Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Video Review: Love & Friendship

A cheeky little video about a cheeky little film, 'Love & Friendship' AKA 'Lady Susan' with a borrowed name. There's a very funny bit about peas. Enjoy.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Review: Lady Susan by Jane Austen

Lady Susan, an unpublished novella, one of the most minor of Jane Austen’s works and is still full of nuance, wit and character. I wish I could write something like it now, let alone at nineteen.

It uses the epistolary form in that way eighteenth century novels managed, but nineteenth and twentieth didn’t - it uses the different characters of the letter writers to shine different facets on the same event. Not partaking of the breathless, over-writing of Clarissa, the letters flow regularly but not insanely.

They deal with Lady Susan, the ‘most accomplished coquette in all England’ and her machinations and manoeuvrings following the death of he (obviously ineffectual) husband. In her scheming, he lying, her charm and the peculiar coldness to her child, she reminded me a great deal of Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharpe, but if the author actually liked her.

Because Austen clearly has a fondness for Lady Susan. Aside from getting all the juiciest lines (which she utterly does), her end isn’t a complete fall and the other characters are equally in awe of her skills as they are scared of her. It is Lady Susan who gets to practice the arts of ‘captivating deceit’ and I think it’s impossible to dislike a character who says; ‘There is an exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a person predetermined to dislike acknowledge one’s superiority’. The key here being superiority, she is better than everyone else.

Her main rival is Mrs Vernon, her sister-in-law, who can do little but passively report on the doings in her own house to her mother. The main battleground is her brother, Reginald. He is the one predisposed to dislike Susan, but she quickly wraps him around her finger, feeds him plausible lies and makes him dote on her. She makes it clear to her friend, Mrs Johnson that she is mainly playing his feelings for something to do, her real inclination being for the (currently married) Mainwaring. 

Her other rival could well be her daughter. Fredericka is sixteen, has been in and out of school and, it seems, purposefully raised to not be particularly good at anything. Lady Susan tells her friend that Fredericka ‘ will not remain long enough at school to understand anything thoroughly.’ The main problem for Lady Susan is that having a daughter entering marriageable age makes her look much less marriageable, so she does everything she can to bring her daughter down. Mrs Vernon, the sister-in-law is greatly taken by Fredericka, which is all fine to Lady Susan, as they are as insipid as each other.

One of Lady Susan’s other problems is Sir James, a foolish ‘rattle’ who mixes ‘more frequent laughter with his discourse than the subject requires’. He has attached himself to Susan and it is her wish to transfer this rich but idiotic lover on her weak, pathetic daughter. 

A mix up with London houses, a convenient attack of gout and a mix up of letters means that Reginald finds out the truth of Susan, and she ends up marrying Sir James herself. While she is the cleverest person in the book, and lumbered with the stupidest, she hasn’t exactly landed on her feet - but we are left feeling that Lady Susan will probably find a way to exploit that stupidity to the best of her advantage. That said, in marrying Sir James, it does make it harder for her to live a free and flirting life - meaning that in this book, marriage is not the happy ending. A nice quirk.

This is a very quick read, and the subject of a very enjoyable film from 2009 called Love and Friendship, which is discussed in a video on my youtube channel. I highly recommend both.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Review: The Turk by Tom Standage

When I was younger, we couldn’t afford to go away on holidays and instead went on day trips to which we could walk, get the bus or (most excitingly) the train. When we got to the station, the choice was between going right, to the beach or left, to London. My love of museums, exhibitions and probably history was created by these trips. 

One of those trips included a visit to Covent Garden where there was a shop that sold and displayed automata. I was old enough to not find them creepy and instead, was enraptured by the strange, not-quite-human movements and the complex mechanisms that made them work. Although automata have not been one of my chief interests, I have always had a fondness for these complex gadgets.

