“… with Cathy and Heathcliff, you can’t empathise
They’re selfish and nasty, they cheat and they lie.”
“But they love with a passion, you don’t need to approve
Or to like or respect them, but fail to be moved?”
“I’m with Claire, I don’t like it at all
The characters are hateful, the story is dull.”
“And what’s with that Nelly, interfering old hag,
A gossip, a stirrer, a nosy old nag.”
“Are you crazy, or blind? This is love on grand scale,
Consuming and flaming, not sickly and pale.
How can you not like it? It’s raw and blood red
Besides,” she leaned forward, “Heathcliff’d be great in bed.”
“No!” Claire replied. “He’d be violent and mean,”
“That’s as may be, but he’d sure make you scream.”
Valerie downed her lager and smiled,
“The prose is laborious, the characters vile.”
“But remember Heathcliff, Cathy dead in his hold
His pain and his anguish, relentless and bold
Remember his plea, his piteous howl,
‘How can I live sans my life, live sans my soul?’
You’re right he is vicious, more devil than man,
And she is deceitful, a cowardly sham
And they are abhorrent and twisted and cruel
But they are in love! And this love makes them cruel.”
Valerie raised her eyebrows and said,
“I’d just rather read a good book instead.”
“Now Jane Eyre,” said Claire, “that one was good.
With characters who love, but behave like they should.
Jane I believe in. Jane I can like.
She is meek but with strength, and she does what is right.”
“Now don’t get me wrong here, I love the book too
But does what is right? Are you crazy? A fool?
She says that she loves him, yet she leaves him alone
To suffer his mistake, to pay on his own.
Okay, so she’s selfless, and honest and kind
But these virtues mislead her; her faith makes her blind
So he’s already married, a hurdle for sure
But, truly, he loves her, still she walks out that door.
Though in th’ end he’s redeemed, and happ’ly they live,
For leaving that day, Jane I’d never forgive.”
“I didn’t think much of Emma, either,” said Val
“Or that Sense and whatever, also banal.”
“Fuck’s sake, I can’t hear this! Are you crazy, unhinged?”
“Just saying I didn’t like them. Guess they’re just not my thing.”
“Please, please tell me that you like P and P.”
“Sorry. Not really. It just wasn’t me.”
Claire laughed and said, “I thought it was cool,
Especially that bit where Darcy dives in the pool!”
A fist hits the table, legs wobble and shake
“Fucking unbelievable, for sacrilege sake.”
“Rebecca, I loved. No, really. No joke.”
Said Claire as she sipped at her vodka and Coke.
“I feel for the heroine. Her doubts and her fears
I’ve shared now and then, in the passing of years.”
“But Mrs de Winter, she’s mousy and dull.
Now Rebecca’s a woman to plague someone’s soul.”
Time had been called; the bar had been cleared,
Except for the table where these musings were heard
“And your lovers,” asked Claire, “are they likeable folk?”
“Not nice exactly, but intriguing I hope.
Really and truly, they’re a cowardly pair,
One won’t fight, the other doesn’t fight fair.”
“I like it,” said Val, “it’s a credible read.”
Said the barman, “Night ladies. Time to leave.”
I always think it’s a bit of a shame that we tend to experience novels, unlike say poetry or films or music, only once. Perhaps it’s because the time invested in getting through a novel is so much greater than other art forms. Perhaps it’s because, lurking in the shadows, is a sense of time running out, so we devote the precious little we have to a search for something new, and shy away from revisiting. I think this is a mistake. A novel, at least any novel worth reading in the first place, in fact offers up something new each time. The reader, as much as the writer, creates the story and the reader is always new – even when she’s the same person, with each re-reading the reader is renewed.
At 14, like her students, I was enchanted by Jean Brodie; later I recognised her as a charismatic but sinister narcissist. At 15 Cathy and Heathcliff seemed full of thwarted but strangely innocent passion; later a thinly veiled mutually obsessive sadism emerged from the book’s dog-eared pages, rendering the likes of EL James, whose work has been flying off the shelves with such abandon in recent times, really very tame by comparison.
I’ve just read a book by John Williams, who I confess to having never heard of a week ago. Stoner, despite its unhelpful title, might be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever read. I wonder whether, at 41, I stumbled across this novel at just the right age for it to be profoundly moving. I wonder how it will feel forty years down the road, if I make it that far. I wonder if at 20 I would have loved it so much. I’ll never know. I finished it four days ago and it’s taken every ounce of will power I possess not to go right back to the beginning and start again, but I’m determined to give it some time to breathe before I take a second swig.
So instead I’m reading Persuasion. Again. I think it’s been about fifteen years since I last read this particular novel. Recently I’ve been browsing some of Austen’s letters, and I see something of their elegant viciousness here when the narrator tells us that, “the Musgroves had had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son; and the good fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year.” A little later we are told that: “He had, in fact, though his sisters were now doing all they could for him, by calling him ‘poor Richard’, been nothing better than a thick-headed, unfeeling, unprofitable Dick Musgrove, who had never done anything to entitle himself to more than the abbreviation of his name, living or dead.”
This is perfect, just perfect. No-one wields a knife quite like Austen. With her trademark lack of sentimentality, death is no reason to go easy on a character; not for her the fallacy of dignifying in death those who are despised in life. But what exactly is she saying here? Is Jane Austen, beloved of moralists and middle England, referring to this poor dead character, as unable to defend himself against her verbal assassination as he was to prevent his fictional demise, as a good-for-nothing dick? How wonderful. I don’t remember having noticed this before. And that’s one of the great pleasures of re-reading. And also one of the gifts a reader brings to a story. The truth is, I think that in Regency England the term ‘Dick’ was an insult in as much as it described a sort of unimpressive everyman, a person of no particular note – a Tom, Dick or Harry. I think its metamorphosis into phallically associated term of abuse was yet to be achieved. But what a delight it is to bring this meaning to a contemporary reading of Austen. I have absolutely no doubt that Richard Musgrove was indeed a dick, in all senses of the word, and that had Miss Austen been writing in 2013 she would have taken great satisfaction in describing him as such.