by Jane Austen

Jane Austen said of Emma Woodhouse (in a letter) that she had written a novel with a heroine “whom no one would like but myself”. Indeed the first sentence (another sterling first sentence by Austen. How does she do it?) paints a picture that is easily understood as a spoilt little rich girl:

“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable house and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”

At the same time we have to disagree with Miss Austen. Readers have fallen in love with Emma (both novel and heroine) since the novel was published, and with good reason

Ronald Blythe states in his introduction to the 1966 Penguin Classics edition of “Emma” that it is “the climax of Jane Austen’s genius and the Parthenon of fiction.” I do not dispute it for a second. This novel is my favourite work from my favourite author.

The book has a plot so timeless that even translating it to modern day Hollywood and casting Alicia Silverstone in the lead still gets you a hit movie, Clueless. OK, it’s obvious from the first chapter who is destined to marry Emma but our dashing hero, Mr Knightley, is still the only person who ever criticises Emma, indeed he spends a large part of his time in the novel telling either Emma or her friends about her flaws.

Austen wrote to her niece Anna (writing a novel at the time) that “Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on” and stayed close to this for most of her own works. Yet at the same time, in a letter to her brother Edward (another incipient novelist) she played down her concerns as “the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as to produce little effect, after much labour.” ‘Emma’ is certainly the novel on the smallest piece of ivory with the finest brush, yet it pokes as much fun and wields as savage a knife on the social conventions of Austen’s England as any other novelist of the time.

Austen was capable of writing novels with genuine popular appeal at the same time as she flouted the conventions of fiction. ‘Emma’ is a marvellous example, an easily read, enjoyable novel with a heroine who is in charge of her own destiny and who marries for no other reason than she loves a good, strong man.

Everyone deserves to read a novel this good. Just because teenage girls will adore this novel and swoon over Mr Knightley doesn’t mean the rest of us should be stopped from this marvellous read. I enjoy Austen immensely and this is my favourite. I probably read it once or twice a year.

When you come to choosing the edition I once again find myself recommending the Penguin Classics edition for its Introduction. This time it is Fiona Stafford who does such a good job (though I think the ‘66 edition Introduction by Ronald Blythe was a fraction better.)

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Mr. Midshipman Hornblower

by C. S. Forester

Forester’s entire Hornblower series are first rate nautical adventure’s that carry the reader along with well written prose and cracking plots.

Horatio Hornblower, hero of Forester’s series, is almost impossible to believe. Brave, handsome and a skilled seaman
he is almost without flaw – a tendency to seasickness and constant self doubt are the two that make him human.

This novel gives us the early maritime life of Hornblower, though not the first written, and we are introduced to a seasick, slightly miserable young man as he starts a naval career that will end many years (and novels) later with him reaching the pinnacles of the British Navy.

The historical background of the Napoleonic wars throughout this and most of the other Hornblower novels is well played
out and made me want to delve back into the history books to follow up on some of the slighter historical allusions. The same skill is brought to bear on all elements of life, struggle, battle and death in the British Navy of the time.

I first read all these novels as an adult and enjoyed them. My nephew in his early teens, not a big reader, devoured the
entire series in short order after I gave him this volume. We both wanted more and continue an unsuccesful search for
another author of seafaring adventures who combines excellent writing, fine detail and constant action with the same skill as Forester.

I would recommend this book to anyone from their early teens on who enjoys a good adventure story.

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The Metaphysical Poets

Helen Gardner (Editor)

Contrary to what you may believe the poets collectively known as “metaphysical” wrote surprisingly earthy
and personal poetry. While it is not as easy to understand as some poetry writers such as Donne and Marvell are quite approachable with a little effort and aid from Gardner’s excellent introduction and footnotes.

The poets represented here cover a good selection of this Elizabethan style. (Elizabeth herself is represented by a verse). Gardner has wisely chosen the poets and their poems. Have this volume if only to read the verse of Donne and Marvell, heck, if only to read “The Sonne Rising” and “To My Coy Mistress”. Certainly this would be an excellent place to start in a study of the metaphysical poets.

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Selected Poems

T. S. Eliot
T.S. Eliot is a major figure in 20th century literature for
criticism, publishing and poetry. On the critical front he
is known for his ‘rediscovery’ of the Metaphysical poets
Donne and Marvell, his collections of essays “The
Sacred Wood” and “The Use of Poetry and the Use of
Criticism”; as a publisher he was a director of Faber
and built up a stable of ‘modern’ poets such as Auden and
Ezra Pound.

It is, however, for his poetry that he will surely last and
this collection gives a marvelous selection of his works.
The first poem in this collection “The Love Song of J.
Alfred Prufrock” is a masterwork with superb imagery
and a marvelous sense of humour and irony as it gives us the
words of a man who seems much older than Eliot must have
been when he wrote it, it was first published while he was
in his twenties.

While some of his poetry seems to miss the mark as too
dense and perhaps overly constructed others have rich layers
of imagery and allusion that reward a little effort and
rereading with a sense of large and vivid meaning and depth.
“The Waste Land”, one of Eliot’s most famous poems
and responsible, along with other poems of the period such
as “The Hollow Men”, in giving Eliot a reputation
as one of the ‘disillusioned’ modern poets. Eliot denied
this, saying he gave “the illusion of being
disillusioned.” “The Wasteland” is four
hundred lines long and is quite enigmatic, some scholars
have said that it may have been less enigmatic before Ezra
Pound helped and convinced Eliot to cut it back from an
original 800 lines.

The last major work in this volume is “The Four
Quartets.” It is impossible in a short review to
summarise the brilliance of these works. Written in the late
thirties they are a masterful summation of the concerns of
Eliot’s earlier works and a culmination of his examination
of his own personal Christianity.

Between these three peaks are many works almost their
equal. “Sweeney Agonistes”, “Ash
Wednesday”, “The Hollow Men”, and excerpts
from the “The Rock” among them.

To conclude this collection is a wonderful summary of the
poetic works of one of the major literary figures of the
twentieth century. For a complete overview of Eliot you
should read at least one of his plays (“Murder In The
Cathedral” is my favourite) and one of his volumes of
critical essays such as the two mentioned earlier. I would
recommend this volume to anyone who enjoys poetry,
particularly those who enjoy reading poetry over and over
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