søndag den 27. september 2020

The Vicar of Wakefield - Oliver Goldsmith (1766)


The Vicar of Wakefield

Another short novel on the List, no complaints from me. At this size I am quickly progressing, and this will be my 10th book this year and number 40 on the List.

“The Vicar of Wakefield” by Oliver Goldsmith is one of those novels I have heard of as something everybody are supposed to know, but I never read it or even knew what it is about. Apparently, it is a famous classic and in my research I found that it was already made into a movie in 1910!

It is a about a vicar (a priest of sorts) who start out comfortably wealthy with a pleasant parish and a nice, big family. Then, right away misfortune strikes leading into what becomes a continuous deroute. His fortune is gone as the merchant with whom he placed his fortune disappears. He enters into a silly debate about clergy remarrying which estranges him from his friend Wilmott, whose daughter was supposed to marry the vicar’s eldest son and eventually the vicar with family is forced to remove to a remote parish and make a new beginning, this time much poorer.

They are befriended by the friendly, but poor has-been gentleman Mr. Burchell, and the local squire Mr. Thornhill, an infamous libertine. Burchell likes the vicar’s second daughter, Sophie, while Thornhill woos the elder Olivia. Blissful poverty does not last long. The vicar is ripped off by frauds, Olivia is kidnapped by Thornhill info a fake marriage and George, the eldest son, is adrift on the continent with no money. Accidents stack up until the vicar is in debt prison with half his family dead or dying.

All through this the vicar is sanguine and praise himself for having the best treasure, his family, around him, so things are not so bad.

“The Vicar of Wakefield” is at face value a simple story about misfortune and recovery for all the good guys. Nothing terribly special there. As far as I can tell its fame is due to two elements:

1.       Oliver Goldsmith makes a lot out the homeliness of domestic life at the vicar’s. This was apparently new at the time and had so charming effect that it got loved for this alone

2.       Hidden beneath the simplistic surface “The Vicar of Wakefield” is a satire on many contemporary institutions and issues. Legal, politic, religious and moral themes are all commented on in the many digressions of the story and always innocently by the naïve vicar who has no clue what a hornets nest he is stirring.

More importantly, there is a satire in the very structure of the novel. By being a good and moral person, the vicar gets cheated, injured and persecuted by all the evils his lifestyle is supposed to protect him from. A defunct legal system consistently lets him down. A nepotistic nobility can get away with anything, debauchery, violence, theft and fraud, with impunity. A reader unhappy with contemporary conditions in Britain could in all the vicar’s trouble find plenty of ammunition. Even the conclusion has so many coincidences happening all at once that the incredulity of it becomes an attack in itself. With the cards stacked against him there is no way the vicar can get out of this mess by himself and it takes a massive amount of intervention to set things right. Essentially saying that as things are, trouble comes easy, recovery takes magic.

It was a pleasant read and I was quite entertained. Despite his many digressions, Goldsmith did not waste time but drove the story forward and so it remained interesting throughout. Only one thing puzzles me: In the conclusion it is discovered (spoiler!) that Olivia’s marriage contract is not fake after all, so she is still married the vile Mr. Thornhill. This she is congratulated upon as she is no longer a fallen woman… ehhh, why is it a good thing that she is married to a terrible man instead of being free of him? Having lost everything what sort of bitter revenge will she have to endure from his hand and why is this good? Maybe the times are simply different, but if anybody can help me understand, I would be much obliged.

A recommendation from me.


tirsdag den 15. september 2020

The Castle of Otranto - Horace Walpole (1764)


The Castle of Otranto

“The Castle of Otranto” is known as the first gothic novel, predating “Frankenstein” by half a century. It is also one of the shortest novels on the List, at least so far, so it did not take me long to get through it.

The book was published under pseudonym and claimed to be a long lost Italian manuscript from the age of the crusades. Only in the second edition did Horace Walpole admit to having cooked it up himself. An early example of what in cinema is called Found Footage?

Back in those medieval days Manfred, the ruler of Otranto, losses his sickly son, Conrad, to a giant helmet that fell out of nowhere and crushed him on his wedding day. Bereft of his only male heir Manfred decides to marry the bride instead as he is convinced his wife, Hippolita, is now barren. Isabella, the bride, flees in horror, helped in her escape by a gallant peasant.

Manfred is pissed at the girl and pissed at the peasant and starts hunting for her. When he learns she is hiding in a nearby convent he gets pissed at the friar protecting her. The peasant must die for his insolence at which point the friar learns that the peasant is actually his son, Theodore, and no peasant but noble as the friar used to be a count. Theodore is helped escape by Manfred’s daughter, Mathilda, both of whom fall in love with each other. In his escape Theodore finds the lost Isabella and protects her from a mysterious knight. Theodore almost kills him only to discover this is Prince Frederic, Isabella’s long lost father, who claims rightful ownership to Otranto.


