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Dracula by Bram Stoker

      

Country: Ireland
Genre: Gothic Fiction, Horror Fiction
Publication Year: 1897
Edition Read: Penguin Classics. 2002 cover design. Introduction by Maurice Hindle.
First Read: Yes

Everyone knows the story of Dracula in some way; whether it is one of the many screen adaptions, The Simpsons Halloween special from about 15 years ago, or even the Twilight books. Anyone in the Western world can easily conjure up the image of Count Dracula skulking the halls of his castle in Transylvania. Dracula by Bram Stoker is an epistolary novel from the late Victorian Period that was part of a larger late 19th Century gothic revival – along with The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Hound of the Baskervilles. Dracula, for the most part, single-handedly created the vampire legend that still lives on today.

One thing that struck me about the novel was the scant presence of the character Dracula. Other than the opening chapters told from the point-of-view of Johnathan Harker while he is at his castle, a couple references about 2/3 of the way through, and then the last quarter or so, Dracula himself is nowhere to be seen, but his specter looms over every page of the novel.

As I was reading this, I put myself into the shoes of a reader from 1897, the year Dracula was first published. This would have truly been horrific without that inherent knowledge of the story that us in the 21st century all possess. The bizarre occurrences like the two holes in the neck, Dracula turning into a bat, the reanimation upon death after death at the hands of a vampire, and the stake through the heart and decapitation to kill the vampire.  Stoker’s prose was so vivid and dark that he truly earned his retroactive moniker as one of the fathers of horror fiction.

When I read this novel, the primary thematic thread that seemed to be running throughout the novel is that of gender roles – specifically through the lens of female sexual liberation; the two poles of this thread were wholly embodied by the two female characters in the book: Lucy Westenra and Mina Harker. Lucy enjoys the adoration of three different men, taks in their bodily fluids – via blood transfusions – and shortly before her death is sexually aggressive towards her fiancé. Mina on the other hand is meek, deferential to the men in her life, and believes in an innate inferiority of women. Lucy, reanimated as a vampire and therefore completely sexually liberated, must be destroyed by polite and educated male Victorian society. Mina however, gets to live on with her husband and continue being the demure little lady bowing to her husband. To the Victorians, the vampire represents an individual completely disconnected from the everyday social mores of civil society, and that is the real monster.

In my post-reading research into the novel, and in reading the introductory essays in my volume, I was amazed at the continuing evolution and contradictory nature of the literary criticism of Dracula since it started to emerge in the 1950s. The critical consensus amongst the literati is practically nil when it comes to Dracula. This is not unusual in the world of literature, but generally there are some very broad agreed upon agreements. Dracula, however, is all over the place. Just as many critics argue that is a feminist masterpiece as there are who argue my point-of-view that this is the complete opposite. Some view this as a critic of colonization, some as a pro-Catholic novel, and I even came across one article that felt this novel was nothing but a critique of The Picture of Dorian Gray and its glorification of giving into the temptation of excess. Perhaps that just shows the power of Bram Stoker’s masterpiece.

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Posted by on July 31, 2017 in British Fiction

 

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York Mystery Plays: A Selection in Modern Spelling

     

Edited and Introduced by Richard Beadle and Pamela King
Country: Great Britain
Genre: Drama
Years: 14th Century
Edition Read: Oxford World’s Classics, 1987 cover design.
First Read: Yes

The requirements that existed for my English major were quite thorough in that they forced students to be exposed to works from all six British periods, Shakespeare, critical theory, linguistics, Canadian and American, etc. One that I dreaded most, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, was Medieval literature. I managed to delay this until my final year. I have extreme difficulty with Middle English – I have since I first slogged through “The Tale of the Wyf of Bathe” in my first-year survey course. My Middle English Literature course was interesting albeit challenging (lowest mark I received in my entire degree); we studied the original Robin Hood poems and plays, some biblical reinterpretations, lots of King Arthur tales, and The Book of Margery Kempe – which I still look at on my bookshelf with contempt. I was so happy to be finished with this course. Since then, I have grown quite fond of Middle English literature, but these days I read it in translation, typically an Oxford World’s Classics edition. Blasphemy you say? Not at all! I chose to read Chaucer, Langland, or Mallory for pleasure. In an academic setting, translations are very inappropriate, but at home for fun, I see no problem with reading a [quality] Middle English translation.

