Tag Archives: Charles Dickens

This Year’s Best Christmas Presents for Book Lovers

The weather outside is frightful, and the fire is so delightful – so I’m doing all my Christmas shopping online! Here’s a selection of lovely things that book lovers might enjoy. Let me know what you think in the comments below!

 Get a gorgeous edition of something from the Folio Society. I’m coveting this copy of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

BKF

I also fancy their tote bags, including this based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

BG4

I will let the makers of Personal Library Kits explain their benefits: ‘It is frustrating to lend books and never see them again. With this kit, both you and the borrower will be able to keep tabs on whose it is / who has it. And don’t we all have ‘Shhhh’ fantasies about being the librarian doing the stamping? Give it to: The ‘forgetful’ member of your book club. Includes 20 adhesive pockets and checkout cards, date stamp and inkpad.’ Sold.

personal_library_kit

Ever wondered what Charles Dickens smelt like? It’s the Charles Dickens diffuser! It is classy and beautiful and belongs in the wood-panelled library I wish I had.

DICKENS_DIFFUSER

Be Sherlock Holmes! 221b Baker Street is my favourite board game. It’s like Cluedo, but with extra intrigue plot twists.
221b

For the classiest of festive drinks parties, I present the literary coaster set from Bookish.

coasters

Well I have always wanted to be able to wear punctuation – and now I can!

Amersand

What literary delights will you be asking Santa for this Christmas?

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‘Thou Smell of Mountain Goat’ and Other Useful Comebacks

Groucho Marx

‘That’s not writing, it’s typing.’ Truman Capote said of Jack Kerouac. When writers aren’t dissing each other, they put their best insults in their books. Here are some of my favourite literary put-downs.

This post was inspired by a birthday gift of Shakespearean insult badges (see picture). I remember when my birthday badges used to say ‘It’s my birthday’ or ‘I’m [insert age here] today’, but as they don’t seem to make those for people over a certain age, these days I get ‘Thou smell of mountain goat’.  Let’s start with some more classic barbs from the bard.

William Shakespeare

‘I desire that we be better strangers.’ The classy way to unfriend someone. 

shakespearean insults

‘He has not so much brain as earwax.’ Which reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut:  ‘If your brains were dynamite, there wouldn’t be enough to blow your hat off.’

Jane Austen

For when the obligatory guy with acoustic guitar and indeterminate facial hair arrangement has pushed it with one too many Jeff Buckley covers around the camp fire… ‘You have delighted us long enough.’

‘Elinor agreed to it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition.’ Just wander off into your mind palace when above bloke has had his instrument forcible removed and turns instead to monologuing cod philosophy.

P.G Wodehouse

‘And she’s got brains enough for two, which is the exact quantity the girl who marries you will need.’ A genuinely slow person may struggle with the maths here, thus you are safe to insult away without fear of repercussions.

‘You probably think that being a guest in your aunt’s house I would hesitate to butter you all over the front lawn and dance on the fragments in hobnailed boots, but you are mistaken. It would be a genuine pleasure.’

Charles Dickens

‘He’d make a lovely corpse.’ It’s a threat, but not one Scotland Yard could have you for.

‘The plain truth is, that he was a most intolerable ruffian, a disgrace to human nature, and a blot of blood and grease upon the history of England.’ Tell me what you really think…

Oscar Wilde

‘I never saw someone take so long to dress which such little result.’ Boom. Or perhaps we should forgo unkind banter and follow Wilde’s wise judgement:

always forgive

Do you have a favourite? Tell me in the comments! If you enjoyed this, please like and share.

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A Good Opening Line Can Make all the Difference

Last week I opened a book and the first line was so thoroughly uninspiring that I gave a small incredulous yell and immediately closed it, forever. That line was, ‘It was Thursday and I was making soup.’ Congratulations, author who shall remain nameless, with those eight unbelievably dull short words you have put me off what may well be an excellent story. I realise this may just be my opinion, but in a ranking of days and foods, I’m pretty sure ‘Thursdays’ and ‘soup’ are the dullest. There is in fact a competition for the worst opening lines that has some fantastic examples of awfulness; a winner used the imaginatively terrible ‘He swaggered into the room with a certain Wikipedic insouciance‘.

1984The opening line of any piece of writing really matters. It is your first impression and it needs to be good. What do you want people to know about your book? A lot can be established in one line. For example, 1984 begins: ‘It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ George Orwell instantly demonstrates that we are in an alternate future where things are fundamentally reordered.