Walpole took the old medieval romance setting and populated it with Shakespearean characters with “modern” (18th century) sentiments. It is actually quite a bit of an exercise. You think you are reading an ancient tale, but all these characters are a lot more complex and detailed and in a way human than you would expect. Did you ever in an old romance find the Lord rolling his eyes and rage with impatience at a domestic who cannot get to the point? Or characters confusing each other pursuing their own agenda? I am no expert on Shakespeare, but I believe this contrary agenda element is borrowed there. These characters certainly make the story a lot more interesting and fleshed out than you would expect over hardly a hundred pages.

The gothic sense of doom at this castle is enhanced by frequent visitations of ghosts. First by the strange helmet that kills Conrad, but soon a giant is sighted, a statue cries blood and the ghost of a hermit appears to bring a message to Frederic. The function of these ghostly affairs is unclear at first and I had Walpole suspected of adding them simply for ambience, but along the way they work to promote the downfall of Manfred, whose grandfather apparently usurped the title from its rightful owner.

I found “The Castle of Otranto” very entertaining to read and got a lot more out of it than the diminutive length led me to expect. There were even funny element straight out of Monty Python. This playfulness is supported by the background of the novel. Horace Walpole, son of famed Robert Walpole, on of the longest sitting prime ministers of Britain, was a collector type who loved anything novel and unique and never did anything twice. He wrote many things, but all over the place and never another novel like “The Castle of Otranto”. As I understood it, he may even have written it as a jest.

“The Castle of Otranto” is fun and messy and very much alive and never overstays its welcome. That can only be a recommendation.


mandag den 7. september 2020

Emile, or On Education - Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762)

Emile, or On Education

The second book by Jean-Jacques Rousseau on the List is not really a novel but a treatise on education. For a list of novels including this book is a bit of an odd choice.

Anyway, “Emile, or On Education” is a tough book to get through and not just because it is long.
I know that we are talking about a 260 year old treatise, but it is difficult not judge such a text with modern eyes. Half the time his ideas are monstrous and I feel like shouting: “KEEP THAT MAN AWAY FROM MY CHILD!!!”, while on the other half Rousseau are remarkable modern for his time and some of the ideas are not alien today. Whether you focus on the first or the later I suppose is a matter of temper, but it makes for a weird experience reading the book.

Rousseau takes us through the raising of a boy from infancy until marriage in that order and Rousseau has a lot to say for each stage. His main idea is that nature does things right so as closer you keep things to nature the better things are. Human civilization is the opposite of nature and that is the source of everything wrong. Therefore, a boy must be raised in the countryside spending his time in as natural activities as possible. Towns, books and science however, not to mention theater and other sophistry, is to be avoided at all cost.

A consequence of this is that Rousseau wants to avoid stuffing knowledge into the young boy’s head, claiming that knowledge the boy does not understand is useless and actually counterproductive. Instead Rousseau prepares the boy to learn. He encourages curiosity and train the child to search and deduce the answers himself by observing nature. In all things he refuses to provide the answers, and rather nudge the boy in the right direction.

To a modern ear that sounds about right. Certainly, the Danish education system has now for many years abolished root learning in preference of teaching the children the learning process. To the extend that I am sometimes shocked at how little young student actually know. Instead they are superfast at acquiring knowledge.

This principle extents to religion where Rousseau wants the boy to work out for himself what he believes in and then join the denomination that fits him the best. Again, fairly modern, but this position caused, rather predictably, quite a scandal in its time. For somebody to say that no religion can monopolize the truth and that one should stay away from dogma would, in a world where every  sect believes that they and only they know the truth, be considered the worst kind of heresy. Rousseau’s book was accordingly banned and burned in many places.

Considering how big a fan of nature Rousseau was, it is surprising how antagonistic he was towards science. Doctors he considers as frauds and books are simply not worth reading. Scientific research in any form that goes beyond observing nature he considers a was of time.

On the other hand, he chooses to include a part of his own treatise on the Social Contract, a very complex, and highly regarded, piece of political science. Talk about being inconsistent.

By today’s standard the most controversial part concerns the education of girls. Rousseau was of the opinion that it is a waste of time to send girls to school. They only need to look pretty, be adept at domestic work and be submissive to their husband. I found many paragraphs that were so outrageous I had to read them aloud and laugh. Even thinking such thoughts today would get you crucified. Seriously. Though at the time, this part went down with the general public much better than the sections on religion and politics.  We have, thankfully, come a long way.

Rousseau has a meandering style. Although there is a general structure to the book, the individual chapters run all over the place with segments tangential to the main themes. He was probably having a lot of fun imagining how he would like to raise children and got carried away. It was a lot less fun being the reader of this.

I cannot with a clear consciousness recommend “Emile, or On Education”. I suppose it is a good window into Rousseau’s ideas, but as casual reading this is very much uphill and any feminist would be in risk of an apoplectic stroke.