PAW 27 – Orlando (381) by Virginia Woolf

Orlando by Virginia Woolf; Penguin Paperback 381; 1942 edition

Orlando by Virginia Woolf; Penguin Paperback 381; 1942 edition

What can be said about Orlando that hasn’t already been said, antithesised, argued, counterpointed, reargued, and typed up as a dissertation already?

Not that I would be privy to any of the academic work that has been done on this book, it’s just that I was very aware of the book by reputation, and know how highly many people value Woolf as a thinker and personality… but I just did not get this book.

Again, like reading Zulieka Dobson, I read with a growing suspicion that I was reading a book in that obscure genre of “Magical Realism”. Finding out a little more after finishing it, Woolf wrote it for her close friend (and one-time lover) Vita Sackville-West, as a kind of in-joke about the history of her family. This actually helped reconcile me to Orlando, furnishing an explanation for its purpose. The book starts in the 1600s and concerns the tale of Orlando, a favourite of Queen Elizabeth, who falls in love with a Russian, becomes a foreign diplomat, turns into a woman, meets Alexander Pope, gets tied up in a legal dispute for 150 years regarding her estates, marries a ship captain, stares out the window for another fifty years, and then gets in her car and drives over to Oxford Street to buy some bath salts.

Fair enough. As a plot Orlando is rather unconventional, and though rather absurd (especially when condensed in this fashion), it does give a lot of opportunity to discuss some very meaningful questions. For instance, how is the same person treated differently if they suddenly become a different gender? How do those around them act different? How do they find love? Additionally, how would we consider the passing of the centuries if we experienced them contracted into our lifetime? The main character of Orlando is, in the course of the book, famous and infamous, noble and common, male and female, loved and hated. And what opportunities will Woolf now take to develop the conflicts leading from these contrasts?

Almost none. Orlando, in fact, beset by a complete lack of conflict, most conspicuously absent from the Orlando him/herself. When he is a man he has passions, obsessions, poetry, and love. Once he wakes up a woman, he loses all of that. She (Orlando) is very blaise and doesn’t find it much to write home about, deciding instead to live as a gypsy for a little while. Then she gets kicked out of the tribe and decides to head back home to England. Her old servants are happy to see her again and take her gender transmutation in good humour, and in fact no one really hassles her about it. She is aware of how society limits her participation now she is a woman, but she is not angry about this, at least not to the point where she actually does something. And then the years start to pass and she’s in the late Victorian era, the poem she’s been working on for three hundred years becomes a smash hit but she doesn’t care. She marries a man who she loves completely but doesn’t ever want to be around (which is fine because he’s not), and then the book ends when the story reaches October 11, 1928 (the book’s publication date).

It all just fell very weakly for me. This was frustrating because I went into it really wanting to know what a distinct female perspective was on these different themes — I wanted to know what Woolf thought of gender politics throughout British history, I wanted to know what she thought the differences were between male and female sexual identity, about duty, about love. And I put the book down with almost no further understanding of that.

And yet — look at how I’ve written perhaps the longest review in this series about this short little book. And reading some of the other reviews online, I can see that many people are very passionate about this book, and I would hate to begrudge them their love.

If this book does have a purpose, it is not to explain, but to comfort. It was not written for me to understand something outside of myself, it was written for someone different in order to recognize something particular in themselves.


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PAW 26 – Barchester Towers (1180) by Anthony Trollope

The Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope; Penguin Paperback 1180; 1959 edition

The Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope; Penguin Paperback 1180; 1959 edition

Seeing as my first Penguin A Week post was Trollope’s The Warden, I thought it would be nice to review its sequel, Barchester Towers, at roughly the halfway mark.

As delightful as The Warden was, I found Barchester Towers to be even more so, if only for the reason that it is a longer book, and therefore there is more to delight in. By the standards of most Victorian novels (at least the ones that are still popularly read), The Warden is a novella. Barchester Towers has more of the length and plot development that we would expect when looking at it in context of its contemporaries, such as works by Dickens or Thackery — or even Dumas, Hugo, Tolstoy, etc.

Perversely, I suspect that one of the reasons that Trollope often comes in last when spoken of alongside the authors I just mentioned, is because his work is so much more accessible to the general public, and therefore less appealing to academicians. He is much more relaxed and less abstracted than Dickens and Thackeray. He has a point of view, but he does not seem to care whether the reader shares that or not. He draws attention to himself in the narrative without ostentation, just as someone who is relating a story, informally, after a meal, and who breaks away to explain a point that might hinder understanding or enjoyment later on. Whatever the aims of Victorian Literature may have been, Trollope’s express interest is simply in having you, the reader, enjoy the story, and if it is not enjoyed, then Trollope is obviously happy for you to find amusement elsewhere, and will carry on with his tales with those who are still present for it. (One of my favourite asides occurs in Chapter 6, where Trollope himself, without even using a mouthpiece character, launches into an invective against the modern church sermon.

This is very refreshing for anyone who has read and enjoyed a lot of Victorian fiction. And as with The Warden, the cast of characters is rich and well-developed. Trollope comes close to creating villains in this work in the form of the pious Proudies and the oleaginous Mr Slope. There are also the Stanhopes adding a great deal of conflict into the quiet Barsetshire community with their total indifference towards the problems that they create. Trollope very wittily describes them thus:

The Stanhopes would visit you in your sickness (provided it was not contagious), would bring you oranges, French novels, and the last new bit of scandal, and then hear of your death or recovery with an equally indifferent composure.

