novels/fictions is how we consume cinematic/filmic media instalments of television shows. I imagine that DVD collections, Netflix, and other streaming services that offer all of the episodes would be akin to the publication of the whole book. Would I carry around a boxed-set of DVDs? Maybe. Like, if it was Harry Potter or The West Wing or Poirot, mais oui, but of course!

Great Expectations was published in 35 parts from 1 December 1860 to 3 August 1861 in All the Year Round, a magazine of which Dickens owned the majority holdings. It was also published in the U.S by Harper’s Weekly.

  1. December 1860 had 5 parts released, consisting of chapters 1-8.
  2. January 1861 had 4 parts released, consisting of chapters 9-15.
  3. February had 3 parts released, consisting of chapters 16-21.
  4.  March had 5 parts released, consisting of chapters 22-29.
  5. April had 4 parts released, consisting of chapters 30-37.
  6. May had 4 parts released, consisting of chapters 38-42.
  7. June had 5 parts released, consisting of chapters 43-52.
  8. July had 4 parts released, consisting of chapters 53-57.
  9. August had 1 part released, consisting of chapters 58-59.

Rather than follow each part’s release date, which would leave me with 35 posts on Great Expectations, [Bah, said Scrooge, Humbug///]. I will go by the monthly releases, which should give me about 8-9 plot-driven discussions, with space to add a few more posts or not, to talk about things that I feel I’ve over-looked or about which I’ve changed my mind.

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First serial of Great Expectations. Courtesy of: George C. Gordon Library.

Let’s consider how the release of the parts of the novel in serial form make the work more digestible and approachable for a reader. According to Robert Patten in Charles Dickens and His Publishers, about 100,000 copies of All the Year Round sold each week. The portability of the magazine meant that it could be shared, meaning that, although 100,000 copies sold each week, the readership was much higher. Dickens’s stories were read aloud in groups, shared, and, I like to imagine, pilfered by unsuspecting readers in coffee shops, the most dubious of public spheres. That is a lot of readers, particularly in an age (in Britain) where literacy was inconsistent. 

I think that most of the reason readers don’t pick up Dickens’s works is because of how large they are. But imagine, not watching Orange is the New Black because there are TOO MANY episodes, without SENSE, am I right? The hand-held, portability of the magazine serialization made Dickens’s words travel, across space, classes, and nations. I love to imagine the sheer volume of Dickens’s words travelling across London as rail travel made living out of the city viable and desirable, John Wemmick, a character in this very story, for example. Work on the Tube, as it is known now, began in 1860, as the Metropolitan Railway, from Paddington toe Farringdon Street. That is something we should also remember when reading Dickens. Just as we are attached to new and developing technology, advances are also to be noted and found in Dickens’s works. We might not notice them because they have existed for us for all time, but railways and travel by rail was a huge topic of debate. Let’s not forget that the railway in Tolstoy stood for the dangers of modernity, the artifice of women (such as in Anna Karenina). 

So we’ve noted that Dickens’s words were portable. The heavy tomes that we now, lovingly, lug around in handbags or saddlebags, whichever your fancy, were not the same that its original readers experiences. Indeed, collated publications of Dickens’s novels usually occurred within the year of its last serial publication. So, they did exist in his time. Today, I sometimes think that the books we read in public also dictate to other people information that we may or may not want to share about ourselves. Like the clothes we wear and the airs we adopt, the public face of reading also indicates things about us to other people. I’m not sure I have any conclusions to draw about this at this time, but it’s something to consider about the books we read, where we read them, and their visibility.

Let’s also take a moment to think about the illustrations of Dickens’s novels. My edition does not have any illustrations, which is such a loss. It doesn’t make the book more adult when you remove the illustrations!!!! I love that Dickens’s stories had accompanying illustrations. I think that the visual world offered by these illustrations gives so much more to the text. It opens a space for more information and different interpretations of the texts. It also provides information that less literate or less-well-read readers can use to piece together information. Since, my edition doesn’t have illustrations, I am going to have to align them when I’m reading. From a cursory examination of the original publications, the illustrations were a later addition. So, I forgive Barnes and Noble their lack of illustrations–not. Ahah! The original illustrations were completed by Frank Stone in 1862; he completed eight for the Library Edition. Later illustrators include F.A Fraser, John Mclennan, Sol Eytinge Jr., and Henry Mathew Brock. 

The serialization of the novel also permits the author to employ cliffhangers and other plot techniques to keep the reader hooked. This might make the work seem to be fighting for your attention, or to have artificial highs and lows, but it also means that the author has to work hard to keep the story gripping and engaging because, if nineteenth-century readers are anything like me, I always forget to tune in next week to find out what happens. Luckily, I have the internet to sort that out. But, I also think that as the member of a very small family (there is only 4 of us AT ALL), with friends strewn across the world, I have an experience that means I hear about a lot less things on a daily basis, compared to when I was in high school or at uni. 