My latest literary conquest is York Mystery Plays: A Selection in Modern Spelling edited by Richard Beadle and Pamela King. These plays are the oldest of the English mystery cycles which depicted the most spiritually important episodes from the Bible. Dating from at least the 14th century, these plays were performed on the Feast of Corpus Christi starting at sunrise in the city of York. Each play was performed by a different craft guild (equivalent to a union in today’s parlance), which were known in Middle English as mysteries. Hence, York Mystery Plays. These plays are still performed today as part of a theatre festival in York:

I’ve had this book on my shelf since 2003. I wanted to read something from this period, so I figured this book had been patient enough and deserved to be read. This was a tough slog which got the dreaded one-star rating on Goodreads. The reason I did not enjoy it relates back to my thoughts on translations. I assumed that the subtitle of this edition “A Selection in Modern Spelling” meant that this was a translation. I assumed wrong. This book was neither a translation, nor a raw a Middle English text. It was this strange hybrid of the two that rendered this text practically unreadable. Essentially, words that would have roughly the same spelling, would be updated to current spelling (ex. wyf changed to wife) and archaic letters were updated to the modern orthographic equivalent. Additionally, one other small annoyance that upped the challenge was the placement of the notes. Normally, Middle English texts will have inline notes, so any note on a particular line is justified on the right margin; this allows for some flow from line-to-line. This volume though, used footnotes. This caused extreme disruption in trying to get through the text.

If you can power through the deep editorial flaws of this volume, the plays themselves are quite interesting. Pilate and Jesus are fascinating characters and the Passion narrative has some interesting interpretations of Biblical tradition. The headnote of each play gives a good outline of what the play is about, some notes about the guild putting on the play, and some insight into the authorship. One thing that fascinated me was the sometimes-tongue-in-cheek pairings of the play and the guild (the Butchers and the Death of Christ for instance).

This is an important work in the English literary canon and one of the earliest examples of English drama. The clips I’ve found online of contemporary productions in York are mesmerizing. I’m going to track down a different edition and read these plays again someday; they deserve far better than what they get in this volume.

 
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Posted by on April 9, 2017 in British Drama

 

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Vathek by William Beckford

207302 6150282 207299 17070365 9781551112817

Country: Great Britain
Genre: Fiction, Gothic Fiction
Publication Year: 1786
Edition Read: Broadview Editions, 2001. academic critical edition, heavily annotated. Ed. Kenneth W. Graham
First Read: Yes

Vathek, William Beckford’s 1786 gothic novel first came to my attention when I was in the final semester my English degree. It was 18th Century Literature II – The Gothic Novel. I had intentionally saved my 18th century requirement until the bitter end (along with my Medieval requirement) as I had some challenges in my survey courses as a daisy fresh student with Jonathan Swift (who I have grown to enjoy) and Alexander Pope (who still gives me hives). Fortunately, the professor I had this for the 18th Century course was fantastic, and the course did not contain any author who gave me hives (although The Monk gave me nightmares). Due to my heavy course load, I had to make some sacrifices in terms of reading and rely on online summaries and such for a few titles. Vathek was the sacrificial lamb. For several years now, this book has sat patiently on my shelf, taunting me, saying “you were supposed to read me.” I decided it was time, not out of some sense of obligation, but because it was the only book on that part of the shelf I hadn’t finished yet.

Vathek is a product of Orientalism – a cultural obsession for some during the late 1700s. This short novel is set in the mid-9th century and tells the story of Vathek, the ninth caliph of the Abassides (the character being very loosely inspired by the historical Al-Wathiq who reigned as caliph from 842 –847). The primary forward motion of the story focuses on Vathek’s fall from grace and renunciation of Islam. Along with his overbearing mother Carathis, Vathek goes down a path of evil to curry favor with a devious fellow called Giaour to gain magical powers. Ultimately though, Vathek and mama must roam Hell silently for all of eternity.

