A Favourite Classic Novel: ‘Les Miserables’ by Victor Hugo

Set in France during the first decades of the 19th century, this is a story of the struggles of the lower classes — the miserable, the dispossessed, and the dissatisfied. 

While many people in the 21st century know the story because of the highly popular and quite magnificent musical theatre show, most have never read the book. It is a large novel: epic in its scope, powerful in its storytelling and heartbreaking in its story and drama. 

Many of the key events of the novel were based on events and circumstances that Hugo witnessed personally, adding a depth of detail and authenticity that immerses the reader in the settings and makes them feel as they are right there, watching the events and listening to the characters’ conversations. 

Admittedly, there are some passages that are moral reflections rather than narrative, but they do add depth of understanding to the social issues and conflicts experienced by the French people of the time, and cause the reader to reflect on the responsibility of those with wealth and power to ensure that those under their rule are able to live without despair. Given that it is not possible to separate a work of literature from the society and environment in which it was written, Hugo’s thought-provoking digressions remain relevant to the story overall.   

One can simply watch the musical or a film adaptation, but they will not deliver the full impact of the story as it is told in the book. It’s a magnificent, wide-reaching story with themes of social justice, equality and personal redemption that are still really powerful and resonate with readers today. 

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A Favourite Classic Novel: ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Emily Bronte

When this book was published, Victorian audiences didn’t know what to make of it. It wasn’t the light, fluffy romance and romp that they were accustomed to. Instead, it was dark, violent, and stormy, and there was no happy ending for most of the characters. 

‘Wuthering Heights’ is about love, but it’s not romantic. It’s about dysfunction, selfishness, misunderstanding, bullying and manipulation. Much like Heathcliff and the Yorkshire moors on which the novel is set, it’s a bit dismal and morose most of the time, but it has power and substance that are fascinating and somewhat spellbinding. 

I love the power of the writing and the tempest that inhabits the characters and their relationships. I am fascinated by the cleverness of the intrigue and mystery woven into the narrative. I enjoy the fact that the narrators, Nellie Dean and Mr Lockwood, tell the story as though they are objective onlookers, but when you delve into the story, you can see that neither of them is innocent or objective as the story develops. All the characters are flawed and selfish and broken in one way or another, and I remain unconvinced that we’re meant to actually like any of them. It really is a fascinating study of human psychology as much as it is a compelling work of fiction. 

Even so, the story works because it is expertly written. The storytelling and the imagery are profound and beautifully constructed. The story appeals to our human nature, and to those voyeuristic tendencies that make people watch on with interest as things go wrong, take satisfaction in the misery of others, and slow down to get a better look at car accidents or natural disasters.  

I have read ‘Withering Heights’ more times than I can remember, and I know I will read it again. It may have been published in 1847, but it’s a story that, for me at least, will never get old. 

A Favourite Classic Novel: ‘Pride and Prejudice’ by Jane Austen

Many people assume that this is a book all about love and courtship. That comes into it, of course, but really only the sense that Jane Austen is blowing an enormous raspberry to the way society did those things.

‘Pride and Prejudice’ is full of delicious snark and subversive humour, parody and caricature, that make its observations far more rapier than romantic. 

Of course, Mr Darcy is smolderingly handsome and, as an introvert, I totally get that he was regretting being dragged along to that party long before he even got there, and by the time he was offending all the locals, was busy trying to think of ways to leave without anyone noticing. Further evidence of that is found in the fact that he falls for the one brainy chick who is happy in her own company and reading a book without needing someone affirming her delicate sense of self every three minutes.

Elizabeth is smart and sassy enough to stand up for herself, and to not settle for the first nincompoop who tried to marry her, nor does she agree to marry Darcy just because he’s loaded. No, she is a woman of substance.

Those things are enough to make us love them both more than the rest of the characters, most of whom are either quite socially acceptably bland or rather horrid.

If you’re not sure where to find the sarcasm,  it all starts with the very first line. Let’s be honest: what rich man, living the dream and enjoying his wealth, is desperate to find a wife to keep him at home and spend his money for him? 

Yeah. I don’t think so, either. 

The Tradition Of ANZAC Day.

