Ada Lovelace and Lord Byron (who has the kavorka)

(c) Newstead Abbey; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

ada-lovelace-1

Lord Byron’s notorious facility for pulling both female and male love interests is one of those bits of historical trivia that I find a little perplexing – I mean, I’ve seen his portrait, I don’t know what all the fuss was about, maybe back in that century the dating pool was very slim pickings?

But I shouldn’t go underestimating the allure a talented wordsmith can have – the Romantic poet truly had the Kavorka, with his clubfoot only adding to his irresistible  aura.

By his own account, Byron slept with over 200 women in the later years of his life, while living in exile in Venice (‘by his own account’ though does immediately sound a wee bit suspect, I mean by my own account this is still the year I’m definitely getting into shape).

Byron’s half-sister, Augusta, wasn’t even immune to his charm, with the two having an affair – and subsequently a child – during his very short-lived marriage to Annabella Milbanke (this was gross and scandalous even by early 19th century standards).

Byron’s life of just 36 years is defined not only by the poetry he left behind, but equally by the enthralling, usually sordid, details of his personal life. For me though, the most fascinating thing about Lord Byron’s existence is the life of daughter he never knew, Ada Lovelace – a pioneer in mathematics and computer programming in a time when women could not attend university in Britain.

Weeks following the birth of Augusta Ada Byron on December 10 1815 (more commonly known by her middle name for obvious reasons. Love how she has the same name as the sister, way to rub it in Byron!!), Annabella left with her daughter to her parents house after Lord Byron’s famous threat to his wife that he would ‘do everything wicked’. The poet would never see either of them again, with the separation sparking such intense public scandal that Byron left Britain in disgrace in 1816.

Frightened that artistic pursuits would have a destructive influence on Ada, and that she would want to follow a destructive path like her famous father, Annabella encouraged Ada into mathematics by hiring several tutors. And at 17 Ada would meet mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage, through who she began being tutored by University of London professor, Augustus de Morgan.

Babbage became Ada’s mentor, and when asked to translate an article on Babbage’s design for the ‘analytical engine’, her extensive notes she added to the original document are now considered the first examples of a working software program ever published. What’s makes this even more incredible is that the machinery that could run the code wouldn’t be invented for another century.

What I love about Ada’s story is that she is remembered in her own right, in a field that is completely distinct from the field Lord Byron has reverence in. She is buried next to him in the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Nottingham, yet in life they were strangers and had minds that – from an outside perspective – seem like they shared little in common.

[images via wikipedia and pcmag]

 

 

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‘There is a gentlemen, rather the worse for wear…’

[That cover image is Vincent Price in the film adaption of The Mask of the Red Death. Yes, he really does look like a massive weirdo in that costume – like the person who is ruining your otherwise rocking halloween party]

In life, there are countless moments of varying significance that, for whatever reason, manage to get themselves forever lost to ol’ father time. For me personally, the absent memory of how that mysterious dalmatian ended up on top of me the night drinking Yahtzee was invented is the first thing that springs to my mind (or rather DOESN’T spring to mind! It’s about to get a wee bit Twilight Zone-esque up in here!).

It’s usually a rather mundane reality that naturally not every single moment in history was recorded, and that memory is incapable of preserving every lived minute in pristine condition. Yet when it concerns a figure like Edgar Allan Poe – who never really needed any additional assistance coming across enigmatic – this commonplace phenomena becomes ten-fold more enthralling.

Poe’s unexplained disappearance and his subsequent mysterious death four days after he was found, is one of those historical subjects that gets me a little bit excited – as a fan of both some Poe trivia and a good mystery. Plus it makes me wonder whether fellow crime writer Agatha Christie ever thought of Poe during her own eleven day disappearance in 1926.

On 7 October  1849, at Washington College Hospital – in a cell-room normally reserved for drunks; the gorgeous 19th century equivalent of Robert Smith allegedly whispered ‘Lord help my poor soul’ before dying at age 40 – ten days before he was to marry what would have his second wife, fellow widow Elmira Royster Shelton.

Officially Poe death was documented as ‘congestion of the brain’, however an autopsy was never conducted, and as his doctor had denied all visitors, only one account exists of the state Poe was in leading up to his death.