The primary point of interest for me as I got into this book was the treatment of Islam, both in the context of what would now be called be historical fiction and how Islam was interpreted, for lack of a better word, through the lens of 18th century English sensibilities. Beckford seems to be very well-versed in the minutiae of Islamic mythology and history and seamlessly weaves that into his novel. The author is, of course, not a Muslim, so his interpretation of Islam is that of an outsider. I continually vacillated between whether Beckford had a genuine appreciation for the culture, or perhaps Islam was simply an artistic device to tell a fall-from-grace gothic tale, or another possibility is that Beckford looked upon this other culture with the snobbery you would expect of an Englishman at that time.

That’s all I really have to say about Vathek. This was a fun read. It is a short book, only around 100 pages in the volume I have, with no chapter breaks. The dialogue is catchy. And it’s gothic and proto-fantasy elements are very well crafted. All-in-all, a satisfying book if you’re looking for something off the beaten path.

 
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Posted by on February 12, 2017 in British Fiction

 

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The Earliest English Poems

428858  beowulf 220px-the_dream_of_the_rood  795951

Translated, Edited and Introduced by Micheal Alexander
Country: Great Britain (Pre-England)
Genre: Poetry
Years: 600AD – 1000AD
Edition Read: Penguin Classics, Third Edition. 1985 cover design.
First Read: Yes

Hwæt! Wé Gárdena      in géardagum
þéodcyninga      þrym gefrúnon
hú ðá æþelingas      ellen fremedon.

In the eyes of most undergraduate English majors, these lines are the kick-off point of English literature. These are the opening lines from Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon epic poem about a Geatish hero who slays monsters, mothers and dragons. Anglo-Saxon, or Old English, poetry is far deeper and richer than just the 3,182 lines of Beowulf. The average undergrad English major though is unlikely to be exposed to much pre-Chaucer/Sir Gawain writing, except for Beowulf or perhaps of The Dream of the Rood if they take a Bible and literature course. I was in that situation. These two pieces were the only Anglo-Saxon works I read as a student, and the professor I had for my Medieval-Renaissance survey course only taught Beowulf because he was a huge fan of Seamus Heaney – this was not normally included by other professors teaching the class. My university had several courses in Middle-English literature, but nothing dedicated to Old English. A classmate of mine asked the Chair of the department about doing a direct studies course on the subject, her request was declined because there was no one suitable to oversee it. The writing of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Austen, Dickens, and even Tom Clancy descended from Anglo-Saxon poetry just as humans descended from the flat-worm. It deserves the attention of any discerning reader.  It deserves it’s share of critical and academic attention.

A few years ago, I came across The Earliest English Poems while browsing the Penguin Classics at my favorite used book store. The concept alone intrigued me. Whether I would ever read it or not, I thought it would be a nice-looking addition to my shelf. Edited, introduced and translated by Michael Alexander, this volume essentially serves as a sample of the best Anglo-Saxon poetry from the four major poetic manuscripts, at least in the editor’s subjective opinion. Selections include heroic poems like Widsith, Deor, Brunanburh, Maldon and passages from Beowulf; elegies such as The Ruin, The Wanderer, The Wife’s Complaint and The Husband’s Message; a large selection of the riddles from Exeter Book; and The Dream of the Rood.

Michael Alexander does several things that make this book both extremely readable and highly informative. First, he has written an incredible introduction. The intro is concise, gives context and historical background, explains his approach to translating these pieces, and gives some commentary on why reading each of these poems is significant. Second, he gives summaries and descriptions of each poem. This is very important in making this book assessable, especially for someone with an English degree let alone a layman; Alexander delves into the historical framework of each poem, gives a general summary, and digs into the genre and its significance (e.g. heroic poem, riddle, elegy, etc). Finally, his translations open these poems up to 21st century readers. The language is still “elevated,” in that elegance is not sacrificed. Alexander also manages to maintain the alliteration that is such a signature of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Additionally, a few select words of Old English are maintained, both for dramatic effect and because there is no direct translation to modern English, like Hwaet and Wierd.

It is safe to say that in this 200-page book, I learned more about Anglo-Saxon literature than I did in a four-year English degree. Every poem in this book is between 1000 and 1300 years old – to put this into perspective, these poems are closer to a living Jesus than they are to us. It is a miracle of historical accidents that they survive at all. Why is this a great book: great poetry that stands on its own merits, historical gravitas, novelty, to understand that there was great writing in English before Chaucer, to get some great timeless riddles to try out on your friends, need I say more?

 
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Posted by on February 5, 2017 in British Poetry

 

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