Indie Book of the Week
The Cuckoos of Batch Magna
Peter Maughan

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Covers #005: UK Bestsellers 2014

Below are some of the biggest selling books of 2014 (based on UK sales), but can you work out which they are from the small snippet of cover? There is a link to all the answers at the bottom of the post, or you can click on the individual images to reveal each answer if you don't want to see them all at once.

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Covers #004: UK Bestsellers 2012
Below are some of the biggest selling books of 2012 (based on UK sales), but can you work out which they are from the small snippet of cover? There is a link to all the answers at the bottom of the post, or you can click on the individual images ... [Read More]
Covers #003: UK Bestsellers 2011
Below are some of the biggest selling books of 2011 (based on UK sales), but can you work out which they are from the small snippet of cover? There is a link to all the answers at the bottom of the post, or you can click on the individual images ... [Read More]

Review: The Bookshop Book by Jen Campbell

The Bookshop Book by Jen Campbell book cover
The Bookshop Book (2014) by Jen Campbell is a celebration of independent bookshops, and the distinct individualities that each represents. Packed with stories of three hundred bookshops from six continents as well as interesting book-ish facts, and snippets from authors like Ian Rankin, Jacqueline Wilson, Bill Bryson, and Rachel Joyce, this is an almanac for the committed bookshop buff. Around half the bookshops featured are from Campbell’s native Britain, but she packs her bags and sets off further afield too, discovering many gems along the way, from the shop in Arizona that stocks only its owner’s book to one that serves the herders of the Gobi desert, to the bookshop in Kenya that sells cows as well as more traditional fare. The whistle stop tour of bookshops is an exciting enterprise, and as a whole the book is a delightful, patchwork collection of shops and, importantly, their shopkeepers – for, after all, what is a shop without the humans who bring it to life, weaving their own personal stories with those of the shop itself?

As with her Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops books, Campbell has a real knack of speaking to the inner bibliophile – teasing out the most tantalising details of each particular shop she visits and inspiring the reader to discover more delights themselves. By including snippets from authors as well as bookish facts, Campbell manages to create an inclusive, comfortable feeling atmosphere within the pages of her own book, which any book lover will appreciate. It’s this connection that she shares with the reader, and which connects all readers together, that makes Campbell’s books so readable. Her first book having been borne out of a blog she wrote – a medium where reader and writer are far closer – it’s perhaps not surprising that she is able to so effortlessly create this bond. As a reader, one can’t help but be held completely in Campbell’s thrall as she jumps around the map and from one quote or fact to another. (Amongst a plethora of titbits, it was particularly pleasing to learn that part of the M6 is made from pulped copies of Mills & Boon novels, two and a half million of which were mixed in with asphalt and Tarmac to create the road service.)

The book is divided into different countries, and this, along with the interviews, quotes, etc. makes The Bookshop Book incredibly browsable. Again, like the earlier Weird Tings Customers Say in Bookshops, it’s a book that can be dipped in and out of with ease, and so makes a lovely coffee table item or a casual read – something to be picked up when one wants something light and enjoyable. Indeed, if one does read it cover to cover, the pages race by as one is lost in the snippets of information, carried along by Campbell’s easy style.

For bookshop lovers everywhere, this is a tantalising journey around the world of bookshops. Campbell writes about the places she features with real affection, transporting the reader into their realm and uncovering the unique delights and idiosyncrasies of each. The beauty of a book like this is that avid readers may already have visited some of the shops featured, or, if not, Campbell’s love letter to the humble bookshop might well spark a few pilgrimages around the world as readers, enraptured by Campbell’s own journeys, set out to explore some of the delights she has uncovered first-hand.

Inspiring more people to visit unique bookshops, both local and further afield, can be no bad thing. While independent bookshops – well, independent everythings – are under threat from the homogenised experience provided by big corporate suppliers of our luxuries, Campbell’s book is a timely reminder that individuality is to be celebrated, that the story of a bookshop can be as enthralling as any of those encased in the books it stocks, and that discovering all the pleasures available to the bibliophile is a rare and precious thing, which is, simply, irreplaceable.