I can’t remember when I first heard of the truly grandstanding automata of the eighteenth century, but I rushed down to the ‘robots’ exhibition at the Science Museum to see the graceful, mechanical swan. At some point, I also bought Tom Standage’s ‘The Turk: The True Story of the Chess-Playing Machine That Fooled the World’. 

This is a little book, slightly short with lots of space and a slightly larger font. That is not a detriment to the book - there are enough books around that continue long after their point has been made. This book comes in, tells a fascinating story with some intriguing implications and then goes away.

I was a little unlucky that I knew the end of the story before I knew much about the beginning, it’s the ‘Sweeney Todd’ or ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ effect. Good thing this story starts so interestingly. 

The Turk was essentially created for a bet. A Hungarian civil servant called Wolfgang von Kempelen agreed to create something far more astounding than the slightly underwhelming magician who had just performed in Maria Theresa’s court. Six months later, he returned with a chess playing machine that appeared to run on clockwork. He then spent the rest of his life trying to encourage people to move on from that achievement.

He may have created a speaking machine, steam-engines, bridges and fountains but it’s hard to live down a machine that can beat people at chess. When Joseph II (aka Jeffery Jones in ‘Amadeus’) succeeded Maria Theresa, he sent Kempelen on a two year tour of Europe to show off the Turk.

It bamboozled, intrigued and provoked people everywhere it went. Most people agreed that the Turk couldn’t be a genuinely intelligent machine, that it must have some human intervention somewhere. Could it be magnets? If it was, how could the Turk still work with a magnet placed on it? It couldn’t be strings because the Turk could be moved about and set up quickly. Nor could the Turk have someone in it because the insides were opened up and shown empty before the game began. It also managed to inspire machines like the power loom and Babbage’s difference engines.

Despite being pulled out for special occasions, the Turk was placed back in its crates, especially after Kempelen died - before coming spectacularly back to life. The Turk had been sold to Johann Nepomuk Mälzel, who was a creator of musical automata which could do things like genuinely play the trumpet. Mälzel was a skilled showman, and an inveterate spendthrift who had to keep moving when his debts caught up with him. The Turk was his most reliable money-spinner, which mostly kept him in funds until his death and was passed to another owner. Unfortunately it was burnt when the museum displaying it burnt down.

The Turk played famous names and famous games but the most famous thing about it was a question, 'how did it work?' Readers of the book will have this question answered.

It's nice to have a story like this told with authority and brevity. It’s certainly worth a few hours to find out everything you might want to know about the Turk but will not tell you one thing more.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Video Review: The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders

In no way have I reviewed ITV's raunchy adaptation of 'Moll Flanders' to capture my youtube viewing figures for Fanny Hill.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Review: Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe

I tried to read Moll Flanders a few years ago but something more interesting came up. I was determined to return to the book and return I did.

I’ve had a few brushes with Daniel Defoe and he is a writer that has a definite skill, particularly that of an all-encompassing realism. He is at his best when he has a process to be described or an inventory to be listed. He has a talent for realism that both works for and against Moll Flanders.

The book tells the story of a woman, known to most as Moll Flanders, who is born in Newgate and has to shift for herself. Moll Flanders isn’t even necessarily her name, but as she lives she has to go through so many personas that her actual name is lost to time. To survive, she must flirt, deceive possible lovers, rob what she can and eventually comes to a redemption.

As part of the drive for realism, Moll Flanders early memories are sketchy. She’s not sure of the reasons of events when she was a child but remembers the impressions and emotions they caused. 

We then come to her first ‘adventure’ and first ‘crime’. The eldest son at the house where she lives as half-servant/ half-family member is making advances towards her. It’s obvious to the reader that, despite his protestations, he is not really planning to marry her, but the second son is. There are pages of emotional anguish as she has to give up the sonf who thrills her to marry the one who doesn't. - This is where the book fails. Daniel Defoe does not have the warmth, or the ability to write emotion to fully dramatise Moll’s confusion, temptation and anguish. 