I love the disparity between our experience with Dickens as somewhat unapproachable and out of touch–his books are big AF and his language is complex and full of allusions and his experiences and those of his contemporaries. I am sure that many allusions flew over people’s heads, as they do mine, but that’s part of reading and all creative media. I mean, when I was about 12 and I tried to read Little Dorrit I had no idea what the heck a Marseilles was, turns out it’s a place–HAHA. But because I didn’t know it, it made me want to know it. So, I lived life, and when I learnt that Marseilles was a place, I got it more. And, later, as I learnt history and ideas of nationality and character, I got that the story started outside England in a very meaningful way–but we’ll get to Little Dorrit a little later. Spoiler: IT IS MY FAVOURITE DICKENS *jumps up an down like an over-excited toddler*

Heaps of love,

wordplay xx

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a room with a view⎟an introduction to ‘englishness’

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Dear Reader,

I had been putting off reading EM Forster for an age. I am not sure why; I think I dreaded what I may read in A Passage to India. Orientalist novels can seem daunting because they truly represent a latent and manifest racism that pervaded imperialism, colonialism, and what we call post-colonialism. I put it at arms length; I own a physical copy and a digital copy of the text. I was wary of Forster for quite some time, but in my research for my PhD project I ran across Forster’s name. He wrote a book called Maurice that was written in 1913-14, but it was not published until 1971 because it was about the love that dare not speak its name–love between two men. I did a little more research into Forster, and I decided to purchase Maurice. At the same time I was ordering Maurice, I popped A Room with a View into my cart as well.

I’ve decided to read the books in the following order:
1. A Room with a View
2. A Passage to India
3. Maurice

So let’s begin our discussion.

I’ve just started reading and the first page keeps popping into my head, when I’m reading other pages, walking Misha, or making food. Lucy Honeychurch and her cousin, Charlotte Bartlett, have just arrived in Italy, Florence we later learn. The setting, however, is cast as extremely English, and not even a truly respectable English, according to Lucy and Charlotte. The Signora of the pension, or boarding house, speaks with a Cockney accent. Nor have they been granted the rooms with views that they were promised. The tables where they are eating lunch are set up for efficiency, ordered rows of English persons, bottles of water, and red wine. Behind the persons hang portraits of the late Queen Victoria  and the poet Laureate, ‘heavily framed’ (1). Charlotte notes that the meat they’ve been served was boiled to make a broth for soup.

Rather disappointedly, Lucy says, ‘Charlotte, don’t you feel, too, that we might be in London? I can hardly believe that all kinds of other thing are just outside’.

I find this sentence fantastic. Lucy feels so at home, in this interior Englishness, not comfort, that she cannot believe that she is, physically, outside of England. This sets a strong tone for the novel, these characters are going to have to overcome Englishness, whatever those terms may be. They will be, of course, revealed to us as the novel progresses, but I wanted to talk about this sentence right away. I will likely come back to it again, but it’s just such a perfect way to start a book about travel–the characters do not even feel transported to another location because their boarding house is so English.

Briefly, before I begin to discuss the implications of this, I’d like to nod at another novel that does this. And by this, I mean create a sense of one’s supposed national character taking precedence over their location, such that it determines their behaviour or aversion to local climate. Germaine de Staël’s novel Corinne, or Italy, plays with tropes of a national characteristic. Corinne is an Italian who is passionate and full of emotion. She meets a Scottish man, whose character is levelled as cooler and less passionate than Corinne’s. He is, however, very much in love with her. But, he chooses an English ‘girl’ over Corinne because she is the epitome of duty and domesticity, whereas Corinne is too public in her emotions, she is too Italian and the English ideal is chosen.

Of course, I have not gotten quite so far in the novel to know if a similar notion plays out, but we shall, indeed, see. My point, at this time, is that place and one’s ability to move within a place as either a member or an outsider is determined by a dominant culture and usually characters in an authoritative position within that dominant culture, male. To take this point to the extreme, these tropes are reflected in European writings that discuss the idea of ‘going native’. Rudyard Kipling touches on this topic in a few of his short stories. White men lose their Britishness as they act the part of a native or, crudely, savage. This is precisely why I dislike the word savage; it is just too laced into hierarchies of race and so-called civility and civilization, always determined by those who claim authority.

Let’s return to Lucy’s disappointment; her words are laced with fear, regret, and feeling duped. She and her cousin have travelled to Italy to experience Italy, not to find themselves in a coarse, English boarding house. But, I’d like to argue, this setting up of English domiciles is very characteristic of the British Empire. Ian Baucom explains in Out of Place: Englishness, Empire, and the Locations of Identity that Englishness in Empire has always been discussed in Edward Said’s construction of an imagined East. Baucom makes the case that places and spaces, rather than just words and images, formed English identity abroad. This becomes quite meta as we apply it to fiction, i.e., Forster’s novel, but nonetheless very useful. Indeed, these English spaces signified the anxieties of not having a unified sense of Englishness ‘uncontaminated’ by locals and acted to reinforce Englishness to the English abroad and to colonize and reform non-English who entered and used these spaces.