Aware first hand of independent bookshops’ difficulties and delights, Campbell is on sure ground when she chooses to offer her own thoughts about the state of the current market: she appears convinced that independent bookshops are going to thrive going forwards, offering that personal experience that only indies can, and which readers, sick of the bland chain store experience, crave. Books that celebrate bibliophilic delights are always going to be lauded by those who dwell amongst the stacks of our libraries and bookshops, but these institutions are going through an existential crisis. Will they survive and flourish as Campbell suggests? The answer is in the hands of the readers themselves – if that warm fuzzy feeling the bookshops evoke is worth more to you than the convenience and cost-efficiency of the alternatives, then there is only one solution: use them. The Bookshop Book certainly puts the case as well as anything for not just protecting but enjoying the humble bookshop.

This is a great little book for bibliophiles everywhere, what more can I say really?

Useful Links
Reviews of The Bookshop Book on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Bookshop Book on Amazon (US)

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Interview: Jen Campbell
Jen Campbell is a graduate of the prestigious Edinburgh University where she studied English. During her time in Scotland she worked in The Edinburgh Bookshop, but now resides in London where she writes poetry and works in Ripping Yarns ... [Read More]
Review: Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell
Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops (2012) is Jen Campbell's aptly named book about the odd and humourous enquiries received by booksellers up and down the land, but most particularly in The Edinburgh Bookshop, and Ripping Yarns ... [Read More]

Reading Plan: December 2014

Revolution by Russell Brand book cover
If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you’ll know that it’s been an exciting month for me and that I’m now a published author (in the loosest sense of the phrase). Naturally, I’ve been smacked off my tits on the sheer excitement of it all and running around like a lunatic throwing literary quips at anyone who’ll listen and hiding from the imagined hordes who stalk famous author like moi. So, you know, pretty standard stuff really. Getting the book out has been a lot of work (turns out the two years writing it was the easy bit!) so I want to thank everyone who’s contributed to its release and moderate success so far, from the pros who’ve worked on the book to the reviewers who’ve shared their thoughts across the internet, from acquaintances who’ve taken more than a passing interest to friends and who’ve given me words of encouragement, and everyone in between – you’re all unimaginably generous and beautiful. So thank you, I‘d like to say I’d do the same for you one day, but I won’t, because I’m a miserable, self-centred git*. Cheers.

It’s a funny thing, but as soon as you start thinking seriously about writing, you stop reading (there must be some sort of paradox there) so you forget how much you love reading and quite how brilliant authors who aren’t you are! Thankfully, with the publication out the way now, I can get back to being an appreciator of fine words rather than a mangler of them. I’ve still got to write a post about The Bookshop Book by Jen Campbell (which is a lovely little book) so will get that done this month. My big read, however, is going to be Russell Brand’s Revolution. Reviews from the mainstream press have been pretty tepid (at best) for the Essex-born revolutionary – a feat I barely thought possible these days – so I’m intrigued to see whether these are borne out of something other than straight appraisals of the book. Brand clearly divides people but he talks an amount of sense too and I find him really engaging, so I’m loathe to pre-judge the book based on the condemnation of a handful of smug reviewers (bear in mind I will likely join the ranks of these smug reviewers sneering at the shaggy-haired one by the end of the month).

I might well get some other reviews out, but we’ll see how it goes. I’d also really like to put up some sort of puzzle for Christmas – I miss doing those – so might find time for that too, if people find them a pleasant diversion. Until next we speak, have a lovely Christmas all, and I’ll see you in 2015 – space age.

*While I am, obviously, a right git, I will do karma’s bidding and repay all favours to the very greatest of my powers.

