What Chelsea Read

English Literature Reading Log.

“People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can’t find them, make then.” - George Bernard Shaw, Mrs Warren’s Profession.

The Time Machine – H.G. Wells

Published in 1895, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells is a science fiction novella expressing the issues of social darwinism and inequality. In the 1890s many people believed that class was divided because of Darwin’s theory and Wells responded with a story to show society that their ideas were inaccurate. H.G. Wells had considered the notion of time travel in his previous work, and was sometimes called ‘The Father of Science Fiction’. The Time Machine is reflective of the author’s own socialist political views, the angst about industrial relations and his views on life. There are other science fiction pieces during this period that share similar themes, including Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy.

Narrative

This novella consists of ‘story inception’ – as seen in the likes of Wuthering Heights and obviously John Green’s books (which are far from Victorian). ‘Story Inception’ is where there is a story within a story. In the case of The Time Machine, the narrator is telling the story of the Time Traveller who is telling a story. Confusing? Yes. This novella tells of how the Time Traveller travels far into the future and discovers two species, the Eloi and the Morlocks. It can be assumed that the Eloi are descended from the upper class and the Morlock’s the working class due to their living states.

Themes

  • Science – “As I stood there in the gathering dark I thought that in this simple explanation I had mastered the problem of the world – mastered the whole secret of these delicious people. …Very simple was my explanation, and plausible enough – as most wrong theories are!” This quote shows that to be a good scientist you have to be willing to accept mistakes. It is those mistakes that you learn from, and so without them your theories are less accurate.
  • Social Class – “I saw a real aristocracy, armed with a perfected science and working to a logical conclusion the industrial system of today. Its triumph had not been simply a triumph over Nature, but a triumph over Nature and the fellow-man.” Shows that for the world to become so divided in class, power will have to be used in an almost evil manner.                                     “The Upper-world people might once have been the favoured aristocracy, and the Morlocks their mechanical servants: but that had long since passed away. The two species that had resulted from the evolution of man were sliding down towards, or had already arrived at, an altogether new relationship” This quote shows how things change, as well as the ignorance towards the situation of others until you are in that situation.
  • Fear – “That is what dismayed me: the sense of some hitherto unsuspected power, through whose intervention my invention had vanished.” The Time Traveller becomes overwhelmed with the fear of the unknown several times. He knows that there is something out there and he begins to fear that. This fear is almost reflective of the fear of change that society in the 1890s held.

 

“The world is a looking-glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face. Frown at it, and it will in turn look sourly upon you; laugh at it and with it, and it is a jolly kind companion; and so let all young persons take their choice.” ― William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair.

The Cry of The Children – Elizabeth Barrett-Browning

“For all day, the wheels are droning, turning, —
      Their wind comes in our faces, —
Till our hearts turn, — our heads, with pulses burning,
      And the walls turn in their places
Turns the sky in the high window blank and reeling —
   Turns the long light that droppeth down the wall, —
Turn the black flies that crawl along the ceiling —
   All are turning, all the day, and we with all ! —
And all day, the iron wheels are droning ;
      And sometimes we could pray,
‘O ye wheels,’ (breaking out in a mad moaning)
      ‘Stop ! be silent for to-day ! ‘ “
Stanza Seven

Poet’s thoughts and feelings:

  • In the first stanza of this poem, Elizabeth focus on how much children cry. She emphasises their suffering by using comparisons to animals. “The young lambs are bleating in the meadows; The young birds are chirping in the nest;…..But the young, young children, O my brothers, They are weeping bitterly!—” People were (and still are by most) valued as more important than animals, and Elizabeth brings in a hint of role reversal. Why should animals be free to play and be happy, while children are suffering? The poet is drawing attention to what industrialisation is doing to the children in cities. The repeated reference to ‘brothers’ could suggest that it is because men are in power that this is happening.
  • The reference to ‘Little Alice’ in stanza four, pulls on the readers heartstrings. Talking about suffering children in general already has a big impact on the readers emotions, but by singling one child out and giving them a name, that impact multiplies. Furthermore, the name Alice was popular in the Victorian Era making it likely that some readers would personally know a ‘Little Alice’ and could imagine the little girl they know working in the awful conditions discussed in the poem.
  • Although the children are the subject matter in this poem, Elizabeth may also be referencing society as a whole and adults as well  as children. Child labour is specific, but also related to general working conditions that adults had to face also. It may be that the poet feels that child labour is a greater sin, however the theme of appalling work conditions is consistent and all ages felt the effect of industrialisation. As the children were powerless, poets such as Elizabeth Barrett-Browning could be projecting their views in order to protect them.

