Thursday, January 18, 2018

The 100 best novels: No 14 – Vanity Fair by William Thackeray (1848)

The 100 best novels: No 14 – Vanity Fair by William Thackeray (1848)

William Thackeray's masterpiece, set in Regency England, is a bravura performance by a writer at the top of his game

Robert McCrum
Monday 23 December 2013 06.52 GMT

Vanity Fair jumps out of this list as a great Victorian novel, written and published deep in the middle of a great age of English fiction. Indeed, so commanding was Thackeray at the height of his powers (some say he never wrote as well, or as sharply, again) that Charlotte Brontë even dedicated Jane Eyre (no 12 in this list)to the author of Vanity Fair.
One hundred years after the publication of Clarissa (no 4 in this series), Thackeray not only revels in the possibilities of the genre, he even illustrated his own work with some decidedly inferior woodcuts. Vanity Fair was published in serial form (including some memorable cliff-hangers, for instance Becky Sharp's revelation of her marriage to Rawdon Crawley) from January 1847 to June 1848. Thackeray, on top form, cheerfully exploited an ebullient tradition, transcending all his previous efforts as a writer, novels such as The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844).

Early drafts of the book, which had the working title "a novel without a hero" lacked the all-important figure of William Dobbin, a thoroughly good and likable character who owes much to Thackeray himself. "Vanity Fair", a title that came in a eureka moment to the author in bed one night, actually derives from Pilgrim's Progress (no 1 in this series) and refers to the fair set up by the devils Beelzebub and Apollyon in the town of Vanity. Unlike Bunyan, Thackeray was hardly a die-hard Christian, but rather a man who relished a life of pleasure and luxury, and who, on the evidence of his letters, found much of the Bible either ludicrous or distasteful. As a title, however, "Vanity Fair" set the tone of the novel in its depiction of a society, rather as "The Bonfire of the Vanities" did for Tom Wolfe (who also illustrated his own work) in 1987.
Thackeray's intention was satirical and realistic. Writing mid-century, he set his masterpiece in Regency England during the Napoleonic wars, intending the lessons of his tale to be applied equally to his own times. In contemporary terms that would be like a modern literary novelist setting their scene during the second world war, or the blitz.

The climax of the novel comes with the battle of Waterloo. Unlike Tolstoy, whose War and Peace was influenced by Vanity Fair, Thackeray was squeamish about military matters, and chose to leave most of the fighting off-stage. This makes the irruptions of violence all the more shocking, as in the death of George Osborne, "lying on his face, dead, with a bullet through his heart" on the field of Waterloo, which occurs almost exactly halfway through the narrative.
Thackeray was highly conscious of his audience and repeatedly breaks off from his story to buttonhole and tease his readers ("the present chapter (8), is very mild. Others – but we will not anticipate those"). The tale, however, will not be denied for long. Upwardly mobile Becky Sharp, and her sweet, devoted friend, Amelia Sedley, are perfectly matched by the caddish rake, George Osborne, and clumsy, decent William Dobbin. The social trajectory of each pair gives the narrative an almost perfect symmetry.

The key to the novel's magic, in addition to the delight it takes in the Regency pageant, probably lies in the contrast between scheming Becky, one of fiction's great female protagonists and awkward, dutiful William whose unwavering love for Amelia mirrors Thackeray's own passion for another man's wife.
Finally, however, for all its realism, Vanity Fair is a bravura performance by a writer who has found his theme. As the serialisation of the novel that would transform its author's reputation draws to a close, Thackeray himself concluded his tale with a nod to the gaudy theatricality of the whole business: "Come children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out."

A note on the text

Vanity Fair, subtitled "A Novel without a Hero", was first serialised in Punch, then published (from the same typesetting) by Bradbury & Evans of Bouverie Street in July 1848. A revised and more definitive text appeared in 1853, without illustrations. Vanity Fair was the first of Thackeray's books to appear under his own name. As a further sign of his self-confidence, in the introduction to the 1848 edition, dated 28 June, the author acknowledges "the kindness with which it has been received in all the principal towns of England… where it has been most favourably noticed by the respected conductors of the public Press, and by the Nobility and Gentry. He is proud to think that his Puppets have given satisfaction to the very best company in this empire."

Some other Thackeray titles:

The Yellowplush PapersThe Luck of Barry LyndonPendennisThe History of Henry EsmondThe Newcomes.


Octavia Monaco / Ierofania

Octavia Monaco

Octavia Monaco / Women

Octavia Monaco

Octavia Monaco. XIIII La Temperanza

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

My hero / Jim Shepard by Joshua Ferris

Jim Shepard
Photo by Barry Goldstein
Poster by T.A.