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via tumblr: oscarwetnwilde

But what happens when even European spaces are, in fact, inundated with Englishness? Does that ruin the authenticity of that experience? Many Europeans went on grand tours of Europe, usually as a honeymoon trip. Read Foucault if you want some interesting thoughts about honeymoons and the loss of virginity. In Forster’s novel, two unmarried, young women (I refrain from using ladies, as it implies class, and I want to avoid classing these two characters just yet) travel to Italy to take in another culture. This indicates an extraordinary amount of privilege. Lucy’s mother partially paid for Charlotte’s trip to Italy, likely to accompany Lucy. It is also something to consider that Lucy’s mother did not travel with her, to ensure she was properly chaperoned. I am sure there will be plenty to say about women and their ability to travel and occupy space, throughout the novel.

I suppose this leaves us with some things to think about. How does Forster work to challenge the authenticity of the Italian experience by placing Lucy and Charlotte in an English boarding house? Perhaps, a lovely play on the notion of facades will come in–we are in Italy after all! Italian on the outside, English on the inside. I am certain class and race will emerge as central themes, as we can already see the way Lucy and Charlotte brush uncomfortably against the boarding house and its occupants in the first few moments of the book. Additionally, it is just after Queen Victoria died, how are these Victorian-Edwardians faring in the transition?

 

Let me know what you’re reading, and if you’re enjoying it?! I wish you all a really  lovely Monday and a happy start to the week.

➢Updates
Uploading Schedule: I am going to aim for Mondays and Thursdays.
PhD Applications: Almost there 🙂
Yoga Updates: I have not started yet, which is unfortunate. The weather has been super cold, and it has been a bit hectic around here. I could do with some motivation.

 

Hope you’ve been so well. Xx

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Our Mutual Friend #1 ⎜Death, Veneerings, & Doppelgangers

OurMutualFriend

Charles Dickens’s last completed novel was Our Mutual Friend; it was serialized into twenty parts between 1864 and 1865. Our Mutual Friend has been hailed (in many a book blurb) to be a paradigmatic shift in Dickens’s writing; it would bring a new age and development, so to speak, in English literature. Unfortunately, we can never know this because Dickens died whilst writing The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Dickens’s take on the mystery novel. In a friendly rivalry, he was trying to show Wilkie Collins what a mystery looked like–Collins’s famously wrote The Moonstone (it’s pretty good), TS Eliot claimed that Collins, here, invented detective fiction (throwing shade on Edgar Allan Poe). But, let’s return to Our Mutual Friend (OMF).

OMF begins on the cold River Thames, with a young girl and father in small boat that easily could be overturned in the waves. The young girl persists, against her father’s demand, in rowing the boat because she does not want to be next to the body. The dead body. The characters, aside from the body, sweep the river to find flotsam and jetsam–collecting what they find and pocketing what they may. Who is the dead body? Well, we will have to wait before we find out.

In the following chapter, we are introduced to the Veneerings–a couple who are entrenched in polite society. Obviously they are new money, their furniture isn’t old stock, it is new, covered with the fresh veneer of ready money. Dickens doesn’t relent with this pun, and he introduces their entrance into society, a Mr Twemlow, as a table–filled with many leaves. Twemlow is important to them because he provides their access to society, to the right types of people, and the right connections; but he is paraded like an expensive, well-laid, set of furniture, collected and displayed when one must impress. The Veneerings are throwing a fancy dinner party, with the usual incompetents present and two lawyers, who absolutely hate their profession.

A young boy brings news to the party and to one lawyer in particular–Mr. Mortimer Lightwood–that a body has been found. Who is the body, one might ask? Well, the rich are always in the know, aren’t they? *taps nose knowingly* It is the body of the young man that Mortimer had just been discussing, as polite gossip, at the dinner party. His father, a rather unlikeable but wealthy man of the Dust industry (laugh again). Dickens’s humorous narrative style informs us that the father disowned both of this children, his daughter for not marrying the right man and his son for defending the daughter. The son jumps ship, literally, and goes to the Cape to make wine. The father dies, in the meantime, and leaves his estate and money to his son, on the condition he marries a girl (we know not yet who). There is a provision in the will for a servant of the household. Should the son not followthrough with his dead father’s matrimonial wishes, the servant will inherit all.

THE HARMON MURDER

All are convinced that the man found, John Harmon, was murdered. But there is no concrete evidence to point at any guilty party. The money he travelled with is missing. He does not have any identification on his person, but is identified by the ship’s captain, the same ship off of which he fell.

But Dickens does not disappoint. Bella Wilfer is said matrimonial conditional bride that would direct the Dust funds into Harmon’s dead pockets. She is depicted as a hysterical woman, biting her hair and acting outrageous. Despite this trope-ish depiction of a young, unmarried, and, therefore, hysterical woman, Bella is astutely able to describe the perils of being poor and the unbearable, prison-like sentence poverty casts upon its bed fellows.

A plot twist is born. A young man arrives to rent the front room from the Wilfers. A young man who bears a startling resemblance to the dead John Harmon.

Indeed, there are other characters to touch upon, such as the family who finds John Harmon, Gaffer, Lizzie, and Charley Hexam–father, daughter, and son, respectively. But, I will save them for later serial section.

NB:
There are 20 divisions of OMF, so I will be following that structure. Instead of breaking down the plot for each section, I will likely do something creative in response to what I have read. If I feel I have to explain a plot section, I will append a little summary.

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