It’s fair to say that eighteenth century writers, particularly the earlier ones, have a tendency to tell rather than show a story. Where later writers like Henry Fielding tell with joyful irony and Laurence Sterne told stories with playfulness; Defoe has a certain coldness, plainness and dryness that doesn’t work with matters of the heart. 

'Moll Flanders; is surprisingly astute for its psychological insights. She is sucked into her criminal life for understandable reasons. She is slightly vain, slightly naive and very shortsighted. Her other actions throughout the book make sense. Even her repentance rings true - she’s at her lowest point and a kind preacher comes with a positive message of change. The trouble with this book, and Defoe in general, is that his plain style makes him unable to make the reader feel the emotions behind the well observed actions, nor able to disguise that inability in a fun and distracting style.

Where the book succeeds is in the later chapters in which Moll Flanders runs out of possibility for  romantic encounters and becomes a thief. Defoe has a skill in writing how things are achieved, explaining detailed and cunning plans with simplicity. Moll is not simply a pickpocket - she ‘rescues’ goods from fires, she bluffs goods on credit before disappearing, she hunts banned goods and helps authorities take them (while taking some for herself). Moll wears disguises, she varies her modus operandi, she takes chances and gets out of sticky situations with skill and general unconcern for anybody else.

‘Colonel Jack’, written the same year, was best when it described the pickpocketing youth of the central Jack figure, but the thieving part of Moll Flanders is far more varied and interesting. The plain style makes the intricacy, skill and quick-wittedness of her thefts clear, and the reader feels the exhilaration of the game - implicating them in the crimes along with Moll.

Moll is helped in this new life by ‘The Governess’, a former baby farmer turned fence, and an interesting character in herself. Defoe promises a history of her and the ‘Lancashire Husband’ - a highwayman, but those books never materialised. 

Moll says that “Vice came in always at the door of necessity” but I find it interesting that she never steals something necessary. Never is Moll so hungry she steals food, she always steals some luxury item she can then sell. It’s an interestingly underhand criticism of the growing system of capitalism (which seemed to fascinate Defoe both as positive and negative). Despite this, it is clear that Moll’s actions from her second husband on, are driven by a fear of poverty. She constantly feels the presence of real want behind her and is determined to never fall so low. She is doubly aware that as a woman, if she doesn’t have money she has no power or independence whatsoever. This is especially true because she holds on to so few friends and allies.

Of course her luck runs out and she ends up in Newgate. I’d have liked a little more of the systematic Defoe here, it’s hard to imagine exactly how people survived in there in a practical sense but instead we get him in an emotional mode. This is pretty understandable as he’d spent some time in Newgate himself. We learn how on entry, the place seems like Hell, yet inmates get used to it even while acknowledging its hellishness. Moll sinks down in humanity, becoming animal-like to survive her zoo-like surroundings. It is here she tries to repent but realises she is only sorry for being caught, not for her criminal life. It isn’t until she is under sentence of death and a reverend from outside the prison (and not the prison’s drunken Ordinary) comes in and talks her through the depth of Christ’s forgiveness, that she begins to reform.

Although I would be one of those people that find the reformation part of one of these stories to be less interesting than the crime part, I was convinced by it here. There was something about her step-by-step conversion, nudging to a different way of looking at the world, which made it better than the sudden flood-of-clarity sort.

Moll Flanders eventually comes out of the story pretty well. She is transported, along with her ‘Lancashire Husband’ purchase their way out of servitude, create a good life for themselves and even come back to England as rich people. I presume the happy ending is a result of the repentance, though it is technically a result of both of their thieving days, as they can only buy freedom with the money accumulated by their ill-gotten gains. I can’t tell whether this is a purposefully sly wink or not.

