Tuesday, 30 August 2016

The Pickwick Papers chapters 15 - 17

In chapter 15 Mr Pickwick and his friends are invited to a public breakfast being given by Mrs Leo Hunter, the celebrated author of the poem, "Ode to an Expiring Frog" which had created quite a sensation when it was published.  Although this event is a fancy dress affair, Mr Pickwick is allowed to attend in his usual attire while his friends are dressed by Mr Solomon Lucas, "the Jew in the High Street".  I found this chapter quite humorous especially the description of Mrs Hunter with her daughters who were dressed "in very juvenile costumes - whether to make them look young, or their mamma younger - Mr Pickwick does not distinctly inform us."  The guests were just making their way into breakfast when Mr Leo Hunter announces that Mr Charles Fitz-Marshall has arrived.

"Mr Pickwick's knife and fork fell from his hand.  He stared across the table at Mr Tupman, who had dropped his knife and fork, and was looking as if he were about to sink into the ground without further notice."

The new arrival, of course, is Mr Jingle who leaves hastily on being presented to the Pickwickians. The chapter ends with Mr Pickwick and Sam pursuing Mr Jingle to Bury St Edmunds where he is staying.  Mr Pickwick says, "How do we know whom he is deceiving there?  He deceived a worthy man once, and we were the innocent cause.  He should not do it again, if I can help it: I'll expose him!"

Chapter 16 is described as being "too full of adventure to be briefly described".   The chapter starts by extolling the virtues of the month of August.  "A mellow softness appears to hang over the whole earth; the influence of the season seems to extend itself to the very waggon, whose slow motion across the well-reaped field, is perceptible only to the eye, but strikes with no harsh sound upon the ear."

Mr Pickwick and Sam arrive at the inn where Mr Jingle is staying.  In the morning, Sam strikes up a conversation with Mr Jingle's manservant, Job Trotter who confides to Sam that his master is planning to run away with a rich heiress from a local boarding school.  As Trotter feels that the lady would not believe what anyone said about her lover, a plan is drawn up to stop the couple eloping.  Mr Pickwick is to arrive at the school at half past eleven and knock on the kitchen door which will be opened by Trotter. 

Everything that could go wrong does go wrong - Mr Pickwick has to be pushed over the wall by Sam ending up amongst gooseberry bushes.  There is a thunder-storm and Mr Pickwick is concerned that he is in a dangerous situation being surrounded by trees. He tries to get back over the wall but "the only effect of his struggles was to inflict a variety of very unpleasant gratings on his knees and shins, and to throw him into a state of the most profuse perspiration." 

He knocks at the kitchen door which opens to reveal the teachers and boarders of the school.  Mr Pickwick comes out of his hiding place and tried to explain why he is there.  The women take him for a robber or a lunatic and lock him in a cupboard!  Eventually Mr Pickwick is rescued by Sam and Mr Wardle who happens to be in the area for some shooting.  The chapter ends with Mr Pickwick stating that whenever he meets Jingle again he will "inflict personal chastisement on him, in addition to the exposure he so richly merits."

Mr Pickwick's exertions result in an attack of rheumatism which confines him to bed for a few days.  However  he is not idle and spends his time writing a tale entitled "A Tale of True Love" which forms most of chapter 17.  I am still not convinced that these tales add anything to the book.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

The Pickwick Papers chapters 12 - 14

In chapter 12 we find out about Mr Pickwick's abode in London.  "Mr Pickwick's apartments in Goswell Street, although on a limited scale, were not only of a very neat and comfortable description, but peculiarly adapted for the residence of a man of his genius and observation."  These apartments seemed to suit Mr Pickwick as there are no children, no servants and no fowls.  Much of this chapter is concerned with a misunderstanding between Mr Pickwick and his landlady, Mrs Bardell.  He tries to tell her that he is planning to employ a manservant but Mrs Bardell thinks he is proposing marriage.  She faints in his arms just as the other Pickwickians arrive.

"Mr Pickwick was struck motionless and speechless.  He stood with his lovely burden in his arms, gazing vacantly on the countenances of his friends, without the slightest attempt at recognition or explanation.  They, in their turn, stared at him; and Master Bardell, in his turn, stared at everybody."