As my post about my local ANZAC Day ceremony generated a number of questions from around the world, especially via my social media posts, I thought I would follow it up with an explanation of the history and traditions of ANZAC Day.

This article from the Australian War Memorial explains everything very clearly, so I hope you enjoy it and learn a little more about your Australian friends through it.

ANZAC Day, 2019

101 years after the end of World War I, people all over Australia and New Zealand gathered today in remembrance of our soldiers, the nurses and doctors who supported them, and all those who served to preserve our freedom.

At our local ANZAC Day ceremony, I witnessed some lovely moments. 

Members of the CWA had knitted poppies and used them to line the path to the cenotaph. They looked beautiful, but also served as a poignant reminder of those who had given their lives during the war.

Local men who had served stood proudly, wearing their medals. There are fewer of them each year, but their number was supported by the children and grandchildren of those who have passed, wearing their forebears’ medals with pride and reverence.

One of my own former students gave a beautiful heartfelt requiem for the fallen. He spoke so well, and really knew his history. He made me really proud. 

An elderly gentleman standing near me bent down, took his restless young grandsons in his arms and explained to them why they needed to be quiet and pay respect. He then pinned his own poppy on one boy’s shirt. The smile on that child’s face as he stood quietly beside his grandfather for the rest of the ceremony was a wonderful thing to see.

Several young people of my town raised the flags of Australia and New Zealand to half mast and stood with their heads bowed during the Last Post and the minute of silence before raising the flags to full height and saluting them. 

Over thirty local groups, organisations and businesses laid memorial wreaths at the base of the cenotaph. Young members of the local Scout group carried and laid wreaths for those who were too elderly or frail to do so, keeping pace with the older folk as they walked to and from the cenotaph. 

A teenaged member of my theatre company sang the national anthems of both countries with reverence and pride. Everyone in attendance stood and sang along with pride. Not everyone knew the New Zealand anthem, but plenty of folk did. 

After the ceremony, the local Scouts carried around plates of sandwiches and refreshments for the townsfolk who had congregated. Every single one of them said “Excuse me” before offering us something to eat. Every single one of them smiled and spoke respectfully.

I have no doubt that similar things happened in every locality across Australia at 11am today to commemorate all those who served to defend our country and preserve our freedom, because that is what Australians do on April 25th.  

Shakespeare’s Birthday

Every year on April 23rd, my family celebrates Shakespeare’s birthday with cake. I always do some reading from a play or sonnet, but my husband isn’t so fond of that as he is of the cake, so it’s usually either a solitary activity or one I share with my dog. It’s a well-established fact that Abbey the Labby loves the Bard… and cake.

This year, though, my homage will take the form of several hours of rehearsal for a different comedy – Monty Python’s Spamalot – before I am able to indulge in birthday cake. It does seem fitting that the show is a little bawdy, somewhat irreverent, and absolutely hilarious. 

While the precise date of Shakespeare’s birth was not recorded, the date of his baptism was registered as April 26th, 1564. Because it was traditional for babies to be christened three days after they were born, it is generally accepted that William Shakespeare was born on April 23rd. 

In an ironic twist, Shakespeare died on the same date in 1616. Some people think that is awkward, but I think it’s a pretty cool achievement. I’m not sure how common it is for people to die on their birthday, but one of my grandfathers  did, so it’s a feat that has always been a point of interest for me. 

So, here’s to The Bard, his works, and his legacy.

Poem: Just Imagine.

Just Imagine.  

Just imagine a world 
Where more people read poetry 
Instead of giving breath 
To things that divide and cause fear.

Imagine a world
Where more people picked up a pen
Than a gun or a sword
Or even a lawyer.

Imagine a world
Where poets were the dealers
That troubled souls turned to for a hit;
Where people self-medicated with poetry 
Rather than drugs or alcohol 
To help them deal 
With their demons;
Where addiction brought life and hope, 
Mindfulness and restoration
To the broken,
The hurting,
The needy.

Imagine a world 
Where everyone knew and understood 
That they are not alone, 
That someone understands, 
That they are enough.

Just imagine. 