The Grantlys and the Hardings in this book, as in the last, stand at the centre, fighting the good fight against modernism, progressivism, and reform. And so it makes the reading of it rather bittersweet, for the England they fought for is now long gone. But the feeling and intelligence of that age is luckily preserved for us in this and the rest of the Barset novels.


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PAW 25 – The Flying Inn (1338) by G. K. Chesterton

The Flying Inn by G. K. Chesterton; Penguin Paperback 1338; 1958 edition

The Flying Inn by G. K. Chesterton; Penguin Paperback 1338; 1958 edition

The Flying Inn is one of Chesterton’s non-detective fictions. Running in similar a vein to Manalive, the action is less plot-based than character. There is a distinct situation that is created at the start of the story, which is that in the near future, the UK votes for prohibition and so the entire country becomes dry. The two main characters of the book, Humphrey Pump and Captain Patrick Dalroy, decide to take to the road with a wheel of cheese and a cask of wine, becoming outlaws, intending to set up their ‘flying inn’ by the roadsides.

The plot, like much speculative fiction, was more outlandish at the time than it might seem now. Chesterton preceded the adoption of prohibition in the US by three years. And although the book has a serious point to make about life and humanity — chiefly that you cannot legislate morality, and that austerity is very far away from piety — the book is also very much a comedic romp. Unlike any of Chesterton’s other novels, it incorporates poetry into the narrative, many of which have become very popular like The Rolling English Road, which begins

Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.

The poems in this The Flying Inn were so popular they were collected into an entirely different book called Wine, Water, and Song. My personal favourite is The Song of Right and Wrong.

This book also contains one of my favourite chapters ever written, which I have already discussed at length in this blog.


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PAW 24 – The Confidential Agent (1895) by Graham Greene

The Confidential Agent by Graham Greene; Penguin Paperback (1895); 1963 edition; cover by Paul Hogarth

The Confidential Agent by Graham Greene; Penguin Paperback (1895); 1963 edition; cover by Paul Hogarth

The Confidential Agent is an early Graham Greene book, written in 1939 when he was still on the rise. Like The Comforters by Muriel Spark, it was written under the influence of mild psychoactives, in this case Benzedrine. Greene wrote it at the same time that he wrote The Power and The Glory, which he was finding very hard work. After taking a tablet of Benzedrine in the morning, he would write 2,000 words of The Confidential Agent, and then return back to P&G in the afternoon. The book was finished in six weeks.

As such, Greene never really felt it was a book that he actually wrote, and in fact it was one of his own books that he actually reread later on in life. When it was written, he petitioned to have it published under a pseudonym, not so much because he was ashamed, but because he felt it belonged to someone else (although it’s possible he didn’t want to confuse his readership. Throughout his career he was very particular about designating certain books ‘entertainments’, as distinct from his more serious fiction).

All of that said, The Confidential Agent is Greene through and through, and could never have been written by anyone else except Greene. The story has to do with a secret, or ‘confidential’, agent who has come to England from the European mainland (although this is never mentioned, it is fairly obviously Spain) in order to buy coal for his country’s revolutionary war effort. As is usual with Greene (who can easily be seen as a precursor to writers like LeCarre), he completely undercuts the genre from any of the drama and set action scenarios that other spy story practitioners would — even in one of his own entertainments, he couldn’t bring himself to create anything less than a three-dimensional, internally flawed and morally ambiguous character.

A wonderfully delightful book, it certainly does not measure short when taking its place among the rest of Greene’s cannon.


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PAW 23 – Selected Cautionary Verses (1349) by Hilaire Belloc

Selected Cautionary Verses by Hillaire Belloc; Penguin Paperback 1349; 1958 edition

Selected Cautionary Verses by Hillaire Belloc; Penguin Paperback 1349; 1958 edition

Selected Cautionary Verses is a collection of verses pulled from Belloc’s books of humorous poetry, Cautionary Tales for Children, New Cautionary Tales, The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts, More Beasts for Worse Children (my vote for best sequel title of the 20th Century), More Peers, and Ladies and Gentlemen. The book is illustrated by Nicolas Bentley and ‘B. T. B.’, or Basil Temple Blackwood. Bentley was the son of Edmund Clerihew Bentley, a friend of Belloc’s, and G. K. Chesterton. And of particular interest to Penguin Paperback collectors, this is a rare (unique?) work that was first published as a Puffin Story Book (PS67) in 1950 before being reissued as a Penguin in 1958.

The first poem, titled ‘Jim (Who Ran Away From His Nurse, And Was Eaten By A Lion)’  is still fairly well known, and is always a joy to read. The rest of the poems, sadly, do not age well. I think that a lot of the original humour is predicated on the over-moralising of Victorian Children’s poetry, which we simply aren’t familiar with anymore, thank God.

As it stands, it is a satire on something that we don’t recognise and so it cuts a strange shape. The verses themselves are not so accomplished – the line metres are occasionally fudged, to poor effect. Some of them (including the pictures) would now be considered racist. There aren’t a lot of poems in the collection, and sometimes the layout interferes with the flow.

That said, these are intended as light verses, so maybe we shouldn’t give them so much weight.


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