July 2021 in Books

I have now got to the end of the first year of my DIY English literature education. I named this project ‘Reading Oxford’. This is the last month of my first year and I managed to squeeze everything in. I will share the overall experience in another post. For now, here are all the books I read in July.

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen***

This is Jane Austen’s third novel which was published in 1814. Fanny Price is the type of girl you would want as a wife in real life but not the heroine in a novel. She’s so correct, so virtuous and so mild, she’s boring. Her virtuous characteristics and humble social position in the Bertram family make her the best observer and judge of all that happens around her. An ‘observer’ seems to be just the role Austen has for her. When the party visited the Rushworth grounds, various men and women in romantic relationships paired up and wandered off in all directions while Fanny sat on a bench alone and watched them come and go, even providing information for the whereabout of each character. When the reckless group decided to put on a play but argued at length which play should be chosen, Fanny again “looked on and listened, not unamused to observe the selfishness which, more or less disguised, seemed to govern them all, and wondering how it would end.” When their mischief was met by disapproval and anger from the head of the house, Fanny made herself small in a corner and “saw all that was passing before her”.

Mr and Miss Crawford are definitely the most interesting characters. Miss Crawford proved to be quite an unfeeling woman at the end but her friendship and kindness for Fanny throughout was genuine and admirable. Mr Crawford was certainly a reckless man but his change of heart towards Fanny was also delightful. Best of all, his verdict on Fanny’s demanding and stupid aunts was such an excellent speech – I could sense Austen flashing her dagger at such fools in society.

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson***

A Gothic novella by Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, first published in 1886. So well-known is the phrase that ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ has become part of the English language. I have now caught up with this part of the education that most English-speaking children receive in school.

One thing I found interesting is that the protagonist of the story is neither Jekyll nor Hyde but Mr Utterson, a lawyer and close loyal friend of Jekyll. The story is presented as an investigation into the mystery.

The dodgy state of Victorian medicine is also noteworthy. Dr Jekyll’s DIY drug to transform himself back from Hyde stopped working partly because the medical ingredients from the pharmacy were from a different batch. And the key ingredient that made the drug work turned out to be the impurity in the first batch, so without the supply from the same batch and without means to trace what the impurity was, Dr Jekyll could not reproduce the drug again and was therefore stuck as Hyde.

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë***

Anne Brontë’s debut novel, first published in 1847. Agnes Grey is autobiographical. For the first half, where it documented Agnes Grey’s experience as a governess, it might have worked better if it was a non-fiction altogether. She joined a family and soon found out the children were monsters and the parents were unreasonable bullies. She then joined a second family with fresh resolutions and renewed energy. We readers read on with fresh hope and renewed energy as well – now things are going to be different! But no. The exact same things happened again. She joined the second family and found out the children were also monsters and the parents were unreasonable bullies, in almost exactly the same ways! It reads throughout like a school girl’s diary. When the situation picked up a bit towards the second half, it read like a Jane Austen story. A humble but thoroughly worthy gentleman’s daughter struck up a happy relationship with a young clergyman. The end. The best thing was probably the interesting questions discussed about Christian faith.

Confronting Christianity by Rebecca McLaughlin****

A non-fiction book published in 2019. I really like the dedication message: “For Natasha, and for all my other fiercely intelligent friends who disagree with me, but will do me the honour of reading this book.” The author herself is also one of the “fiercely intelligent” and you can really feel it reading the book.

10 Questions Every Teen Should Ask (and Answer) about Christianity by Rebecca McLaughlin****

Another non-fiction book by the same author published in 2021. The goal and the content are mostly the same but with young people in mind.

Here is a dedicated post introducing these two books in a bit more detail.

As You Like It by William Shakespeare***

By this point I had only read two Shakespeare plays this year, and this is me trying to make it up a bit. Since I read the fabulous fantasy Arcadia by Iain Pears I have always wanted to read As You Like It: Arcadia had a heroine called Rosalind and a lot of charming As-You-Like-It elements in it. I confess I don’t love reading Shakespeare but I expect I’ll thoroughly enjoy Shakespeare on stage. I’m fully prepared to fall under the spell of enchanting actors.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins***

A very unexpected Victorian novel. It’s the author’s fifth published novel, written in 1859, and was first published in serial form in 1859–60, appearing in Charles Dickens’ magazine All the Year Round (UK) and Harper’s Weekly (USA). The things that stood out for me were: 1) the multi-person narrative, 2) how much it reminded me of Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, 3) how Miss Halcombe was praised for her intelligent brain, passionate heart and decisive actions, and she was “just like a man”! See my dedicated post here.

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James***

A novel published in 1881. It reminds me of Middlemarch for its theme on marriage. There is a parallel between Miss Isabel Archer and Miss Dorothea Brooke: both young, wealthy, attractive, having multiple admirers and among all of whom they make the worst choice for a husband.

Among all the characters, I like Lord Warburton simply for the fact that he’s THE English in the book. I’ve been reading Victorian novels for a year and most of them were set in England. The Portrait was set in England, US and Europe. It’s probably the least ‘English’ novel on my reading list. Henry James himself was born in New York, moved about in Europe and later became a British citizen. You got a cocktail of all three flavours in the novel. And you could tell where the character was from by the way they speak and behave. It felt like a culture study; the author must have known their national personalities well. As an American stereotype, I didn’t like Henrietta Stackpole at the beginning for her lack of manner and subtlety, especially in the English setting. But she turned out to be a brick to Isabel when things got really difficult and she ended up marrying into London!

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion***

A collection of non-fiction essays published in 1968. If Henry James blurs the boundary of ‘English’ literature, I completely don’t get why Joan Didian is included on the reading list. (This list I keep referring to, if you’re not a regular here, is one of the Oxford English Literature first year’s reading lists.) As far as I can tell, she has mostly lived in the US, and this collection is about her experiences in California.

But no matter, I’m glad to be directed this way, not least for the reason that apart from this one title, everything else in the reading list under Victorian and Modern literature is fiction. (Although I don’t know if poetry collections belong to fiction or non-fiction?) I was once a pupil of Susan Orlean and loved her creative non-fiction classes. This essays really remind me of them.

I have to confess firstly that some of the news report essays are lost on me. They assume that the reader has a certain level of familiarity to the context of the events concerned, for example: a murder mystery, Hollywood’s Golden Age, a folk singer and nonviolent activists, Las Vegas wedding businesses, and drugs. Among those, I think I understood the piece on murder mystery most. I also confess that I didn’t manage to read every essay by today. The ones that I can relate and enjoy the most are ‘On Keeping a Notebook’ and ‘Goodbye to all that’.

For the summer, I’m going to have a break from English literature and go on a tour around the world through translated literature. Here are some titles that I have my eyes on:

  • Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (Russian)
  • Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino (Italian)
  • My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk (Turkish)
  • The Rainbow Troops by Andrea Hirata (Indonesian)
  • The Odyssey by Homer (Greek)

I’ll keep you updated how I get on. Happy reading!

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