Reading Plan: November 2014

The Bookshop Book by Jen Campbell cover
Zero reviews posted in October (and one Author Guide), but I have been a busy boy, promise. Working on exciting things too, and November looks set to be a good month for me: I’m releasing my first novel in a few weeks’ time and I’m really looking forward to sharing it with the world! I’m also attempting NaNoWriMo for the first time this year. In the past, I’ve been a little sceptical about the value of rushing a project through in a month, but I’ve decided to give it a go to see what the practice of writing is like when concentrated over a short period of time (my first novel took me almost two years, after all). I have about 15,000 words for my second novel already, and will be attempting to finish this off, hitting about 60,000 words during NaNoWriMo – if you’re taking part, I’d be happy to ‘buddy’ up with you. My profile can be found here: I know I’ve talked to some of you about my first novel a little bit or you will have seen a smattering of posts across social media about it, but for those who haven’t here’s a teaser blurb:

Reality is overrated. Sex, love, power, life: it’s gone digital. Why settle for a girlfriend with cellulite? Why spend every day working a dead-end job? These are the new days, the infinite days: plug in, get connected. Life is porn, porn is life, don’t accept anything less than the electric light show that is our digital reality.

At the end of every computer screen, a mind is being formed on the material coughed up by the web that connects us all: this is the story of one of the internet’s children, told from his own warped perspective. This is the millennial generation, the Y generation: we’re horny, lonely, afraid, and self-confident. This is our story, our reality.

Thrillingly inventive and powerfully engaging, ****: The Anatomy of Melancholy is a timely examination of life and masculinity in the digital age, a study of loneliness and mental decay, and a satire on the consumption of literature of disaffection. Brutally honest and darkly comic, it is a very modern novel about a very modern life.

But enough about me and my writing, books is what we want here, and not my books, but ‘proper’ books! I must confess, I think reading time is likely to be quite short this month with other things going on. I’ve been meaning to write reviews for The Zone of Interest and The Crying of Lot 49 for a little while now, but both of these will require a little attention on my part, as they’re tricky books. One that I’d like to write about, which hasn’t run literary circles round me just yet, is Jen Campbell’s The Bookshop Book, which was released recently. Some of you may remember I interviewed Jen when her first book, Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops, was released, and I’m looking forward to writing about her new offering. Once more it’s a delight for bookshop fanciers, but this time it’s the shops themselves, rather than those who frequent them, that are under the spotlight.

I’ll see how I get on this month, and hope to get a few things out, but at the moment reviews are very much coming when the mood strikes me and I steal a few hours. Have a great November everyone – see you on the other side, when I’m a published author, sort of.

Notable Posts from October
Author Guide: Thomas Hardy

Author Guide: Thomas Hardy

"[Hardy]'s not a transcendental writer, he's not a Yeats, he's not an Eliot; his subjects are men, the life of men, time and the passing of time, love and the fading of love." 
- Philip Larkin

Thomas Hardy author picture

Thomas Hardy (2nd June 1840 – 11th January 1928) was one of the best known and highest-earning novelists of the Victorian period, and a prolific poet who wrote verse throughout his life. His work focused on the diminishing rural communities of his fictional Wessex (based on his own county of Dorset – one of the poorest in Britain – and the surrounding area), which he depicted with sensitive realism. His fiction is often compared to George Eliot’s – another of the great Victorian realists – and his poetry finds its roots in Romanticism, particularly the writing of William Wordsworth as well as regional dialect poetry.

Throughout his life, Hardy was a man caught between the rural community of his birth and the industrious cities at the centre not only of Britain but of the British Empire. Raised in rural surroundings, Hardy was encouraged by his mother to read. He would take long walks in the peaceful surroundings of Dorset, taking in and attuning himself to the natural world about him, a habit he would continue his whole life. With his parents unable to afford a university education for him, Hardy made his way to London to become an architect. He hated the busy city, and it would not be long before he escaped the city and took up work in an office in Dorchester, Dorset. On an assignment that took him to Cornwall he met and fell in love with Emma Gifford, a woman from a good family. He would later marry Emma, much to the displeasure of both his and her families, and she encouraged and nurtured his writing.

With Emma’s support, Hardy began to earn small amounts of money from his writing. In 1885, eleven years after they were married, Emma and Hardy moved into Max Gate – a house that Hardy had designed, and which represented a blend of the urban and rural. He lived here for the remainder of his life, working fastidiously on his writing to the exclusion of his wife. Over the years, they became estranged despite remaining in the same house. However, Emma’s death in 1912 provoked an extreme mournfulness on Hardy’s part, and he revisited many of the places in Cornwall where they had first courted. This period produced some of his most personal and painful poetry and, despite marrying Florence Dugdale – a young secretary, many years his junior – in 1914, Hardy continued to be haunted by the strange relationship with his first wife. At his death in 1928, Hardy’s body was - against his wishes - entombed in Westminster Abbey, but his heart was buried with Emma in Dorset.