Over all, Moll Flanders is an engaging character, especially when she is scheming and planning but less when overcome by feelings. Even when other characters come and threaten to take over, she demands that it remains her story. There are dry patches and it is not the most deliciously told story in the world, but Moll Flanders character is worth reading for her cunning, tenacious and very interesting self.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

A little about Automathes

One of the mysteries of ‘Something New’ was the name of the author. The given name was Automathes, which I judged as a mixture of ‘polymath’ and ‘auto’ - as in someone who is a polymath automatically.

It didn’t take much googling to find the man’s name, Richard Griffith. It took far more effort to find more about him. Unusually, Richard Griffith’s details were found under the entry for his wife - a very unusual circumstance.

His wife was Elizabeth Griffith, a welsh lady who had a more successful Grub Street career than him. She wrote a number of successful novels including ‘Lady Barton’ and ‘Juliana Harley’ as well as works on Shakespeare.

This is Elizabeth Griffith, I can't find one a picture of a Richard Griffith who isn't the guy who played Vernon Dursley in the Harry Potter films.

Richard Griffith’s first work was with his wife and was the most successful for both of them. It was called ‘A Series of Genuine Letters between Henry and Frances’ and although not between Henry and Frances was a slightly polished version of the love letters they wrote for each other. It was a bestseller and made celebrities of them both.

It seems they went separate ways, at least intellectually, but there was one other book they wrote together. It was called, ‘The Triumvirate or the authentic Memoirs of AB and C’ and was published under then name Tri-Juncta. The same Tri-Juncta that becomes a running theme in ‘Something New’. Of course, a large part of one of his book was to promote another one. Even ‘The Posthumous Works of a Late Celebrated Genius, Deceased’ was another Griffith effort. He even quotes parts of his wife’s plays in ‘Something New’.

She died in 1793, he ran off with a young heiress but didn’t marry her before dying - in an unknow date.

Does knowing anything about the author of ‘Something New’ help in any way? It explains a little why some of the essays were chosen. That said, I feel I know more about him from ‘Something New’ then by researching about him - I will now seek out as much Richard Griffiths as possible. He seems to sum up Grub Street in some very pure way.

 Long Live Grub Street- and long live Richard and Elizabeth Griffiths.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Review: Something New by Automathes

Did you know that Oxfam sell antiquarian books online? …I didn’t, until early January when I was alerted to an up to 75% off sale. My attention was grabbed by a collection of essays by ‘Automathes’, published in 1762 and called ‘Something Different’. 

And it is. It’s also a little peculiar.

To mix things up further, it turned out I only bought the second of two volumes. 

The first essay (or essay XXXIV) is titled ‘The Wager’ In this short essay, the author talks about a 100 guinea bet he has with an academic friend of his. This friend suggests that all thought happens in chains and that it is impossible to write a series of essays in which each piece really does deal with something different’ to the previous and next. Our anonymous author has no problem committing to the bet, as 100 guineas is likely to be more money then he will make in ‘all my authoring’ as writing is not ‘worth the printing’. I will periodically return to this wager and assess how he has done. (He also reveals that he is 55 years old… maybe we can build a picture of him as we continue.) 

The second essay (essay XXXV) is called Ifmamijasond. The essay is a paragraph long, asks us to ‘exercise your wits’ on this nonsense word and proudly declares that it has nothing to do with the previous essay and so is on the way to winning the wager - except that it mentions the wager, and so is inspired by it.

The next few essays are more conventional than Ifmamijasond. There’s one laughing at stoics for stifling their emotions and natural goodness. The next a general French-bashing trip to Amiens which involves a bit of catholic-baiting, describing an argument between Amiens and a church in Rome who both have a genuine John the Baptist skull and have been ‘shaking heads’ at each other. This leads on to a religious essay where a woman tries to get a parrot into heaven by teaching it the Lord’s prayer, Nicene creed and the articles on the Church of England - but it chokes to death on the 12th article about ‘good works’.