Mrs Bardell is escorted downstairs by Mr Tupman just as another man enters.  This is Sam Weller whom Pickwick decides to employ.  Sam is happy to leave his present employment at the White Hart Inn although he is a little confused about what his new role will be when he is given his new clothes.  "Well," said that suddenly-transformed individual, as he took his seat on the outside of the Eatanswill coach next morning; "I wonder whether I'm meant to be a footman, or a groom, or a gamekeeper, or a seedsman.  I looks like a sort of compo of every one on 'em.  Never mind; there's change of air, plenty to see, and little to do; and all this suits my complaint uncommon; so long life to the Pickvicks, says I!"

Chapter 13 consists of a humorous account of an election for the Member of Parliament to represent the borough of Eatanswill.  There were two candidates involved in this election - Samuel Slumkey representing the Blues and Mr Fizkin, the Buffs. The Pickwickians arrive in Eatanswill to find the town buzzing with election fever.  They decide to align themselves to the Blues as Mr Perker, the lawyer, is the agent for Slumkey.   The election seemed to involve a lot of buying of votes including parasols for the ladies "at seven and sixpence a piece".  Slumkey was expected to shake hands with "washed men" and pat children on the head.  His agent wanted him to "kiss one of them as it would produce a great impression on the crowd."  Politicians are still keen to be photographed with children - however bribing women with parasols no longer happens!

Most of chapter 14 consists of a strange tale entitled The Bagman's Story which is told by a bagman (a commercial traveller).   This is the tale of another bagman, Tom Smart, who stops at an inn where he takes a fancy to the landlady who is a widow.  However he believes that another man is also keen to make the landlady his wife.  Tom is quite annoyed about this but thinks he can do nothing about it so goes to bed. In the bedroom there is "a strange, grim looking chair" which Tom cannot take his eyes off.  Tom dozes off and wakes with a start to see that a change had come over the chair and that it now looked like an old gentleman.  The chair/gentleman is able to speak and proceeds to give Tom information about the landlady and about how he can win her hand in marriage.

A strange ghost story but one which has a happy ending!

Monday, 22 August 2016

The Pickwick Papers chapters 9-11

Chapter 9 opens with the discovery that both Jingle and Rachael are missing, having run away together.  Mr Tupman is horrified that Jingle has swindled him out of his ten pounds.  Mr Wardle and Mr Pickwick give chase throughout the night.  "Fields, trees and hedges, seemed to rush past them with the velocity of a whirlwind, so rapid was the pace at which they tore along.  They were close by the side of the first chaise.  Jingle's voice could be plainly heard, even above the din of the wheels, urging on the boys.  Old Mr Wardle foamed with rage and excitement.  He roared out scoundrels and villains by the dozen, clenched his fist and shook it expressively at the object of his indignation; but Mr Jingle only answered with a contemptuous smile, and replied to his menaces by a shout of triumph, as his horses, answering the increased application of whip and spur, broke into a faster gallop, and left the pursuers behind."

Dickens' description is excellent and the reader is carried along at full pelt until the chaise crashes and Mr Jingle once again escapes leaving Mr Wardle and Mr Pickwick continuing their pursuit on foot.
The action moves to London in chapter 10 which opens with a description of the White Hart Inn where Sam Weller, a boot boy, is employed.  Dickens provides the reader with a number of clues about two guests and the reason for their stay in London.  These guests, of course, are Jingle and Rachael who are to be married in the morning. 

Mr Wardle, Mr Pickwick and Mr Perker (a lawyer) arrive at the inn to find out if Rachael and Jingle are there.  There is a funny account as Sam recognises the guests by their footwear.  When he says that "there's a pair of Wellingtons a good deal worn and a pair o'lady's shoes, in number five" Mr Wardle exclaims "By Heavens, we've found them."  Sam shows them to the room where Jingle has just returned with the licence.  Mr Wardle is furious with Jingle while the lawyer tries to calm things down.  Mr Wardle then turns on his sister saying "And you, Rachael, at a time of life when you ought to know better, what do you mean by running away with a vagabond, disgracing your family, and making yourself miserable."  Eventually Jingle agrees to call off the marriage on payment of £120 and makes his escape.  The chapter ends on a sad note as the friends set off for home.  "Slowly and sadly did the two friends and the deserted lady, return next day in the Muggleton heavy coach.  Dimly and darkly had the sombre shadows of a summer's night fallen upon all around, when they again reached Dingly Dell, and stood within the entrance to Manor Farm."