©2019 Joanne Van Leerdam

Poem: ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ by Edward Lear

As a child, I always enjoyed this poem. I enjoyed the silliness of it, the musical rhythm and the sense of Fantasy. 

I
The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
‘O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
You are,
You are!
What a beautiful Pussy you are!’

II
Pussy said to the Owl, ‘You elegant fowl!
How charmingly sweet you sing!
O let us be married! too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?’
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the Bong-Tree grows
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood
With a ring at the end of his nose,
His nose,
His nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.  

III
‘Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?’ Said the Piggy, ‘I will.’
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.



Image:Public Domain 
Edward Lear’s Own illustration of The Owl and the Pussy Cat

I must confess, though, that I hadn’t thought about this poem for many years until a friend quoted it in her newly-released paranormal romance novel. Having read and reviewed the book, it left me pondering the poem. 

In the poet’s Victorian setting it was classified as nonsense poetry, a bit of whimsy and silliness for the entertainment of children. 

I do wonder now, though, if there is a hint of rebellion against Victorian society’s moral and class standards in the unlikely union of those two mismatched creatures, and if that’s why they had to go away to be together. It could just be my 21st century sensitivities talking, but I’d like to think that maybe, back in the late 1860s, Lear was sending a subtle message to the morality police of the time that if two people were in love, they should be able to be together. 

I know people accuse English teachers of overthinking these things all the time, but just stop and think about it for a moment.

The owl and the pussycat weren’t supposed to be together, but they were quite free in expressing their feelings for one another and very happy together. Which of the two is male, and which is female? Or are they really even one of each? They do seem remarkably neutral in that regard, especially if you think of the strict gender stereotypes apparent in other Victorian literature such as that by Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope and the Brontes. 

It is just a curious thought, and I don’t want to shatter anyone’s enjoyment of a much-loved children’s poem. Maybe it is just whimsical make-believe. Maybe it’s not. We will never know. 

But it’s also a possibility that there are a whole bunch of people out there who might appreciate this poem a whole lot more on consideration of my uncommon little theory. Oh, I hope so!

Women in History: Fatima al-Fihri

In the year 850 CE there was no such thing as a university. By 859, there was— thanks to Fatima al-Fihri.

The cover of a children’s book about Fatima al-Fihri’s life by Maryam Yousaf, available on Amazon

Fatima al-Fihri was an Arab Muslim woman who, having received an education and understanding its value, established the first ever university in Fez, Morocco.

When her father died, he left his estate to his daughters, Fatima and Mariam, each of whom used the money to establish a mosque. Fatima’s mosque grew to hold thousands of worshippers while at the same time evolving into a place of learning that offered degrees for different levels of education in the subjects of Islamic studies, mathematics, natural sciences, music, medicine and grammar.  A library was also established,
providing the resources and documents
needed by students and teachers alike.

Image: Abdel Hassouni via Wikimedia Commons

The University was not exclusive to Muslim students, and attracted scholars from both Jewish and Christian traditions. One of those students went on to become Pope Sylvester II, who introduced both Arabic numerals and the idea of zero to Western mathematics.

By the time Fatima died at the age of eighty years old, The University of Al Quaraouiyine had been running for twenty-four years,
alongside the mosque from which it
had developed.

Image: Mike Prince on flickr via Wikimedia Commons

This makes the university more than two hundred years older than the oldest Western universities at Bologna (est. 1088) and Oxford (est. 1096).

Both the mosque and university are still running today. Both the University of Al Quaraouiyine and its library are the oldest of their kind in the world. The library contains many ancient documents, some of which  date right back to the 9th century origins of the library, and other texts and books written by renowned academics.

What an amazing and enduring legacy, and a testament to foresight and wisdom! 

WordyNerdBird’s note: 
Having grown up in Australia and enjoyed a very Western education, I had no idea until much later in life that the concept of the university was something that came from the Muslim tradition. 

Perhaps if we were taught more overtly and deliberately about the legacies that have come to us from traditions other than our own,  our places of learning and society in general would be far more respectful of those traditions and the people who still hold them. 

Women in History: Anne Neville

Anne Neville has to be one of the women in history most maligned by Shakespeare.