During Poe’s four days of hospitalisation he was in a complete state of delirium, incapable of accounting what had happened since he was last seen on 27 September leaving Richmond, Virginia for an editing job in Philadelphia.

Poe had been found 3 October outside a tavern and polling location (it was during an election), by a printer named Joseph Walker who recognised the famous poet. Poe gave Walker the name of an acquaintance, Dr. Joseph E. Snodgrass, and Walker got in contact with Snodgrass asking for help,

Dear Sir, 

There is a gentleman, rather the worse for wear, at Ryan’s 4th ward polls, who goes under the cognomen of Edgar A. Poe, and who appears in great distress, & he says he is acquainted with you, he is in need of immediate assistance.

Yours, in haste,
JOS. W. WALKER
To Dr. J.E. Snodgrass.

What’s particularly fascinating though, is that Poe was found dressed in clothes that were not his, yet still in possession of a sword cane he had nicked from a friend of his called Dr John Carter, who Poe had visited the night before he left Richmond (to be fair if any of my friends owned an actual sword cane I would “accidentally” leave their house with it too. I would so “accidentally” conceal it under my jacket somehow).

There are numerous theories that attempt to give an explanation on what precisely caused Poe’s death – such as rabies, carbon monoxide poisoning, alcoholism, a brain tumor. Or more sinister explanations such as murder, or being victim of ‘cooping’ – a type of voter fraud where gangs would kidnap victims and force them to repeatedly vote in various disguises.

What’s annoys me the most though about this never to be solved riddle is that a medium in the 1860s claimed Poe’s ghost wrote poetry through her – if you could communicate with Poe’s ghost, WHY DIDN’T YOU ASK HIM TO EXPLAIN HIS DEATH SO THAT IT ISN’T A TOPIC OF DEBATE 169 YEARS AFTER IT HAPPENED?????

 

 

 

 

The Reader of Novels

There’s a generic image of what an avid reader looks like – it is someone who is dorky, socially awkward or an introvert, and it rests on an assumption that the act of reading is far from edgy or dangerous.

Yet throughout history, access to literature and books so often induced mass societal fear, that when you think about it, current attitudes towards reading do not do justice to its long held rebellious reputation.

The past is scattered with instances where people feared the consequences of reading. And one particularly fascinating example of this is the Victorian era’s deep concern over the reading habits of women.

There is a 19th century painting by Antoine Wiertz’s called The Reader of Novels (1853), where a mysterious demon-like creature tempts a young naked reader with another book. This portrayal of a female reader, is a reflection of a prevalent Victorian anxiety – what increased female literacy would mean for their ‘purity’ and for larger society.

During this period in Europe, particularly in Britain, the female reader was the topic of public moral debate because she was a new kind of reader. Major shifts meant formerly untouched demographics, including women, now had much higher literacy levels and greater access to reading material. These changes included the rise of public libraries, and primary school education becoming compulsory.

Warnings to fathers and husbands, of the corruptive power novel reading had over women, was not a new thing; with humanist philosopher Juan Luis Vives cautioning in 1540,

‘A woman should beware of all these books, like as of serpents or snakes’

However this quantitative level of females regularly reading was unknown up until this point.

Embedded preconceptions of the intelligence capacity of women, meant that their ability to handle this new freedom (to logically interpret fiction) was under constant scrutiny. By nature women were considered more fragile and impressionable, and thus many people opposed women reading without some level of guardianship, on both moral and medical grounds.

As a cautionary tale to parents, novelist Charlotte Elizabeth Browne wrote in 1841 of her experience reading The Merchant of Venice at aged seven,

‘Reality became insipid almost hateful to me’

This was a common argument: that girls and women were more prone to hysteria and more likely to get themselves lost in fiction rather than focus on reality.

Physicians like Dr John Harvey Kellogg, believed women were more susceptible to both escapism and addiction and thus reading as a habit had the potential to become ‘as inveterate as the use of liquor or opium’.

Many revered medical professionals of the time shared this view that exposure to novels could have a negative effect on women’s health. For instance, female physician Dr Mary-Ann Wood, stated in her book What Young Women Ought to Know (1899) that,

‘Romance-reading by young girls will, by this excitement of the bodily organs, tend to create their premature development, and the child becomes physically a woman months, or even years, before she should.’

