Monday, January 28, 2013

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice published 200 years ago today

First posted 6/12/2020; updated 7/6/2020.

Pride and Prejudice

Jane Austen

First Publication: January 28, 1813

Category: romantic novel

Sales: 20 million


About the Book:

“‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’ So begins Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen’s witty comedy of manners – one of the most popular novels of all time.” AZ

The basic plot? “Heroine meets hero and hates him. Is charmed by a cad. A family crisis – caused by the cad – is resolved by the hero. The heroine sees him for what he really is and realises (after visiting his enormous house) that she loves him. The plot has been endlessly borrowed, but few authors have written anything as witty or profound as Pride and Prejudice.” TG

In 1894, “renowned literary critic and historian George Saintsbury…declared it the ‘most perfect, the most characteristic, the most eminently quintessential of its author’s works.’” LN In the 20th century, Eudora Welty “described it as ‘irresistible and as nearly flawless as any fiction could be.’” LN

Its “blend of humor, romance, and social satire have delighted readers of all ages.” AZ “In telling the story of Mr. and Mrs. Bennett and their five daughters, Jane Austen creates a miniature of her world, where social grace and the nuances of behavior predominate in the making of a great love story.” BN The story “features splendidly civilized sparring between the proud Mr. Darcy and the prejudiced Elizabeth Bennet as they play out their spirited courtship in a series of eighteenth-century drawing-room intrigues.” AZ

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Jekyll and Hyde: The Good and Bad of Writing

image from

I have just finished reading The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson's iconic novella first published in 1886. The story has become quite familiar to most - if not in its original context, in one of its many variations. The story has been adapted to multiple movies, theater productions, and other books.

For those not in the know, the essence of the book is that Dr. Jeckyll is a fine, upstanding citizen in London, England. Unbeknownst to anyone else, he conducts experiments to release his evil side, which takes on the persona of Mr. Hyde. All who encounter the latter are repulsed and when Hyde starts committing violent crime, he becomes a wanted man.

The book has largely become a classic on the strength of the idea of dual personalities existing within the same person. Such a state has psychological basis, which gives the story a certain amount of frightening realism. However, Jekyll's actual physical transformation when he becomes Hyde gives the book a more fantastical element as well. The story is a popular source for both monster and super hero tales because of the concept of two identities existing within one individual.

Conceptually, this is a great idea for a book. From an execution standpoint, however, the story has shortcomings. Any writer today has to tire of hearing one of the cardinal rules of fiction: "Show, don't tell." Rules, of course, are made to be broken and there are always examples of writing which is excellent precisely because the author set the rules on their ear.

In the case of Jekyll and Hyde, Stevenson manages to make a mere 80-page story feel overlong. He devotes nearly the last quarter of the book to Henry Jekyll's written confession. Instead of letting the reader experience Jekyll's descent into madness first hand, we have to endure him telling us about it for 20 pages.

Part of the flaw of the novella is that it begs to be told from a third-person omnipotent narrator's perspective. However, the story is largely told from the perspective of Jekyll's lawyer, Gabriel John Utterson. This gives the book a serious flaw because Utterson does not know Jekyll's secret or even suspect. He is distressed by his client's actions - such as Jekyll giving everything to Hyde in his will, but never guesses what Jekyll is up to. Instead he assumes Hyde must be blackmailing Jekyll.

This means the reader does not get to witness firsthand why Jekyll does what he does - or how. We only get to read about it later. Obviously Stevenson wanted to keep the reader curious, wondering what the relationship was between Jekyll and Hyde. This could make for a shocking reveal when it turned out they were one and the same person.

However, this could have still been done, and more effectively, through a third-person omniscient narrator. It would have been a more captivating story if the storyteller knew what was going on, but only slowly parceled out the details.

Monday, January 14, 2013

50 Years Ago Today: Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar was published

First posted 6/8/2020; updated 7/6/2020.

The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath

First Publication: January 14, 1963

Category: semi-autobiographical novel

Sales: ?

Accolades (click on badges to see full lists):

About the Book:

The Bell Jar was the only novel written by American writer and poet Sylvia Plath. It wasn’t published under her own name until 1967. It was originally published under the pseudonym ‘Victoria Lucas’ in 1963. WK It didn’t see publication in the United States until 1971, “in accordance with the wishes of both Plath's husband, Ted Hughes, and her mother.” WK It has since “been translated into nearly a dozen languages. The novel, though dark, is often read in high school English classes.” WK

“The novel is semi-autobiographical, with the names of places and people changed. The book is often regarded as a roman à clef because the protagonist’s descent into mental illness parallels Plath’s own experiences with what may have been clinical depression or bipolar II disorder.” WK She committed suicide a month after the book’s first publication in the UK.

The book is a “shocking, realistic, and intensely emotional novel about a woman falling into the grip of insanity.” BN The story “chronicles the crack-up of Esther Greenwood: brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under – maybe for the last time. Sylvia Plath masterfully draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that Esther’s insanity becomes completely real and even rational, as probable and accessible an experience as going to the movies. Such deep penetration into the dark and harrowing corners of the psyche is an extraordinary accomplishment and has made The Bell Jar a haunting American classic.” AZ

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In July 2018, I became the organizer of the Classic Novels Book Club. Check out the Book Club tab here or Meetup for more information. This is our July 2020 book.