While it is true that he does portrays her as one of the many victims of Richard III, and doesn’t really say anything terribly nasty about her, it is also undeniable that her reputation is maligned by the way she is portrayed as being quite fickle and very, very gullible.

As I always remind my students, there is a vast difference between actual history and Shakespeare’s play. In fact, Shakespeare entirely misrepresents both the course of events and the relationship between Anne and Richard. 

Not only were their families well known to one another, they were quite closely related. 

Anne grew up at Middleham Castle, the daughter of the 13th Earl of Warwick and his wife, Anne Beauchamp. Anne’s great aunt was Cecily Neville, the wife of Richard, Duke of York, and mother of Richard and his brothers.

When the Duke Of York died, his youngest sons George and  Richard went to live at Middleham with Warwick’s family. Anne’s sister Isabel would later marry George, Duke of Clarence.

Warwick, known as The Kingmaker, played a crucial role in helping his cousin take and hold the throne as the King Edward IV of the House of York during the troubled times of conflict commonly referred to as either The Cousins’ War or the Wars of the Roses. For the first few years of Edward’s reign, Warwick held enormous influence over the young King. 

However, when Warwick tried to negotiate a marriage arrangement for Edward to secure an alliance with France, he discovered that Edward had secretly married Elizabeth Woodville, the widow of Sir John Grey who had been loyal to the Lancastrians. Warwick was not alone in distrusting her and her family, and was profoundly annoyed by Edward’s secret marriage to a woman whom Warwick considered entirely unsuitable. 

At the same time, and quite likely in direct response to Warwick’s contempt for his queen, Edward refused to give his blessing to a proposed union between his brother George, Duke of Clarence, and Warwick’s daughter Isabel, but the pair married anyway with Warwick’s blessing. 

This pitched Warwick and Edward against Edward, and their forces met in battle at Edgecote Moor in 1469. Edward was defeated and taken captive, although released before long, Warwick had sufficient time to reconcile his differences with Margaret of Anjou, the queen of the former Lancastrian King Henry VI. The significance of this is enormous: Warwick and Margaret absolutely hated one another.  

Even so, Warwick’s daughter Anne Neville was betrothed to Margaret’s son Edward of Westminster, the Lancastrian Prince Of Wales,  as a seal of the alliance, and Henry VI was restored to the throne of England two months before Anne and Edward were married in November of 1470. Thus,  Anne became the Princess of Wales and part of the Lancaster dynasty. 

Edward of York, however, was not so easily deposed. He defeated and killed Henry VI in the Battle of Barnet in April 1471, just as Margaret, Edward and Anne were returning to England. Margaret led an army to Tewksbury in May, where her son Edward was killed either during or just after the battle. Edward IV of York then reclaimed the throne as king of England.

Anne, a young widow, took up residence with her sister Isabel and her husband. When Richard asked for and was given consent to marry Anne, the only opposition came from his own brother, who wanted to inherit the entirety of Warwick’s wealth for himself. 

Anne was very willing to marry Richard, and harbored no resentment toward Richard for any of his deeds, perceived or real. They married in 1472 and theirr only son, Edward of Middleham, was born in 1473.

Her relationship with Richard’s mother Cecily was good and her marriage to Richard was happy, although stricken by grief when their son died at the age of ten. Anne and Richard then adopted the young orphaned son of her sister and Clarence, who was also named Edward — of course he was! and of a similar age to their own son. In yet another striking contrast to Shakespeare’s play, the newly adopted boy was named Richard’s heir. 

Anne Neville died at Westminster on 16th March 1485, from an illness that was most likely tuberculosis. She was only in her late twenties, but she had witnessed a very great deal of conflict, grief and turmoil in the kingdom in the course of her life. She was buried in Westminster Abbey, near the High Altar, although the location of her grave was never marked. 

Anne’s story is very different than that told by Shakespeare. Instead, Anne appears to have been a woman who possessed both integrity and backbone, and to have dealt with her trials with considerable resilience. As much as I love the works of the Bard, I do prefer the real story of Anne Neville, and feel sorry that for so many years, she was neither admired nor respected as she deserved to be.