The popularity of romance novels was also a subject of moral concern because it was feared they were corrupting influences on purity, and that they set unrealistic expectations.

A woman’s chastity was deemed immensely important during this time, and novel reading was seen as both a distraction to their domestic obligations, and a threat to the gender expectation to be a faithful and docile wife and mother.

As a 21st century women, I too easily take for granted what it means to have agency over what I read. Reflecting on an historical period where the notion that a woman can have independence over what she reads was still an emerging and highly contested, makes me further appreciate how beautiful it is to have access to knowledge, and creative works .

[Originally this was in Cluster early last year]

April is the Cruelest Month

Knowing that this is definitely my last year of uni ever (seriously I can’t stress this enough – I’m never coming back for more of this shit!!!) means that my mind has recently started replaying the highlight reel of past procrastination, kind of like the flashback episode of a sitcom (particularly moments from my undergrad, that was pro level).

It’s all pretty embarrassing really, here’s a list of genuine things I’ve done over the years while procrastinating,

  • Got mad good at computer mahjong and solitaire
  • Decided now was the best time to learn as much of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven as I could off by heart (I can still get up to verse four though!)
  • Decided now was the best time to get back into knitting again
  • Spent the best part of a day carefully taking the seeds out of pomegranates
  • Watched the music video to Another Brick in the Wall a bunch of times then wondered why I wasn’t exactly feeling motivated to finish that essay

Anyway the reason I’m bringing this up is that, having a reminisce over all the self-inflicted pain which naturally comes with procrastination, has also got me thinking a lot about T.S Eliot – in particular the poem he is arguably most renowned for, The Wasteland.

While Eliot’s great line, ‘distracted from distraction by distraction’  from Four Quartets may seem like a more appropriate sentiment for talk on procrastination; The Wasteland‘s morbid exploration into the futility of modern existence, and the personal suffering behind the poem’s creation, can easily be applied to procrastination. Plus surprisingly, The Wasteland is even able to give an unintentionally optimistic perspective on treading through the shittier times (or it’s likely that maybe I’m being way too positive, it is pretty bleak).

First published in 1922, The Wasteland traces modernity’s descent into hell in five parts, and was the piece which first gained Eliot attention as a poet (interestingly James Joyce’s Ulysses was published earlier that year – my brain needs to get a whole lot more bigger and impressive before I attempt to read that though).

Throughout The Wasteland, hordes of tragic figures are mechanically walking through life,

‘I had not thought death had undone so many,     

Sighs, short and infrequent were exhaled

And each man fixed his eyes before his feet’  

 

Eliot warns of culture’s progressing erosion and the monotony to be faced trapped in ‘the wasteland’. This theme of dredging through tedium is comparable to that feeling of just wishing a task was over, to the point where you almost feel detached from the initial reason why you’re doing this work.

Yet conversely, these words are also a challenge to be better. To find purpose and beauty, and not settle for sleepwalking through your existence. In my case, I shouldn’t overlook the fact that even the most tedious tasks, form part of something greater that I care deeply about.

Going deeper, and extending beyond the poem’s words; Eliot famously credited his tumultuous eighteen year marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood for ‘…the state of mind out of which came The Wasteland’.

An awareness that the darkest point in T.S Eliot life, sparked what is arguably the most significant piece of his literary legacy, puts present unhappiness towards tedium into perspective. Yes, maybe the present feels like a struggle – but maybe by living through it, something truly brilliant will derive out of it?

[Bit of an interesting fun-fact I learnt while doing some note-taking for this post: the owners of Eliot’s old family beach house in Massachusetts claim that its haunted by Eliot’s ghost. In life, T.S was a bit of a prude, so I like to think that his ghost only appears in the throes of passion to give you a judgmental glare]

Fictional Couples whose happiness won’t make you want to be sick in a bucket

In hindsight, I think the main reason I didn’t have any interest in reading as a teenager was that – in my experience anyway, a lot of books directed primarily towards adolescent girls, tended to have a strong sappy romantic sub-plot; and being the cold-hearted cynic that I was/am, I genuinely believed that it was impossible for a novel to have romantic themes and not be a complete load of dull shite.