My hero: Jim Shepard by Joshua Ferris

The American short-story writer and novelist is the finest living teacher of fiction. His insight is humbling, outrageously perceptive and full of humour

Joshua Ferris
Friday 14 November 2014

n life a few fine souls come along to make a strenuous case for how a person should be. They aren’t Figures, Philosophers, Immortals. (Not yet, anyway.) They’re subject to the same sad laws of doom as the rest of us, the same misfortunes, the same fate. But they carry themselves with grace, stand for something noble, serve as ambassadors to a better way.

My Hero / Sebastian Walker by Julie Myerson

Sebastian Walker

My Hero Sebastian Walker

Julie Myerson
Sat 16 Jan 2010

started working as Walker Books' publicist in 1988. Less than a month into the job – not great timing – I found I was pregnant. But Sebastian's face lit up. "My dear, I'll start a nursery. You can bring the baby into work with you!"

My hero / Bob Moog by Don Paterson

My hero Bob Moog

Don Paterson
Saturday 9 January 2010

ob Moog had a great name, which seemed to fit his machines almost as well as Mr Hoover's did his. (He never convinced anyone to pronounce it correctly: it rhymes with rogue.) He was also as far from the public image of "Dr Moog", the lab-coated evil genius and destroyer of human music, as it was possible to get: a sweet, patient, articulate man who saw himself purely as a toolmaker, determined to narrow, not widen, the gap between the player and the instrument.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Why is the cover of Fire and Fury so ugly?

Why is the cover of Fire and Fury so ugly?

The bestselling Donald Trump exposé has a startlingly bald, plain cover – but that is in keeping with the no-frills conventions of the politics genre

Sian Cain
Wed 10 Jan 2018 15.38 GMT

Donald Trump and subtlety do not go together naturally, but the cover of Michael Wolff’s bestselling White House exposé Fire and Fury greets the gaze like a towel-snap to the face: shouty, red capitals over a shouty, red man. While the red, white and blue cover is certainly eye-catching, its design has been criticised as too bland and simplistic for a book that has had such an explosive impact. “Why did they have to make the Fire and Fury book cover on Microsoft Word?” reads one derisive Twitter take, while a design website gave it faint praise for echoing “the raw immediacy and faux-outsider aesthetics that underlined Trump’s entire campaign”.

After he was approached by “some folks who think the existing cover is a disaster and a missed opportunity”, designer Edel Rodriguez (who made two striking Trump covers for Time magazine) came up with a new cover for Wolff’s book. His bright and bold design, featuring a fiery Trump looming over a tiny White House, is now being celebrated as the cover that should have been, with some readers even downloading it to replace the original on their e-readers.

The only problem with Rodriguez’s undeniably aesthetically pleasing design is that it is so out of step with current political publishing. A quick glance at the covers of any political imprint shows that boring is best: there are grand capitals galore, an overwhelming tendency towards Helvetica, and nary a picture in sight. Most of them, as covers go, are best likened to dry toast: a perfunctory formality, a vehicle to deliver something more delicious (political gossip, not jam).
Why do political books look so boring? It’s just the way they’ve always been – publishers seem to believe artistic restraint lends the contents extra seriousness. For book designer Clare Skeats, the staidness of Fire and Fury is appropriate: “It’s important that it follows the design conventions of political books, as anything more bespoke and crafted could restrict its potential audience and pigeonhole the content. Obviously, there’s scope for a more creative and explicit design response, but I think that misses the point with a book such as this,” she says.
Whether or not it was a rushed job, as some have speculated, the original jacket designed by Rick Pracher (who, it should be pointed out, has produced many a nice cover in the past) fits the conservative nature of political publishing perfectly. “Arguably, Fire and Fury would have become an instant bestseller with or without that cover simply because of the publicity it received (with a little help from Trump); the title could have been written in comic sans and it would have sold just as well,” says book cover designer Stuart Bache, adding: “Political books don’t need to have aesthetically pleasing covers, they’ve existed for years with a simple photo and serif typeface for the text – and that’s because it works well in its market.”
In recent times, publishers’ renewed efforts to woo readers back to the printed form with attractive covers and nice dust jackets have been credited with many things, from driving customers back to the physical bookstores to a decline in ebook sales.
But when a book as boring-looking as Fire and Fury has gaggles of readers fighting for copies as fiercely as they would over a new Harry Potter (as they did in Washington last week), a truth more terrible than Trump’s diet is revealed: you can’t judge a book by its cover.