Hardy was a solitary man, caught between many things: the receding rural life and aggressive urbanisation, comfortable religiosity and progressive secularism, the practical people of his Dorset and the intellectual circles he was pulled into, the demands of publishers and his desire to record life as it was, and between the many women who captured his attention. Hardy’s role as an outsider was chosen as much as enforced, but there is a melancholy that spreads across his fiction, which, while rooted in his mourning for the simpler life being lost amidst the rapid changes to society and thought that he saw, is often a result of his apartness from life.

Hardy’s novels celebrate the rustic tradition of rural England, but more importantly they examine with uncompromising clarity the stifling social constraints under which people lived, often focusing on Victorian beliefs about marriage, religion, and education. These themes are perhaps most brutally explored in his 1895 novel Jude the Obscure. The scandal and critical backlash to this book was such that Hardy vowed never to write another novel, a vow which he kept to assiduously. Until his death, he wrote poetry – a form which he had long favoured – and he became an important figure for young poets after the turn of the century. Hardy claimed that his poetry contained more autobiography than his novels and for a man as cautious and private as Hardy – he destroyed many of his personal papers and notes before his death, and wrote his own biography to be published under his second wife’s name – his poetry is invaluable in locating Hardy, and understanding him as a man – a hard task indeed.

Over the twentieth century, Hardy’s reputation evolved. He was admired by writers like D. H. Lawrence, but there was a tendency across the wider literary community to undervalue Hardy’s work. His early novels were seen as pleasant pastoral tales (his later, more controversial work, was seen as valuable very early by the literary establishment) and his poetry as not particularly sophisticated. Over the course of the century, his early novels were more deeply explored by newly developing literary theory, and were more valued. Thanks to the patronage of many poets, notably Philip Larkin, he came to be considered not just as a popular novelist, but as a profound English writer and an important poet.

Three Books You Should Read

Hardy wrote a lot and in many different forms over his life and this makes it particularly difficult to select three books you should read. This difficulty is only compounded by the fact that different qualities in Hardy are admired by different readers: some will enjoy his writing on nature, others his intimate poetry, and some his tortured grappling with the modern world. Thankfully, there are, I think, two stand-out novels from Hardy’s career, which are essential reading, leaving just one spot in the top three books to read for me to agonise over.

1. The Collected Poems of Thomas Hardy

I look and see it there, shrinking, shrinking, 
     I look back at it amid the rain 
For the very last time; for my sand is sinking, 
     And I shall traverse old love’s domain 
          Never again.
(from "At Castle Boterel")

Hardy was rare amongst English writers in being successful across a number of forms of writing: his novels, short stories, and poetry are all celebrated, and he wrote a number of play and dramatised versions of his fiction too. But Hardy always thought of himself as a poet first and foremost, and so his poetry is a fitting place to start. His reputation as poet was solidified far later than his reputation as a novelist, and this eventual recognition was thanks in no small part to Philip Larkin’s writing on Hardy. Hardy himself saw the Dorset dialect poet William Barnes – a friend and mentor – as his predecessor, but Hardy would go on to write poetry that dealt with more than the regional pleasures of his home county. Perhaps his most emotive and powerful poetry was written in a burst during 1912-13 after the death of his first wife, Emma. But whether it’s his vivid descriptions of nature, his tender renderings of country life, or his intimate understanding of the personal, Hardy’s poetry offers a real variety of pleasures. The copious number of poems the he wrote illustrate, as Claire Tomalin puts it, “the contradictions always present in Hardy, between the vulnerable, doomstruck man and the serene inhabitant of the natural world.”

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me, 
Saying that now you are not as you were 
When you had changed from the one who was all to me, 
But as at first, when our day was fair.