And while yes, I still wouldn’t be caught dead reading Romeo and Juliet (YOU’RE THIRTEEN, you will meet other people! A bit of get the fuck over it is in order), I’m proud to say that my palette has slightly widened over time. I won’t automatically dismiss reading something anymore based purely on the knowledge that a loved-up couple will be featuring a lot in it.

Don’t get me wrong, if a book isn’t a little dark, I will probably lose interest, BUT I’ve learned not to be so narrow minded. Falling in love is a big theme, and of course not every single fictional representation of it, is doomed to feel simplistic and clique. So here are a few fictional couples whose stories have helped me broaden my horizons.

Robert and Maria (For Whom the Bell Tolls, 1941)

This is such a beautiful book, seriously get on it.

Inspired by Hemingway’s own experiences traveling across Spain, reporting on the Spanish Civil War; For Whom the Bell Tolls takes place over the course of four days, and tells the story of an American volunteer Robert Jordan, who must blow up a bridge of strategic importance behind enemy (Fascist) lines.

For the offensive attack to be successful, the bridge needs to be blown up at a minutely specific time; and the story begins with Robert meeting a small group of guerrilla fighters, living within the mountains, who have been assigned to help him.

This group includes Maria – who they found in a horrifically traumatized state and took in. The cruelty inflicted on her, following the Fascist takeover of her town, is still a very fresh wound – yet her gentle demeanour hasn’t been poisoned. She and Robert are instantly drawn to each other and from the first night they are an item.

What’s particularly poignant about their relationship, is that while it moves fast as a consequence of the immense instability surrounding them, it feels realistic because Robert is frequently ruminating whether his passion for Maria is genuine, or if his feelings have only been intensified by the knowledge he could easily die during this mission.

Although some contemporary criticisms feel that Maria’s character is far too one-dimensional: factoring in its cultural/historical context, I’m not sure if that’s a fair assessment. But I would’ve loved to have known more about Maria’s personality outside of Robert.

Stephen and Mary (The Well of Loneliness, 1928)

As my previous blogpost on The Well of Loneliness, focused more on its obscenity trials rather than the book’s actual story, I figure I could talk about it here without doubling up.

Now the reason you’ll feel particularly invested in Stephen Gordon and Mary Llewellyn’s happiness is because prior to meeting each other as ambulance drivers during World War I, the novel details all of Stephen’s personal history.

Her incapacity, growing up, to comprehend her difference, her crippling loneliness, her unrequited obsession over a married neighbour, her mother’s eventual disownment of her – all of these experiences, despite the long held criticism that this book hasn’t aged well, have a deep, and timeless resonance. Plus, having a nuanced understanding of who Stephen is before she finds love, means as a reader you have a greater impression of how much Mary enriches her existence.

Another great quality of this class piece of literature is Hall’s additional effort to highlight the strong class element that restricted the freedom of queer women during this time. In the story Mary and Stephen are close friends with another lesbian couple, Jamie and Barbara, whose choice to live as a couple has left them ostracised from their small village destitute and ‘starvation poor’. As well as their influence on the overall plot progression, Jamie and Barbara’s existence within the story is vital because it highlighted the freedom Stephen’s wealth had given her.

Jean and Helene (The Blood of Others, 1945)

I was debating for a bit whether or not Jean and Helene belonged on this list, given technically it’s really not a love story – more an exploration into personal responsibility and what we owe other people. But when I read it years ago, I remember it partially strengthening my own, very limited, understanding of why certain things had turned to shit. And that’s pretty impressive from a book that’s premise was completely unknown to me before starting it (my motives for reading it were basically – I wanted to read some Simone de Beauvoir and it was the thinnest book I could find).

Set within a German occupied France, and like For Whom the Bell Tolls, also inspired by Beauvior’s own personal experience working for the French Resistance: The Blood of Others is the story of a brief affair relived through a succession of flashbacks, as the main protagonist, Jean, watches his former lover Helene, die of a gunshot wound (he wasn’t the one who shot her by the way, it was a French Resistance related accident).