Establishing theme is a common factor in many of the most famous opening lines. Sweeping statements in the author’s voice are often best remembered: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ With parallel phrasing and a lovely contrast, Charles Dickens immediately introduces social dichotomy as a central subject of A Tale of Two Cities.  A universal declaration is also used by Tolstoy to begin Anna Karenina: ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ The reader infers that what follows will be a personal drama with much pain and unhappiness.

Imperatives work well to start things off; they draw the reader directly into the action. Consider this from Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy: ‘“You will marry the boy I choose,” said Mrs Rupa Mehra firmly to her younger daughter.’ The mother’s attempt to find her daughter a suitable boy to marry is the core of the story. The conflict over this is also confirmed by the use of the adverb. Using dialogue to begin can pull the reader straight into the characters’ relationships. First person can have the same impact: ‘Call me Ishmael’ works as a simple, iconic imperative in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

Beginning at the end is a device often employed. Daphne du Maurier’s rebeccaRebecca begins: ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’ Using a dream perfectly expresses the significance of this place; the evenness of the syllables gives it a rhythm. We are also told that the book will be an open and deeply personal recollection.  

A real favourite is from Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe: ‘The story so far: In the beginning the Universe was created. This made a lot of people very angry and has widely been regarded as a bad move.’ This always gives me a laugh. The first line should prompt an immediate reaction from the reader, whether it’s amusement, interest, excitement, recognition or empathy. Don’t just start to tell the story; tell the reader something about the story.  

What do you think makes a good opening line? What’s your favourite? I’d love to know! Comment below and please do like and share! 

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Poetic Goodbyes

PoohpromiseIn Great Expectations, Dickens writes, ‘Life is made of ever so many partings welded together.’ Saying goodbye can be difficult, so, as is my default, I’m turning to literature and poetry to find the right words. 

Parting Advice

Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata provides lovely parting advice:

‘Go placidly amidst the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story…

…Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here….

With all its shams, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful.

Strive to be happy.’

Leaving on a Jet Plane

When a loved one flies off for a long trip, I always think of At the San Francisco Airport by Yvor Winters. Here’s the final stanza:

‘This is the terminal, the break.
Beyond this point, on lines of air,
You take the way that you must take;
And I remain in light and stare—
In light, and nothing else, awake.’

snoopybye

The Last Goodbye

Dylan Thomas powerfully expresses the emotions of loss in And Death Shall Have No Dominion where the title’s refrain has extraordinary rhetorical force. Also, Do Not Go Gentle into That Goodnight‘s desperate imperative deeply communicates the sadness and anger of impending death and the poet’s unreadiness to say goodbye. W.H Auden’s Funeral Blues is perfection in form, rhyme and sentiment. The world should not go on just the same after someone has been wrenched out of it prematurely:

‘The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun…’

I’m going to sign off with Alden Nowlan’s This is What I Wanted to Sign Off With. From the perspective of the unwell loved one at the end of life, it is simple, personal and lyrical: 

‘You know what I’m
like when I’m sick: I’d sooner
curse than cry. And people don’t often
know what they’re saying in the end.
Or I could die in my sleep.

So I’ll say it now. Here it is.
Don’t pay any attention
if I don’t get it right
when it is for real. Blame that
on terror and pain
or the stuff they’re shooting
into my veins. This is what I wanted to
sign off with. Bend
closer, listen, I love you.’

 

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Snow in Literature

I’m with Shelley: ‘I love, snow and all the forms of the radiant frost.’ It is a wonderful symbolic tool in literature. Snow transforms a familiar landscape; it can become a magical wonderland or a bleak and forbidding country. It can cause the world to slow and a certain muffled silence to fall. I’ve collated some of my favourite uses of snow in literature.

Often snow is used to symbolise cleansing. It is a blanket that obscures all, which can either be a new, clean beginning, orSnow Country a blanket obscuring a truth. Throughout Nobel Laureate, Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country, snow is used as a metaphor for the purity the protagonist seeks: ‘The thought of the white linen, spread out on the deep snow, the cloth and the snow glowing scarlet in the rising sun, was enough to make him feel that the dirt of the summer had been washed away, even that he himself had been bleached clean.’ Its use is often similar to the colour white, which is often used to denote purity, light and innocence. See Shakespeare’s use in Cymbeline, for instance, ‘I thought her as chaste as unsunned snow.’ Unsurprisingly, snow is also a theme in The Winter’s Tale, ‘as white as driven snow’.