      Thus I; faltering forward, 
     Leaves around me falling, 
Wind oozing thing through the thorn from norward, 
     And the woman calling.
(both from "The Voice")

2. Jude the Obscure (1895)

“But his dreams were as gigantic as his surroundings were small.”

Hardy’s final novel, Jude the Obscure – dubbed “Jude the Obscene” on its publication – is perhaps Hardy’s bleakest and most resonant novel. Its hero, Jude Fawley, is a bright boy who dreams of one day studying at Christminster University (a thinly veiled Oxford), but, without the means to carry himself away from his modest, rustic background and onto such an adventure, his life is doomed to obscurity. A failed marriage and a scandalous liaison with his cousin carry Jude no closer to finding his place in the world, and Hardy’s narration of a life doomed to failure reaches its denouement with a shocking infanticide (more specifically, siblicide). It’s a novel of brutal honesty, and deals with three of the most pressing issues that concerned Hardy: the inability of the poor and lowly to break into the bourgeois world; the stifling conditions of marriage, particularly for women in a patriarchal society; and the church’s continuing influence in a society still coming to terms with Darwin’s theory of life and evolution.

"People go on marrying because they can't resist natural forces, although many of them may know perfectly well that they are possibly buying a month's pleasure with a life's discomfort.”

“I am in a chaos of principles—groping in the dark—acting by instinct and not after example. Eight or nine years ago when I came here first, I had a neat stock of fixed opinions, but they dropped away one by one; and the further I get the less sure I am. I doubt if I have anything more for my present rule of life than following inclinations which do me and nobody else any harm, and actually give pleasure to those I love best. There, gentlemen, since you wanted to know how I was getting on, I have told you. Much good may it do you! I cannot explain further here. I perceive there is something wrong somewhere in our social formulas: what it is can only be discovered by men or women with greater insight than mine – if, indeed, they ever discover it – at least in our time. For who knoweth what is good for man in this life? – and who can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun?”

3. Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891)

“...she moved about in a mental cloud of many-coloured idealities, which eclipsed all sinister contingencies by its brightness.”

Throughout his life Hardy had a great feeling for women (despite often treating them badly) and Tess of the d’Urbervilles is the novel that best reflects this. Charged with erotic energy and indignation, it is one of the most affecting of his novels. An innocent but beautiful country girl who lives in harmony with nature, Tess is soon stripped of her naivety by a world that punishes her continually for her crime of being an appealing but naive woman as she attempts to seek a mate and reclaim a birth rite she believes lost to her family. Abused by men, trapped by social convention, and provided with no support from family or church, Tess faces the world alone and wholly unequipped for its violence towards her female body. Of all his heroines Tess is undoubtedly Hardy’s favourite. His language, as he traces her downfall, is painfully intimate, and this is perhaps his richest, most vivid novel.

“Why didn’t you tell me there was danger? Why didn’t you warn me? Ladies know what to guard against, because they read novels that tell them of these tricks; but I never had the chance of discovering in that way; and you did not help me!”

“Why it was that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive; why so often the coarse appropriates the finer thus, the wrong man the woman, the wrong women the man, many years of analytical philosophy have failed to explain to our sense of order”

“She was not an existence, an experience, a passion, a structure of sensations, to anybody but herself. To all humankind besides Tess was only a passing thought. Even to friends she was no more than a frequently passing thought.”

What to Read Next

Published in 1878, The Return of the Native combines Hardy’s feeling for nature with some excellent characterisation. The first chapter, which describes the heath on which the story is set, is often pointed to as an example of Hardy over writing a description of nature, but it sets the stage perfectly, for me, and demonstrates how finely Hardy understands the unchanging environment of his Wessex. The story revolves around the lives and relationships of some of Hardy’s finest characters: the dark lady killer Wildeve, and the wild Eustacia Vye who roams the heath are a Gothic pair to match Heathcliff and Cathy; Diggory Venn, a reddleman, is a comfortable slice of rural life fading out of existence; Clym Yeobright a well-intentioned, progressive man; and his sister, Thomasin a naïve but good country girl to contrast Eustacia’s wildness. As the characters’ lives intertwine, one gets the sense of a living community spread across Egdon Heath – arguably, the book’s main character.