What’s central to Jean and Helene’s story is that Jean is never sure that he loves Helene, yet he tells her he loves her anyway because he is fascinated by how Helene’s happiness becomes dependant on this imperfect understanding she has of him. In other words, it’s the classic existentialist mind-fuck where it dawns on you that you can only know a person to an extent.

 

 

Sontag, Proust and Social Media Presence

I only got to about page 100 of French novelist Marcel Proust’s whopping seven volume love story, Remembrance of Things Past, before admitting defeat. Yet there were still snippets of it that inspired deeper thought on my part. One quote in particular, contemplating whether it’s possible to truly know somebody as a whole person, successfully sparked a small existential crisis in me over the intricacies that make up individual personalities,

‘If some misfortune comes to him, it is only in one small section of the complete idea we have of him that we are capable of feeling any emotion, indeed it is only one small section of the complete idea he has of himself that he is capable of feeling any emotion.’

This idea, that our knowledge of those we feel we know well, and even knowledge of ourselves, is incomplete and pieced together by representations, impressions and shared moments is powerful and poetic. But it’s also particularly daunting when read in a time shrouded by public performances of the self. After all, so much of social media’s charm is the control it gives us to present a perfectly curated version of our existence to the rest of the world.

The quote reminds me of Susan Sontag’s extensive writing on photography and its power to define who you are and ‘determine our demands upon reality’. Like Proust’s contemplation, Sontag’s theory that we build an understanding of ourselves and others through photography in the modern era, can be interpreted as a poignant insight into how we use social media to represent our personality and lived experiences, despite both being written in times where online platforms were non-existent.

The work of revered American academic, Susan Sontag, critically analyses multiple parts of modern life and the human experience. In 1977, she published On Photography, a collection of essays that had originally appeared in The New York Review of Books.

Reading On Photography now, its belief that photography has created an ‘aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted’ seems almost prophetic, and perhaps more apt to our current culture than to the time of its original release. Just like Proust’s suggestion that we are only ever granted a glimpse of the whole individual, Sontag’s claim that a photograph is a ‘pseudo-presence’ (an appropriation of ‘the thing being photographed’), is an incitement to look deeper for meaning.

Now, as somebody who needs to keep away from social media whenever I’m going through a period of fragile mental health, these insights are particularly moving. It’s too easy to scroll through social media posts and feel as though your own life or personality is somehow lacking.

Sontag and Proust are reminders that it’s futile to draw conclusions about yourself and other people’s existence based purely on what they are allowing you to see.
As Sontag argues, the ‘unlimited authority’ photography possesses in contemporary society is not actually warranted. We presume a photograph is an impartial ‘experience captured’, and we use them as a means of confirming our reality. Yet it shouldn’t possess that level of power because it’s only a representation and it does not automatically equate with truth.

Our social media platforms, and the endless web of beautiful images it surrounds us with, are only fragments of much more complex realities. We are more interconnected than ever, yet when we fail to recognise that all online presences are only representations, we risk feeling fueling a harmful mindset that we’re the only ones who sometimes feel broken or unfulfilled.

Basing ideas about who a person is or what one’s own life ought to look like on any representation is flawed. As Proust and Sontag point out – our existence remains too layered and intricate to be adequately portrayed by one channel. Maybe I’ll always find social media a little triggering during bouts of loneliness and intense vulnerability, but at least I can attempt to put it into a rational perspective thanks to Proust and Sontag.

[This piece later appeared in Discord zine’s final edition]

Isolation/Spending too much time on your own

An unavoidable downside to writing a lot, is that you do have to spend a big bulk of your time by yourself.

It’s just the unseen boringness of bashing out a quality article – no exaggeration majority of my time I’m in the basement of the library typing like a boss and being a wee bit territorial about the aisle I sit in (it’s my spot MOTHERFUCKERS I’ve earnt it!!! Do you think my ass shadow just put itself there hmmmm???).

Don’t get me wrong it’s all worth it in the end, seeing something you’ve written out there looking all pretty. But too much isolation can take its toll on your sanity. It gets lonely, plus it kinda kills the possibility of doing one of those a photo for a year challenges (Day 105 – a slightly different angle of this bit of the basement!!! #yolo)

Anyway so it’s got me thinking of fictional characters who’ve found themselves facing severe social seclusion. Here are three examples  to help ease any insecurities about you own real feelings of isolation.