Language, Techniques and Structure:

  • The poet talks directly to the reader in  this poem. This is used to pull on the reader’s heartstrings and make them feel guilty for letting children suffer. The poet also repeats ideas to have the same effect. The repetition of ‘brothers’, ‘Little Alice’ and Religion drums into the reader that this could be happening  to someone they know and that they shouldn’t be okay with it.
  • The title is pretty self explanatory. It tells the reader what the poem is going to be about, however doesn’t tell them why. It is likely that child labour was chosen as the theme of this poem as people would feel more empathetic towards and more likely to take action.
  • The poet has chosen a regular ABAB rhyme scheme, with 12 lines in each stanza. The structure is regular which adds a fairly positive tone on a negative subject. It could be that this has been chosen to reflect the style of a nursery rhyme or children’s song in order to have a larger effect.

Themes in Victorian Literature (Part One)

In this post and another I will be discussing four common themes in Victorian literature. These are as follows;

  • The Position of Women in Victorian Society
  • Social Problems: Urban Poverty and The Working Class
  • Ideas of Progress: Industry and Empire
  • Evolving Attitudes: Culture, Religion and Science

The Position of Women in Victorian Society

‘.. a tin-tack here, a Venetian blind to put straight, a fan to anil up, or part of a carpet to nail down – all of which I can do with my pipe in my mouth; while Carrie is not above putting a button on a shirt, or mending a pillow-case, or practicing the “Sylvia Gavotte” on our new cottage piano.’  This quote, taken from A Dairy of a Nobody – George and Weedon Grossmith,  shows the stereotypical jobs for men and women at the time. The main character and his family have just moved into a new house and it is clear that the women’s jobs are the less important. To the modern reader this can be considered slightly demeaning as things like ‘practising the piano’ aren’t exactly jobs.

‘Algernon: …(Jack puts out his hand to take a sandwich. Algernon at once interferes.) Please don’t touch the cucumber sandwiches. They are ordered specially for Aunt Augusta. (takes one and eats it.)’ This quote from Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, shows that men had respect for women, up to a certain point. This scene could be seen as Algernon protecting his aunt from others however still being willing to hurt her himself. This is also fairly objectifying of him as he is seeing her as something he owns purely because she is female and family.

Not only is the position of women portrayed in Victorian fiction, it is also shown through female writers themselves. Most women’s economic power was dependent on their marital status and who they were married to, paid employment for women was not encouraged. Many women novelists received criticism because of their gender and some publishers even refused to look at their work. The Bronte sisters and George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) are a small example of those who wrote under male pseudonyms. Their acceptance to write under male pseudonyms also shows that some women were not passionate about their writes, they would rather settle with deceit than fight for their own name.

Social Problems: Urban Poverty and The Working Class

Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Mary Barton depicts the life of those in the working class, it takes the perspective of mill workers in 1840s Manchester and gives the working class a voice. “The evil and the good of our nature came out strongly then. There were desperate fathers; there were bitter-tongued mothers (Oh God! what wonder!); there were reckless children; the very closest bonds of nature were snapped in that time of trial and distress. There was Faith such as the rich can never imagine on earth; there was ‘Love strong as death’,” This passage is narrated by one of the working class characters in the novel and it clearly shows the effects of industrialisation. The reference to faith is key.

 

The Diary of a Nobody – George and Weedon Grossmith

Written in 1888, The Diary of a Nobody was published in episodic form in Punch Magazine satirising Victorian attitudes and behaviours. The authors, George and Weedon Grossmith,  led careers in performing arts and this is reflected through their use of theatrical devices (Pooter is portrayed as ‘the clown’ who always finds themselves in a compromising situation). Through this dairy, the authors gently criticise and ridicule the ‘wrongs’ in society, including the Aesthetic Movement and Oscar Wilde (Pooter is seen to paint his house red, and then black, and it is thought that this is a reference to Wilde’s house which he painted in several shades of white).

J.B Priestley (writer of An Inspector Calls) describes the diary as ”true humour … with its mixture of absurdity, irony and affection..”