The next essay (XXXIX) is called ‘Indiana continued’ and has a subtitle referring me back to essay XXVI - which I don’t have. It seems a little like the adventures of Lien Chi Altangi’s son in Goldsmith’s ‘Citizen of the World’ essays. Indiana is the daughter of a Muslim nobleman from India who converted to Catholicism, then protestantism and moved to England. Here she grew up following English customs and falling in love with an English Lord but was sent back to India when her father dies. Later, in ‘Indiana concluded’ (XLVIII) she is forced into the Indian King’s harem, which causes her to cry, press the narrator to ‘her soft, warm and panting bosom’, which wakes him - in what state I daren’t guess. Perhaps we found out the story was a dream in earlier instalments. The following essay is on dreams - this wager is not going well.

One of the strangest parts of the book is a loose series of essays (XLII, LI, LII, LIV and LV) that deal with a strange power. The first of these essays is ostensibly a book review for an anonymous book titled ‘The Posthumous Works of a Late Celebrated Genius, Deceased’ - a title which deserves the ‘no-shit Sherlock’ award for telling us the author is dead three times in nine words. It’s heavily suggested that the late, deceased genius who has left posthumous works is Laurence Sterne, which greatly upsets our author as there is a small mention in it of the existence of a whole new kind of bodily pleasure - which he will never find the answer to.

After a little research, our author discovers the writer of the book not to be the dead Sterne but a living person known as Tri-Juncta. Over the next few essays, Tri-Juncta says how he is able to control the ‘liquid’ which carries nerve signals to create physical pleasure in himself through the force of will. We also learn that he has the ability to kill people with his mind and to sleep at will. Our author discusses the moral possibilities if these skills could be taught and scoffs at those who don’t believe in such powers by citing prodigies such as the piano playing child genius from Salzburg, Theodore Mozart (better known today as Amadeus). These Tri-Juncta parts are particularly puzzling and reveal one of the hardest elements of the book to understand. I can’t properly judge the tone. Are these essays (and scientific ones such as XL, XLI, XLV, XLVII) supposed to be serious? In XLI, about ‘un-natural’ science, he mentions the mill that grinds old people young. Kit Smart’s alter ego, Mary Midnight talks about this same mill and stretches it into absurd degrees - but Automathes seems to take it seriously.
There’s a whole chapter that includes diagrams and logical chains that tries to prove a mathematical point. I don’t know enough about eighteenth century geometry to understand if it’s a parody - I have the notion it is, but I can’t tell for sure.

In terms of religion, there is an essay (LVII) which includes the phrase, ‘man created God in his own image’ and wallows in a number of pan-religious, pantheistic quotes. It would seem clear that these quotes are mainly included to encourage the readers to laugh at and that the writer of this book is a standard Anglican. That said, there’s the jab at the parrot being choked by the 39 articles. 

We find out a little more about our author. There is a concluding part (XLIII) of a series of personal essays. It says very little. We learn that Automathes used to be a bit of a hustler but because none of his projects came to fruition now finds he relaxes more. We find out more in essay LVIII ’On confidence’. In this he says how he feels himself naturally jolly, that he appreciates the little he has in his life, that he was a wife he loves. He also states his ambition in life, which has to be one of the best ever. “I am obstinately resolved, some hundred years hence, to die in the first bloom of my beauty, and the very flower of youth.” 

The book ends with four essays detailing his funeral, elegy and sheet music for the dirge to be played at his funeral - again, these are themed. Although the book was, in itself, ‘Something New’, each essay does link in some way to the pre, and pro-ceeding one. He’d have lost his wager, which is a shame.

The shortness of the essays and the way the author refers to previous chapters would suggest that these were not magazine articles collected into books like ‘The Rambler’, ‘Midwife’ or ‘Citizen of the World’ but written as a whole book throughout.

Oh and Ifmamijasond, it’s a childhood pneumonic about the months of the year. The ‘i’s are ‘j’s, thanks to Latin making them easy to swap for each other. He also includes the classic trock of counting on the hand to remember which have 30 and which 31 days - it also includes a handy, dandy woodcut of a hand.