Jane Erye (Charlotte Brontë, 1847) *spoilers

Literary analyses frequently credit the timeless quality of Jane Eyre to the relatable nature of Jane Eyre’s character. In fact early readers, when the novel was first published, initially presumed that it was a true story because the book’s subtitle was ‘An Autobiography’.

And while finding yourself working in a manor where the Master’s secret, hidden first wife is locked up in the attic (the name Bertha really has died out eh?), isn’t exactly one of those hugely relatable experiences – the extreme loneliness and exclusion Jane faces throughout her early childhood is poignant because it feels like realistic rejection.

In contrast, although we never hear Bertha Mason’s perspective in Jane Eyre, she is another great – albeit more dramatic, example of fictional isolation.

Locked in Thornfield Hall’s attic for her heritary madness, the reader only really has Rochester’s word that her mental descent occurred before her confinement. And given there’s an actual scene where Rochester pretends he’s an elderly woman and starts giving guests in his house phoney psychic readings (perfectly sober too I might add) I don’t know if I completely trust his ability to spot irregular behaviour.

The Yellow Wallpaper (Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1892)

This classic American short story, of an unnamed woman’s experience of postpartum depression and consequently the commonly prescribed ‘rest cure’, gives a facinating impression on the history of treating mental illness. Additionally, as an underlying commentary by Gilman, on the correlation between women being diagnosed with mental illness and their place in a patriarchal society, The Yellow Wallpaper is an incredibly useful historical resource within feminism.

To quickly summarise it, following the birth of her child the unnamed protagonist has been diagnosed by her physician husband John, with showing symptoms of hysteria. To aid her recovery they have rented an old mansion and she is confined to a room with bars on the windows and decaying yellow wallpaper. The complete absence of any kind of stimulus causes her to see a trapped woman in the wallpaper as she decends further into psychosis. 

Frankenstein (Mary Shelley, 1818)

As a piece of early science fiction, first time readers tend to go into  Frankenstein expecting horror, and while you do get that there are much stronger themes of rejection and loneliness driving Frankenstein’s monster’s actions.

Created by a scientist who becomes obsessed with perpetuating life, Victor Frankenstein, the monster only swears revenge on his creator after facing ostracism from everybody he’s been in contact with – including Frankenstein who is immediately repulsed by his creation and flees, leaving the creature to fend for himself.

The saddest part of the monster’s lonely existence though is, after months of secretly living in an abandoned structure, and learning how to communicate by listening to the family in the adjoining cottage, his hopes of becoming their friend is shattered when they do eventually see him and run away in terror. Setting their cottage on fire in anger though might not have been the best way to demonstrate how they were wrong to judge you on your appearance.

 

 

 

I will be your father figure

This is a bit of a generalisation, but I’ve started to notice that there’s an extensive number of crappy parents in the classics, and I’m wondering what percentage of these are reflections of an author’s own imperfect relationship with their parents. After all many renowned literary figures had fractured relationships with one or more of their parents. [Our gorgeous friend and raven lover, Edgar Allan Poe for instance, had a deeply strained relationship with his adoptive father John Allan, which once erupted into a two day argument.]

What’s more, channeling anger – or any kind of hurt, into creating a beautiful piece of writing is known to be quite cathartic. Or once its done, if you’re still mad, at the very least the person who’s pissed you off probably got the passive-aggressive hint after reading your piece. I’m assuming for example that Sylvia Plath’s dad and her husband, Ted Hughes, both got the very subtle message that there was a dash of hostility directed their way after reading the poem Daddy.

But while there are a lot of literary explorations of strained parental bonds, I want to talk about fictional characters who’s children actually love and admire them. The one’s who are strong role models, and who you hope you could emulate for your children. Because the abundance of neglectful parents in literature, makes it even more touching when you find one that is hopeful and kind. So anyway here are three of my favourite father figures from fiction.

Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird,1960)

[If I didn’t mention Atticus in this post that would be pretty sacrilegious.]

‘The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.’