Narrative

This diary follows the daily life of Charles Pooter, a clerk living in Holloway which at the time was a suburb of London. The diary stretches from April 3rd 1888 to July 3rd 1889, a total of 15 months of Pooter’s mundane routines of work, home and social events. There are many embarrassing events for Pooter throughout his diary, however they are due to ordinary circumstances and prove commonplace.  This novel paints a portrait of the class system at the time – one that is very tight and stable. Pooter understands his place in this system (well below his boss, Mr Perkupp, and well above the tradesmen and his servants) however his desperation to be a part of the sophisticated upper class is very apparent. During the diary we are introduced to Pooter’s family and his friends as well as work colleagues and tradesmen who are nuisances to Pooter.

Charles Pooter

There are two, contradicting sides to the character of Charles Pooter. He is conceited, naive and full of self importance but also hard working, honest and loyal. Pooter is also clumsy and the victim for jokes played by his friends and some younger clerks. Despite being desperate for sophistication, Pooter’s ambitions are small, one of them being for his son to follow in his footsteps (although he faces disappointment as his son is the complete opposite of him).  Pooter’s honesty and loyalty gains the respect of his family and his boss and although he is found in embarrassing predicaments, readers warm to him as they are taken through his life sympathising with him as well as laughing.

The Daily Telegraph (1996) described Charles Pooter as a ‘moral archetype’ and a ‘decent fellow’, while The Guardian described him as a ‘crashing bore’. This difference in views can be explained as the review is dependent of the newspaper audience.

Links to Society

Pooter’s character is used by the Grossmith brothers to satirise those who are self-important and also those of the upper class – ‘Somebodies’ – who kept and published tedious diaries. The audience at the time this novel was published were used to reading about the lives of those above them, these accounts were written as lengthy journals and were more often than not published because the author would pay the printers. This makes The Diary of a Nobody a fairly controversial piece of work. Charles’ opening line in the novel immediately questions the class system in Victorian society. ‘Why should I not publish my diary?’ and then goes on to say ‘I fail to see – because I do not happen to be a ‘Somebody’ – why my diary should not be interesting.’  It is obvious that George and Weedon Grossmith are ridiculing a mannerism which they and others found arrogant and pompous.

There is also reference to the roles of genders in this novel. ‘.. a tin-tack here, a Venetian blind to put straight, a fan to anil up, or part of a carpet to nail down – all of which I can do with my pipe in my mouth; while Carrie is not above putting a button on a shirt, or mending a pillow-case, or practicing the “Sylvia Gavotte” on our new cottage piano.’ This quote shows stereotypical jobs for men and women, the women’s being the less important. Is practicing the piano really a job?

 

Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

Background Information

Published in 1865, this book was inspired by Alice Liddell the daughter of Henry George Liddell. Carroll told Alice and her two sisters fanciful tales. At first Alice in Wonderland was seen as too extravagant, however over time it gained popularity amongst both children and adults.

Key Quotes

“Who in the world am I?” Ah that’s a great puzzle.

This quote supports Carroll’s notion that life is an unduly complicated mystery that humans must use rational thoughts and intelligence to understand. People were living in a time of great change. Everyone was trying to behave in the way that was acceptable for their social role and with ideas changing so often, some may have found it difficult to keep up. It is likely that they would have lost sense of who they were.

To be continued….

“Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault. Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty. There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” ― Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Impression Du Matin – Oscar Wilde

The Thames nocturne of blue and gold
Changed to a Harmony in grey:
A barge with ochre-coloured hay
Dropt from the wharf: and chill and cold

The yellow fog came creeping down
The bridges, till the houses’ walls
Seemed changed to shadows and St. Paul’s
Loomed like a bubble o’er the town.

Then suddenly arose the clang
Of waking life; the streets were stirred
With country waggons: and a bird
Flew to the glistening roofs and sang.

But one pale woman all alone,
The daylight kissing her wan hair,
Loitered beneath the gas lamps’ flare,
With lips of flame and heart of stone.

Impression Du Matin, published in 1881, was referred to as a painting in words due to it’s elaborative description. 

Poet’s thoughts and feelings:

  • This poem begins by describing a vast scence of London, it is very open and not personal. However stanza by stanza the poem becomes more intimate, ending with the description of the features of one woman in the big city. Each stanza focuses on describing from one perspective.
  • Oscar Wilde also talks, if only slightly, about the context of the time. There is possible references to The Contagious Disease Act in this poem, through the quote ‘lips of flame’. With the lady of interest more than likely being a streetwalker we can see how this is relevant. Wilde also touches on the way of life in London. There are signs of business in the city, with the streets coming to life in the third stanza. This also shows the time of day this poem is set. 
  • We become aware that Wilde cared about the issues going on at the time as he has written about them in this poem.
  • The fairly ‘set back’ perspectives in this poem could imply that Wilde is reflecting on life, however as there is not a direct speaker of the poem we can assume that his life could have been very different from that which is described. As an outsider from this style of life, Wilde may have been showing an unbiased view to the world.