In Chapter 11 Mr Pickwick discovers that Mr Tupman has left Manor Farm.  He has left a note suggesting that he is bereft at the loss of Rachael and that "life has become insupportable to him."  Mr Pickwick and his fiends leave immediately to follow their friend whom they find at an ale-house enjoying a hearty meal and showing little sign of distress. 

On walking near the inn, Mr Pickwick finds an old stone with the following inscription:-

S. M.
Mr Pickwick is delighted with his find - "he had discovered a strange and curious inscription of unquestionable antiquity, which had wholly escaped the observation of the many learned men who had preceded him."  Later in the chapter we learn that another Pickwickian, Mr Blotton, had worked out that the inscription was not ancient but said BILL STUMPS, HIS MARK.  Unfortunately The Pickwick Club did not accept this interpretation and expelled Mr Blotton from the club.  Dickens  uses humour here to demonstrate how academics often hold onto their own interpretations despite there being evidence to the contrary.

This chapter also includes a short story entitled A Madman's Manuscript, which was given to Mr Pickwick by an old clergyman.  This is a moving, gothic tale which is quite horrific in parts.  However I am undecided whether these short stories add anything to the book.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

The Men of Ness by Eric Linklater

The Men of Ness was written by the Orcadian author Eric Linklater in 1932.  The copy I read was the Orkney Edition, reprinted in 1960 which I borrowed from the Kirkwall Library while on a recent visit to Orkney.  This book is one of the 50 classics I plan to read over the next few years.  It also counts for the Read Scotland challenge as the author was Scottish and the book is set mainly in Scotland.

The Men of Ness tells the story of the Orkney Vikings who lived at the same time as Harald Fairhair, who was king of Norway during the 9th century.  The main characters in the story are Thorlief Coalbiter and his sons Grim, later called Skallagrim, and Kol.  Thorlief is a peace loving man who prefers to stay at home and farm his lands in Orkney to going off raiding in other parts of Britain.  He is mocked about this by his wife Signy but proves to be a wise and fair ruler.  Signy encourages her sons to seek out the man who killed her first husband in order to gain atonement for his death.  Signy says, "Blood that is spilt will not dry clean away like water."  Eventually Skallagrim, Kol and their brother-in-law Erling set out in two ships to go a-Viking despite Thorlief advising them to postpone their voyage for another year.  As they prepare to leave, Thorlief again suggests they should wait for a few days as a storm is coming.  However the ships set sail and, as foretold by Thorlief, are caught in a fierce storm in the Pentland Firth.  The descriptions of the ships battling against the wind and the sea are vivid and the language poetic.  "The wind shrieked in the rigging and howled overhead.  Sometimes in the trough of a wave the sail hung flat.  Then with a great bang the wind would fill it again, and the Skua reach forward with a lurch."

The book is written in the style of a Viking saga describing the hardships and violence of the times in a stark and understated way.  There are references to the beliefs of the Vikings - their belief in fate, in the spirit world and the afterlife.  The story of Gauk's wife coming back to haunt him provides some light relief in the book though not to Gauk! 

I really enjoyed this book and found the characters were well written.  Despite using very few words, Linklater creates clear pictures of the main characters.  For example, Thorlief Coalbiter got his name "because he sat by the fire and would not go outdoors.  He was a good lawyer, and though he spoke in a mild voice there was often great wisdom in his words."  His wife Signy is described as "a very handsome woman, cheerful, hard-tempered, and rather greedy."

The action moves out from Orkney to other parts of Britain emphasising that the Vikings of this time were farmers and traders as well as being fierce warriors.  The character of Gauk provides continuity in the story as he survives the fighting to return to Orkney and relate what happened to his companions.   Gauk provides a contrast to the Vikings as he is a peace loving Orcadian farmer who does not want to be a hero.

As I am currently doing a course on the Vikings with the Centre for Nordic Studies, I found Linklater's description of life in Viking times to be historically accurate providing a balanced account of the period.  He successfully weaves real historical events, many taken from The Orkneyinga Saga, into the story.