"You Can’t Make This S--- Up" / My Year Inside Trump's Insane White House

Donald Trump
by Luke McGarry

"You Can’t Make This S--- Up": My Year Inside Trump's Insane White House

by Michael Wolff

4:00 AM PST 1/4/2018 

Author and columnist Michael Wolff was given extraordinary access to the Trump administration and now details the feuds, the fights and the alarming chaos he witnessed while reporting what turned into a new book.

Editor’s Note: Author and Hollywood Reporter columnist Michael Wolff’s new book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House (Henry Holt & Co.), is a detailed account of the 45th president’s election and first year in office based on extensive access to the White House and more than 200 interviews with Trump and senior staff over a period of 18 months. In advance of the Jan. 9 publication of the book, which Trump is already attacking, Wolff has written this extracted column about his time in the White House based on the reporting included in Fire and Fury.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Emily Brontë / Melding fantasy and realism in Wuthering Heights

Emily Brontë

Melding fantasy and realism in Wuthering Heights

John Bowen

15 May 2014

Professor John Bowen explores the intertwined nature of fantasy and realism within Emily Brontë’s novel.

A world of passionate intensities

Wuthering Heights creates a world of passionate intensities, in which particular events are burned on the characters’ and readers’ memories, beyond reason, measure or reserve. Terror stalks the book and defines so many of its central relationships, concerned as it is with the ecstatic, eerie and mad. The book plays with death, courts death, stages death, even jokes with death, as we see when the dying Catherine is haunted by the face in the ‘black press’ (ch. 12) or when Heathcliff breaks through the side of Catherine’s coffin or hangs his wife Isabella’s dog from a hook in the garden. The book is fascinated by what lies at the limits of the human and is haunted by the forces of death and the diabolical, by compulsive modes of behaviour, by infantile and sublimely powerful emotions, by the force of irresistible will, and by the terrible consequences done to human beings by radical evil. The book is full of animals, spirits and ghosts, and those, like Heathcliff, about whom we can never be sure.

The extraordinary within the real

It is also a highly organised and rationally planned novel, with a complex time scheme and several interlocking narrators. It sets its extraordinary actions in a vividly realised family history and landscape. It is fascinated by the power of fantasy, particularly erotic fantasy, in people’s lives – Isabella thinks of Heathcliff as ‘“a hero of romance”’ (ch. 14) until she learns the truth of his brutality – but those fantasies take their place within a carefully plotted story about inheritance, intermarriage and theft. The erotic is not separated from the economic, and the passage of power and land across generations. Emily Brontë was fascinated by extreme emotions, radically opposing mental and social forces, and the creation of moments of moral revelation and transformation that were typical both of Gothic fiction and Victorian melodrama, but she could control, ironize and discipline those energies to serious purpose. Through the care she took to implant her writing in a particular history, landscape and material world, through complex time-schemes and inset narrators, through making Gothic into a mode of psychic exploration, she decisively extended the range and affective power of the English novel.


Emily Bronte is one of the very few authors to be an important poet as well as a major novelist, and there is a close relationship between the two bodies of work. Many of her poems appeared first in stories of the 'Gondal' world that she created with her sister Anne; she collected them in a manuscript notebook (now in the British Library) entitled 'Gondal Poems' although when she published six of them in the collection Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell (1846), she removed all references to Gondal. So the poems do not depend on an underlying narrative context for their power; like other great Victorian poems, they dramatize questions of identity and self through different personae in impassioned utterance and often extreme situations. Like Wuthering Heights, they are drawn to emotional extremity and passion, to scenes of loss and oblivion, and to the affirmation of desire in the face of death.

John Bowen is a Professor of 19th century literature at the University of York. His main research area is 19th-century fiction, in particular the work of Charles Dickens, but he has also written on modern poetry and fiction, as well as essays on literary theory.

My hero / Lucasta Miller on Emily Brontë

Emily Brontë

My hero: Lucasta Miller on Emily Brontë

The British Library's Romantics and Victorians manuscripts can now be viewed online. Lucasta Miller has already experienced the transgressive frisson of reading Emily's diary entries

Lucasta Miller
Fri 16 May 2014 16.00 BST
hat difference does it make to see the original manuscript of a literary text rather than just read the printed version? As someone who once nearly sullied a priceless Charlotte Brontë manuscript in an American archive with one of my own tears, I would say it makes all the difference. Faced with the real thing, my pretensions to being a detached and objective researcher dissolved.

The British Library has just made it possible to access images of their Romantics and Victorians manuscripts online, so that anyone can now read works by writers ranging from Austen to Dickens in their own handwriting at a safe distance. The most fascinating are not the fair copies of great works, written to submit to publishers before the days of typewriters, but the private documents never intended for public eyes. Seeing them as they are offers a transgressive frisson, a sense of intruding on a private space.