Claire Tomalin’s excellent biography – Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man – offers a solid overview of his life, which should, I think, command almost as much interest as his writing. His poetry particularly is so tied with his personal experiences that being familiar with his biography can only help one enjoy Hardy’s writing all the more. Tomalin is strong on Hardy’s women, and this is very important to understanding him as a writer. She also writes well on his (grudging) loss of faith and the impact that had upon him. Hardy did himself compile a biography, which was published under the name of his second wife, Florence; a sign of his own desire for privacy and control over his legacy. Robert Gittings and Michael Millgate have also written biographies on Hardy and his work that are worth reading.

There is plenty of Hardy to explore, if these works have whetted your appetite. The Mayor of Casterbridge and Far From the Madding Crowd are both worth reading, and there are some memorable scenes scattered across his fiction, but none of his novels can rival Jude or Tess for their completeness and power. His short stories are also worth reading, and can be found in various collections.

There is no shortage of critical work on Hardy, and so whatever area of his work you are interested in there is bound to be material available, however, The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Hardy has some valuable essays and is a good place to start.

Full Bibliography

It's hard to know what level of detail to go into for Hardy's bibliography - he did, after all, write a great deal. For example, he dramatised some of his novels, but I have not included those here. Rather, I have settled for listing his novels, short story collections, and poetry collections, and significant plays, and excluded published letters or shorter pieces that do not appear in collections.


The Poor Man and the Lady, 1867 (unpublished and lost)

Desperate Remedies, 1871 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Under the Greenwood Tree, 1872 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

A Pair of Blue Eyes, 1873 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Far From the Madding Crowd, 1874 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

The Hand of Ethelberta, 1876 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

The Return of the Native, 1878 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

The Trumpet Major, 1880 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

A Laodicean, 1881 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Two on a Tower, 1882 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

The Mayor of Casterbridge, 1886 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

The Woodlanders, 1887 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Tess of the d'Urbervilles, 1891 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Jude the Obscure, 1895 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

The Well-Beloved, 1897 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Short Story Collections

Wessex Tales, 1888 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

A Group of Noble Dames, 1891 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Life’s Little Ironies, 1894 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

A Changed Man and Other Tales, 1913 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Poetry Collections

Wessex Poems and Other Verses, 1898 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Poems of the Past and the Present, 1901 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Time's Laughingstocks and Other Verses, 1909 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Satires of Circumstance, 1914 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Moments of Vision, 1917 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Late Lyrics and Earlier with Many Other Verses, 1923 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs and Trifles, 1925 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres, 1928 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]


The Dynasts: Part One, 1904 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

The Dynasts: Part Two, 1906 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

The Dynasts: Part Three, 1908 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

The Play of St. George, 1921 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall, 1923 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Reading Plan: October 2014

The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis book cover
September’s been a really good month for me: the new academic year has kept me busy, the resumption of my book club has kept me sane, and the first signs of autumn have brought the promise of cosy nights curled up with books to come. Reading has been good, although very little course reading has been done (as ever), and writing has been good too (I’m 11,000 words into my second novel). I’m even considering taking part in NaNoWriMo in some form this year, despite my long-standing doubts about its value. So yes, in summary, everything’s pretty swell. Even as I type this I feel like I might be tempting some sort of backlash from fate, but there it is.

So what will I be reading this month? Well, my main read for October is a very easy one this time round. I’m going to be seeing Martin Amis at Cheltenham in a couple of weeks, so prior to that I will post something about his latest novel, The Zone of Interest. His second novel to address the Holocaust, it has had rave reviews so far, but, me being me, I’m swimming against the tide on this one, and am not wholly convinced. Stop back in a few weeks’ time to find out why (just promise you won’t tell dear Mart, or he might not let me into Cheltenham).

Another thing I’d like to do this month, is add to my Author Guides, which I kicked off (predictably) with a guide to Martin Amis a couple of months ago. I’ve been reading a lot about Thomas Hardy lately – he’s been an author I’ve felt a strong connection with for a long time – and I’d like to put together a post on him. He was such a strange, sad man – or at least he was if you read him like I do – that just exploring his life gives you so much to think about before you even get to his writing, which is by turns melancholic and brilliant.