I probably will end up reading Go Set A Watchmen eventually, it’s just that I’m apprehensive. I don’t know if I could handle flawless Atticus suddenly being reduced to a senile bigot – his character deserved more than that, and more importantly Harper Lee deserved more than to have it published in the first place.

Its understandable why the 2015 release of Go Set a Watchmanthe sequel of To Kill a Mockingbird, was met with extensive criticism. Setting aside the alleged manipulation of Harper Lee, Atticus Finch is arguably one of the most beloved and inspiring characters in 20th century century literature. To have his character lose all the principles that made him a powerful symbol, contradicted the reasons why To Kill a Mockingbird still holds such reverence 57 years after its initial publication.

So on that note let’s forget about Go Set a Watchmen here and focus specifically on the Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird. 

Set in Maycomb, Alabama during the depression, Atticus is the sole parent of Scout and Jem, who humbly demonstrates throughout the novel, what it means to truly seek fairness and to abide by one’s moral compass.

His children, quite rightly, idolize him as he exemplifies moral strength, both in his impossible role as defense attorney for a falsely accused black man, and in his general demeanor.

What’s more his ability to drop pearls of wisdom that touch your soul, is second to none. That final moment of the book, where Scout is talking about finally meeting Boo and her surprise that he’s friendly, and Atticus goes and drops this sweet exit line – ‘Most people are Scout when you finally see them’, is frankly getting me a little teary right now just thinking about it.

Hans Hubermann (The Book Thief, 2013) *spoilers

‘Trust was accumulated quickly, due primarily to the brute strength of the man’s gentleness’

Speaking of things which make me teary, the bond between Hans Hubermann and his foster daughter Liesel is one of the main reasons Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is one of my favourite books. Even death himself – who narrates the novel, is deeply touched by their relationship and considers Hans to have the best kind of soul.

Set in Germany under Nazi rule, Liesel is taken to live with Rosa and Hans Hubermann at the age of ten, as both of her parents are communists – a label she doesn’t understand. The book is obviously centered around what’s happening in Europe and Germany at that point in time, yet it’s also a story of a girl developing a love for words – a love that’s spurred by Hans, who teaches her how to read and doesn’t crack it with her too much when she occasionally steals books.

They both just hold such a beautiful adoration for each other, and that bit at the end where Death tells us that the final thing Hans’ soul whispered before he dies was ‘Liesel’ –  I can’t handle it.

Jean Valjean (Les Miserables, 1862)

‘Poor sweet little creature whose heart had till that moment only ever been crushed.’

If you’re up for a fun-fact, the year Victor Hugo starting writing Les Miserables was the same year Poe’s The Raven was first published, 1845.

Anyway, just as in the musical adaption of Les Miserables, on the lam prisoner, Jean Valjean (who impressively managed to get his shit together and become a factory owner and the mayor of Montreuil-sur-mer before goody-two-shoes Javert had to spoil everything), rescues eight year old Cosette from her lonely and abusive existence living under the inn-keeping couple, the Thenardiers, after he makes a promise to her dying mother Fantine.

Now because the Thenardiers are campy and funny in the musical adaption, it does tend to kinda gloss over the fact that they really are the worst, and that Cosette has had a life of ongoing traumatic hardship up until Jean Valjean comes into her life.

Their bond is uniquely beautiful because both of them have had deeply lonely existences before finding each other. Plus its touching to read Cosette finally getting to have a parent who is filled with love for her.

 

 

Wrongdoings and Getting Judged for Them

I remember my first run-in with an authority figure that wasn’t one of my parents. I was seven, and I had to sit on the step for saying some cheeky rhyme with the word ‘bum’ in it, in front of the new preps. Rather than taking my punishment with a quiet dignity, I cried the entire time I was on the step – I wasn’t the most rebellious of youth.

Each person’s own unique and ongoing relationship to the rules they’re told to abide by, is fascinating and not always fair.  Regardless of whether you choose to challenge or comply with moral or societal restrictions, the influence rules have in sculpting who we are, is immeasurable. And sometimes, as The Clash once warned us, you’ll fight the law and the law wins.