This is particularly the case with Emily Brontë's diary entry, written at "past 4 o'clock" on Monday 26 June 1837, now accessible on the British Library's new website. Emily never kept an ongoing journal, only a few fragments offering fly-on-the-wall records of what was going on in Haworth Parsonage at the moment of writing, secret missives intended only for her own eyes and those of her sister Anne, whom she sketches, along with herself, writing at the dining-room table, in this particular example. It shows the way in which Emily's imaginative and real lives intersected: news of characters in her fantasy world of "Gondal" rubs shoulders with a down‑to-earth record of the fact that Charlotte is at that very moment upstairs sewing, listening to Branwell read aloud. The entry ends with a transcription of an actual conversation, as Emily and Anne discuss the possibility of going out on the moors before evening to get into the mood for writing. But we will never know whether or not they did so. Emily, as ever, remains fugitive.
 The Brontë Myth by Lucasta Miller is published by Vintage.






Berta Vicente / Women

Berta Vicente
(Barcelona, 1994)

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The 100 best novels No 13 / Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1847)

The 100 best novels: No 13 – Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1847)

Emily Brontë's windswept masterpiece is notable not just for its wild beauty but for its daring reinvention of the novel form itself

Robert McCrum
Monday 16 December 2013 07.30 GMT

he above image of Emily Brontë – endlessly reproduced – is less a portrait, more an icon. Intense, fierce, inward, solitary, elusive and unknowable: the young author of Wuthering Heights in profile is of a piece with her first, and only, novel.

Her elder sister's work – Jane Eyre (no 12 in this series) – hypnotises the reader through the calculated force of its tone, its "suspended revelations", and its hints of suppressed eroticism. It builds, slowly, to a poignant climax in which, finally, its protagonists are redeemed, though not in a way that's conventional. Wuthering Heights, by contrast, plunges impetuously into a wild and passionate exploration of love in all its destructive manifestations.

Brontë's narrative – fragmented, discordant and tortuous – revolves obsessively around a single, explosive transgression, and the theme of jealousy in the lives of Heathcliff and Catherine, before making a calmer return to the theme in the often neglected second half.
Where Charlotte comes from the puritan tradition of John Bunyan (no 1 in this series), Emily is the child of the Romantic movement, and both sisters are steeped in the gothic. However, it is Emily who takes the bigger creative risks. The first reviews of Wuthering Heights were mixed. Critics who had been swept away by Jane Eyre did not know what to make of it. For a long time it was judged to be inferior. Readers who love Jane Eyre are sometimes less enthusiastic about Wuthering Heights. And vice versa. I've included both in my list because their influence on the English imagination, and on subsequent English-language fiction, has been incalculable.

Looking back, it's clear that where Jane Eyre comes out of a recognisable tradition, and is conscious of that affiliation, Wuthering Heights releases extraordinary new energies in the novel, renews its potential, and almost reinvents the genre. The scope and drift of its imagination, its passionate exploration of a fatal yet regenerative love affair, and its brilliant manipulation of time and space put it in a league of its own. This is great English literature, the fruit of a quite extraordinary childhood.

To look forward, I think we can say that the work as we know it of Thomas Hardy, DH Lawrence, and even Rosamond Lehmann would have been impossible without it. As a portrait of "star-cross'd lovers" it rivals Romeo and Juliet. There is also something operatic about its audacity and ambition. No wonder film-makers, song writers, actors and literary critics have been drawn to reinterpret its story.

And then there are its quieter pleasures. Like Hardy and Lawrence, Emily Brontë has an uncanny eye and ear for the natural world. When Lockwood visits Heathcliff's and Cathy's graves at the end of the novel, the poetry in the voice is Brontë's:
"I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath, and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers, for the sleepers in that quiet earth."
Wuthering Heights was published three months after Jane Eyre in December 1847. A year later, Emily was dead, from consumption, aged just 30. Charlotte wrote later: "Stronger than a man, simpler than a child, her nature stood alone."

 Emily Bronte,in an oil painting by her brother, Branwell

A note on the text

Wuthering Heights, A Novel by Ellis Bell, was published by Thomas Newby in December 1847, three months after Jane Eyre. Several reviewers, impressed by the force of the book, believed it had been written by a man. After her sister's death, Charlotte Brontë edited a revised second edition, the text that is generally followed today.
A letter from Newby does survive which seems to suggest that Emily Brontë had begun to write a second novel, though the manuscript has never been found. If she had started a second novel, she was prevented by consumption from completing it. She died the same year in which Wuthering Heights was published, aged 30.

Other Emily Brontë titles:

Poems (1846)