I’m supposed to be reading A Clockwork Orange for my book club too, so there’s a fair chance that I’ll post something about that too. I am a huge fan of the language – even if people talk it down by pointing out that Burgess wrote in but a few short weeks – and would be glad to open up a discussion about it. It’s one of the most iconic pieces of literature of the twentieth century, largely (near-completely) because of Kubrick’s film adaptation, and books that are so much in the common consciousness are really great for sparking interesting conversation.

That’ll about do for me, I think. I hope you all have a beauteous October – see you again in a month!

Notable Posts from September
Review: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
Review: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Review: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Review: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë book cover
Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Brontë is an empowering, erotic Victorian novel, brimming with Gothic tropes and explosive energy. Its eponymous heroine, an orphan, is brought up, alongside her antagonistic cousins, under the hostile care of her aunt, Sarah Reed. When Jane is sent away to Lowood School it seems that she has escaped a terrible situation only to be thrown into one more dire. Though she finds friendship at Lowood, the conditions are harsh, and when things come apart, Jane forges for herself another escape, this time to be a governess at Thornfield Hall. Her master there is Mr. Edward Rochester; a dark, brooding man. Though Mr. Rochester pursues another – Blanche Ingram; a beauty, with whom Jane’s plain features cannot compete – a bond develops between master and governess. Eventually, Mr. Rochester’s affections turn to Jane and he proposes marriage. But all is not well at Thornfield, a fact that Jane will soon discover. As secrets are revealed, Jane is forced from the house and it seems that there can be no union between her and the man she loves.

At its most basic level, Jane Eyre is a love story, between the orphaned and trapped heroine and her Byronic partner. All the Brontës seem able to tap into a visceral, wild passion that still stirs readers almost two centuries after their writing was first laid on the page. Doubtless it is this, coupled with the gripping unfolding of Jane’s love story, which forms the greatest reason for Jane Eyre’s longevity. But Jane Eyre – though it considers the different kinds of love, and indeed the absence of love – is much more than a romance. It is clearly a petition for the equal rights of women, even if it is a wholly complicated text: full of contrasts, its rebellious elements are counter-balanced with its conformist ones.

Throughout the novel, Jane has her voice quieted and her agency restricted yet she refuses to accept her own lack of independence, and insists on her strict sense of self as an individual. She develops this strength of character through a series of experiences, reminiscent, structurally, of John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progess. It is Rochester’s eventual acknowledgement of Jane as an intelligent, genuinely caring person that allows her to fall for him. This too goes some way to navigating the difficult dynamic of their early relationship: that of master and servant. Increasingly, Jane Eyre has been read as a feminist tract, but this central dynamic – somehow reminiscent of that between Pamela Andrews and Mr. B in Richardson’s less progressive novel Pamela – creates a potential problem for a feminist reading. That Jane and Rochester’s relationship evolves from a typically patriarchal affair to something approaching a palatable equality allows room for the relationship to be read as a transformative one, rather than an oppressive one. With her sharpness of mind and stubborn individuality, Jane is set apart from her literary predecessors like Pamela Andrews and Fanny Price by her strong sense of self. Unlike heroines of manorial fiction past, she does not seek to assimilate into the culture of estate but remains apart from it, and it is this sense of Otherness that allows a more sympathetic reading of Jane’s conformist tendencies, and offset them against her rebelliousness.

Jane’s passion is not just for Mr. Rochester: contained in her small, unremarkable body is a fire that quietly blazes against those that seek to oppress her and constrict her agency. For Brontë as for Jane, life can only be satisfying when lived fully and on one’s own terms. This causes conflicts, both between Jane and other characters, and within herself. Similar to Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, there is a clash between natural passion and reason, here blazing within Jane. As the novel progresses, Jane acknowledges that one must be tempered by the other: Rochester may be where Jane’s passion lies, but she must navigate the difficult path between a prudent match, and a fulfilling one, just as Rochester himself must have his Byronic excesses quelled. Certainly, in contrast to the other (potential) matches in the book, it is, eventually, a meeting of two independent people who value one another not for what they can offer but simply for themselves. But Rochester remains problematic. As a hero, even a Byronic hero, Rochester appears without merit for most of the novel: he is controlling towards Jane, hideous towards Bertha (his first wife), a serial bigamist/adulterer, and with a very short list of pleasant characteristics to balance these less desirable ones. Even as a character that appeals to the emotional, he lacks the unbearable passion that Heathcliff represents, and has no true redemption/revelation like Darcy. Instead, he maintains an odd patriarchal appeal; on a visceral level this works, but beyond it is problematic.