So if you’re in the mood to ponder the judicial process, here are a few bits of writing which are thankfully much shorter reads than Crime and Punishment (just don’t read Crime and Punishment I proper struggled)

The Trial (Franz Kakfa, 1925)

Like Kafka’s other stories, The Trial is often considered particularly chilling because it’s said to foreshadow life under Nazi occupation – an era which Kakfa never lived to see.

Originally written in 1915 and published posthumously, The Trial tells the story of Josef K. who wakes up one morning told he has been charged for a crime which is never revealed to him by a mysterious bureaucratic system. Josef K. hopelessly fights his case even though he doesn’t know what exactly he is being charged with, to a powerful yet invisible, system that’s structure is unknown.

 Twelve Angry Men (Reginald Rose, 1957)

A short American screenplay which, as you’re promised, has twelve men in it that are sometimes arguing (it never escalates into a street fight though which is a bit of a let down).

Set in a sequestered jury room, the jurors need to reach a unanimous verdict on the 19 year old defendant accused of killing his father. If found guilty he’ll be sentenced to death. In short, the play is the jurors arguing into the night, attempting to determine whether there is a reasonable doubt. It’s also meant to make you think about how much personal prejudices can be put aside to ensure they don’t ‘obscure the truth’.

 The Ballad of Reading Gaol (Oscar Wilde, 1898)

Written after his release, this powerful poem describes a hanging Wilde witnessed during his two year prison sentence of a Royal Horse Guards trooper, Charles Thomas Wooldridge who had murdered his wife in a jealous rage for suspected infidelity.

A statement against capital punishment, Wilde humanise’s Wooldridge by detailing his movements as he walks toward the scaffold. He attempts to capture the pain of witnessing a fellow man die ‘a death of shame’; his underlying point being that we are all sinful yet not all of us are forced to die this way. Repeatedly the poem describes the ‘wisful eyes’ of Wooldridge on this fateful day, and comes back to this one poignant verse,

‘Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!’

Inferno (Dante Alighieri, 1472)

I have two favourite parts of this classic epic poem/brochure of what to except if you’ve been a bit of a wrongin during your life,

  1. That God seems to be a fan of handing out very specific ironic punishments
  2. People who were unable to commit to the church because it was before their time-period are still sent to the first circle of hell for not believing in God. That’s a bit of a dick move.

The first of three poems (I have only read this one though, cause I thought it would be juicy), Inferno is about Dante getting himself lost in the forest and the ghost of Virgil needing to lead him through the nine circles of hell to get back onto his path.

 

 

Susan Sontag’s Journal Entries

Susan Sontag2.pngsusan-sontagIn a way I’m sort of happy that my hair’s starting to go a little grey. At the moment it’s only happening at the front, so if all goes well maybe I’ll get to have a suave streak just like Susan Sontag had. And on that note, things are about to get fan-girly here.

Susan Sontag (1933 – 2004) was a renowned intellectual whose work as a writer, essayist and director offer seminal commentaries on society, culture, metaphors and the human experience.

But what I want to talk about here is her journal entries, which were published posthumously and give such a touching impression of her vulnerabilities and of a life truly lived.

In the preface of the first collection of entries; Sontag’s only child, David Rieff writes about the surreal experience of reading these deeply personal journals his mother had kept from her adolescence up until her death, and wishing he could warn her about all the pain and heartbreak which awaited her,

‘but of course I’m too late: the play has already been performed and its protagonist is gone’

Rieff continuously wondered whether his mother would have approved of his decision to make her journal entries public. For me personally though, I’m so grateful he did, these snippets are why I love books – a person who I will never know has been able to give me solace at so many different points in life, years after her death.

It’s beautiful to get a deeper glimpse of the fragile human behind her work, as well as an impression of her personality during different points in her life. Moreover, her lifelong thirst for further knowledge would inspire anyone to strive towards greater understanding and intelligence. Here are a few entries that particularly struck a chord with me,

‘…I just felt enormous anger at her, exactly as you would feel toward someone who has just announced that she is about to cause you terrible pain’

‘ “X” is when you feel yourself an object not a subject. When you want to please and impress people, either by saying what they want to hear, or by shocking them, or by boasting and name dropping, or by being very cool.’

‘Two fundamental needs are at war within me: need for the approval of others, fear of others’