Ethan FromeSnow and winter are often used to represent sadness, bleakness or death. In Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, the characters are having a rather sad time of it; the weather is used to represent and reinforce this. The character, Zeena, sits out in the cold: ‘the pale light reflected from the banks of snow,’ which makes ‘her face look more than usually drawn and bloodless.’ The lexical field of wintry weather is used figuratively throughout to maintain this sense of bare desolation. This is a description of the kitchen: ‘the deadly chill of a vault after the dry cold of the night.’

Consider the use of snow in James Joyce’s The Dead: ‘His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their latter end, upon all the living and the dead.’ Critics have claimed variously that the use of snow here represents death and desolation and the opportunity for renewal and another chance. For me, it symbolises a sort of togetherness and universalism; the snow falls equally on all.

Our association of snow and Christmas is widely thought to be the fault of Charles Dickens. He employs it in simile here to express just how cold-hearted Scrooge is in A Christmas Carol.

The-Muppet-Christmas-Carol

‘No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn’t know where to have him. The heaviest rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet could boast of the advantage over him in only one respect. They often “came down” handsomely and Scrooge never did.’ The associations of a white Christmas have become idealised from a Dickensian model.

A Child's Christmas in WalesA Child’s Christmas in Wales is another example of snow used to evoke nostalgia about festive seasons past. Dylan Thomas wrote, ‘All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea…It was snowing. It was always snowing at Christmas.’

Snow is also used excellently in Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials where armoured polar bears rule Svalbard. In C. golden-compass-bearS Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, of course, it is always winter and never Christmas. The melting of snow shows that a brighter future is near. Also, I must mention Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman
which says a great deal about friendship, joy and the transience of life.

I hope you’re all staying warm and safe. If you can think of any other snowy examples, I would love to hear them!

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Secrets and Lies

Intrigue is the root of so much great storytelling. I think the trick to writing it well is to give enough clues for the reader to have a few guesses at what secret is held by the mysterious aristocrat/creepy housekeeper/any character who gives cryptic answers to simple questions while gazing with a troubled frown into the middle distance. Yet don’t let your audience get too close to the truth- perhaps pop in a few red herrings; a surprise ending is always a treat! Or, it can be great fun to drum up a bit of dramatic irony- let your audience  in on the secret and let the anticipation for the fall out build!

I recently read the absolutely brilliant Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Bradden. The eponymous protagonist lacks a credible back story, refuses to see certain guests and giggles awkwardly before becoming deathly pale far too often to be innocent. The reader is brilliantly fooled along with the characters up until the final dénouement: more twists than a curly-wurly on a helter skelter.

Many of the best secrets are hidden in attics (see Dorian Gray) but Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester hides a whole wife up there. It is an undeniable classic by Charlotte Brontë; secrecy and foreboding are cleverly maintained throughout.

Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations has a greatly unexpected reveal- who’s funding Pip? Probably one of the eccentric wealthy people in the novel…or perhaps not!

In The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Misselthwaite Manor is host to many secrets behind locked doors, in addition to the magical garden. Even a child, Colin, is hidden away. It is a master class in that timeless literary technique of implying something’s wrong with the use of shifty servants.

A complex web of secrets is found in Daniel Deronda by George Eliot. The biggest secret is who the title character really is. Is he the illegitimate son of the chap that he suspects is his father? Moreover, everyone else is hiding something: affairs, secret children, the fact that they’ve found out someone else’s secret but aren’t willing to tell them. The whole thing becomes an ‘I know something you don’t know’ to the power of ‘I know something you think I don’t know but actually, I do’.

Also, the device is used in practically every Shakespeare play:

Romeo and Juliet: ‘I just met you, and this is crazy, but how about we get married and keep it a secret from our families?’

Hamlet: ‘I killed your father to marry your mother.’ and, ‘I’m not actually mad. Or am I?’

Julius Caesar: ‘We’re going to kill the chap in charge, and yep, Brutus is coming too.’

Merchant of Venice: ‘I’m a woman dressed as a man.’

Twelfth Night: ‘I’m a woman dressed as a man.’

The Merry Wives of Windsor: ‘I’m a man dressed as a woman.’ (Just for a touch of variety…)

What do you think of my list? Do any other brilliant fictional secrets spring to mind? Please share in the comments!

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