Jane Eyre met with a difficult critical reception on its publication. It was not, as might be supposed, the brooding and overt sexuality of Rochester that offended Victorian society but the refusal of Jane to submit to her expected role and perceived ‘anti-Christian’ sentiment within the book. As has been noted elsewhere, a (fictional) woman who desires a Byronic partner can easily be accommodated, but a woman who desires escape from much of what society holds to be ‘proper’ cannot. By representing a woman who combines these unrepressed passions, Jane becomes a dangerous heroine and one who was identified as such by many reviewers. Brontë defended Jane Eyre against claims of irreligiosity in an introductory note to the second edition, despite her own dim view of many facets of religion. In the novel, Jane encounters three religious characters – Mr. Brocklehurst, Helen Burns, and St. John Rivers – each of whom have their evident (religious) failings, which Jane rightly comprehends. Consequently, none are able convince her to share their views. She is aware, however, of the need to balance transient pleasure with moral duty. Her rejection of the religious characters is less a sign of her disavowal of religion and more a sign of her own autonomous morality. For Jane is in touch with her own, personal form of spirituality – a state common to many Brontë characters.

Throughout the text, Jane is silenced and has her own position identified, and history told, by others. Whether Jane is constrained by man or society, she feels a constant need to escape the sense of powerlessness and commodification of her own body and she achieves this by retaining control of her imagination, which carries her far from the hold of society. Jane fears that marriage will cause her to lose her identity and it’s not until this fear is assuaged that she can countenance the idea. However, her submission to marriage by the novel’s close, even seen through the active role she plays in the decision as typified by the novel’s famous assertion “Reader, I married him,” leaves Jane as typical domestic triumph – wed and removed from the independent life she has forged for herself. It is a carefully negotiated union, which re-positions Jane as a collaborator in the conceit, rather than an inactive object in it, but still a problem that feminist readings of the text must overcome.

Jane’s sense of self – perhaps of particular import to her as an orphan – is embodied by her strong narrative. She asserts the ‘I’ of her story and addresses the reader with a commentary on her own life, affirming the value of her own inner monologue. This strong sense of individual importance chimes not only with nineteenth century feminism, but economic individualism and political liberalism too. It was a period when the idea of the autonomous individual being as relevant as the state/society was becoming entrenched in Anglo-American society, and Jane Eyre’s narrative forces the feminine voice to intersect with this growing sense of the individual. It was a change that was reflected in literature, with the development of stream of consciousness narratives, which positioned the inner life of characters as more important than the outer life of the world. In this sense, Jane Eyre is a progressive character both in terms of her personality and her literary worth.

It’s odd to think that a novel of such potent feeling was first published under the pseudonym Currer Bell – Brontë was, after all, well aware that male authors were afforded a greater gravitas than their female counterparts. Almost two centuries latter and Jane Eyre is rightly considered one of the most thrillingly powerful novels of the Victorian period; a novel with feminist, individualist, and gothic charm in abundance. In a Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf would later write that Brontë was an author, who "had more genius in her than Jane Austen," but whose anger made her books “deformed and twisted”, but it is this wild, untameable passion that runs through Jane Eyre, which makes it so readable today. Certainly the emotions are both overwrought and overwritten, but Brontë’s writing sweeps the reader up in the tornado of dark emotions that run through the text, and gives them no choice but to continue on until the storm has abated and the last page has been turned.

I first read this after I visited Bath for the first time and really enjoyed it. I think it was only the second Austen I'd read at the time, and I found it to be so different from what I'd expected. I'd gladly hand it to Austen fans and cynics alike.

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Television Film of Jane Eyre on Amazon (UK)

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