Language, Techniques and Structure:

  • In the first stanza the quote ‘nocturne in blue and gold’ is a reference to the artist Whistler. Many have said that Wilde’s work is the poetic version of Whistler’s oeuvre as he uses a lot of musical descriptives (eg. nocturne – composition of a dreamy mood and harmony). These musical terms describe the scene just as they are in the titles of Whistler’s works.
  • The title itself means a painting or an impression, this is reflected also through the structure and form of the poem. The poem consists of four quatrains with an ABBA rhyme scheme. This bracketed rhyme scheme gives us the impression that each quatrain is blocked in. Also in each stanza, the second and third lines are indented again giving the image of the quatrains being framed/blocked in much like four small paintings mounted in their own frames.
  • Wilde has used iambic tetrameter in this poem. ( da Dum da Dum da Dum da Dum).
  • There is use of alliteration in this poem, this, along with the rhythm of the poem, allows it to become more like a song and in turn more like a piece of art. 

 

 

 

The Darkling Thrush – Thomas Hardy.

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

The Darkling Thrush was originally titled The Century’s End, 1900. It was published on the 29th December 1900 however there is evidence to suggest that it was written the year before. It was included in a collection entitled Poems of the Past and the Present (1903).

Poet’s thoughts and feelings:

  • This poem has a sad, melancholy mood which contrasts with the fairly upbeat rhythm of the poem – the rhyme scheme and the syllables.
  • The time and date of the poem suggests that Hardy was reflecting on the year. Hardy’s attitude to the year could be shown through the speaker in the poem or the bird that is introduced in the third stanza.
  • The speaker in the poem emphasises the negativity of the season. He is noticing that everything around him is decaying and this could be a mirror of his life. He is not happy and sees no reason to be.  It is whilst the speaker is reflecting that he hears the thrush.
  • The Thrush surprises and confuses the speaker, it is clear that the bird is also in a bad condition (frail, guant, and small), it has been beaten by the weather, however the bird still sings it’s song of joy with all of it’s heart.
  • The speaker’s confusion is shown through the final line of the poem ‘And I was unaware’.
  • If Hardy is portraying his views through the speaker of the poem, we can see that he wasn’t happy with his life and couldn’t see how people could be so happy. We know that the late 1890’s would have been pressing for Hardy due to the massive criticism of his novel Jude the Obscure and his apparently difficult marriage.
  • If Hardy is portraying his views through the thrush, we could say that he was grateful for his life and optimistic but also felt the pressure of others as he was more joyful than them. This could also relate to the criticism he received for his works as he saw the world differently to other people and his writing reflected this.

Language, Techniques and Structure:

  • In the second line of this poem, ‘Frost’ is personified and given human-like features possibly to emphasise the link between the weather and the speakers life. However Hardy goes on to describe Frost as spectre-gray. The word ‘spectre’ means ‘a ghostly figure’ which is contrasting of the personification. 
  • There is a LOT of negative imagery throughout this poem, take dregs, weakening, broken, haunted, and corpse as some examples. Thomas Hardy’s choice in language gives the poem a Gothic feel.
  • The Darkling Thrush has a very regular structure. There are eight rhyming (ABABCDCD) lines per stanza each with iambic pentameter. This regularity causes slight tension as it contrasts entirely with the mood of the poem.
  • Hardy also uses metaphors and similes in the poem to describe the scene.
  • Hardy doesn’t personify the bird. There must be a reason for this.

Links to:

  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. The character of Cathy is very adventurous and wild, she doesn’t see problems in the outside world or isn’t very interested in them and so spends her childhood/teenage years enjoying herself. She is like the bird. Her behaviour isn’t understandable to other characters in Wuthering Heights in the same way the thrush’s behaviour confuses the speaker of the poem.
  • Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. The whole story of Alice in Wonderland is almost the life of the thrush. The bird is so joyful and sings it’s song. When Alice is in Wonderland, she is escaping reality in the same way the thrush is escaping the reality that human’s face.

[more information: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2009/dec/28/poem-of-the-week-the-darkling-thrush-thomas-hardy ]

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