Themes in: Crossing the River by Caryl Phillips

Themes in: Crossing the River by Caryl Phillips

This post was written in advance.

This is the final post in this series (for now) and my final book of choice is Crossing the River by Caryl Phillips. Crossing The River is an odd book to describe. It is a piece of historical fiction, with a trans-historical mode. This means that, whilst focusing on issues of colonialism and slavery, it collectively tells the stories of multiple characters, both black and white.  However, despite being a collection of different stories, they are all thematically linked.

Slavery

Phillips wanted to write about slavery involvement in the UK, so naturally, this theme is clear throughout Crossing the River.  At the start of the book, The Ancestor sells his children into slavery. The pairing of money and slaves is continued significantly in the characters of Captain Hamilton and Edward Williams. Captain Hamilton is the owner of a slave-ship who, ironically, believes slave-trading is wrong. However, the financial gains he makes from the slave industry is the motivation behind his continued involvement. Edward Williams is the owner of a slave plantation, who also believes slavery is wrong, and yet participates in the industry regardless. The monetary value placed on a human life, and the commodification of slavery is absolutely vile; apparently it is not enough to benefit from having someone fulfil each and every of your desires, a profit must be made too. Crucially though, the author is unbiased in their depiction of these characters. Their involvement in the slave trade industry is neither praised nor condemned, leaving it to the reader to respond.

Melancholy

Each story seems to have an undercurrent of sadness. The Ancestor sells his children, which breaks his heart. Edward and Nash are separated*, Nash’s letters to Edward are never responded to and Nash is given no reason as to why this is the case.

*It’s hinted Edward’s wife forced communication between the pair to end after she discovered the homoerotic nature of their relationship.

Martha travels across America searching for her daughter, and Joyce sadly gives up her baby. This melancholia is often paired with feelings of loss, abandonment, displacement and/or severed relationships – perhaps to reflect the feelings of slaves across history.  They have been taken from their homes, removed from their families, and forced to suffer at the hands of a slave master.

Journeys

Many of the characters undertake journeys in Crossing the River. There are two types of journeys however: physical and metaphorical.

Physically, Martha travels across America to find her daughter, Edward travels to Africa to find Nash, Travis travels from America to Britain because of World War II, and Captain Hamilton goes on sea voyages as a slave-ship owner.

Metaphorically, some of the characters make the “journey” from life into death. Furthermore, journeys may also represent the trans-historical mode of the novel. Taking a “journey across time” is a popular phrase to describe tracking certain events of themes through history.  By presenting multiple characters’ physical journeys and metaphorical journeys of self-discovery and freedom, Phillips provides the reader with a historical journey, presenting how the issues of slavery and race relations are still as relevant today as they were during the time of the British slave trade involvement.

***

Thank you for reading this blog post! This marks the end of this little series, but I may well pick it up again at a later date.

I hope you enjoyed it – please click ‘Like’ if you did, or leave some feedback in a comment below.

– Judith

From One Blogger To Another: An Interview With Florence Bell

From One Blogger To Another: An Interview With Florence Bell

This week, I “interviewed” Florence Bell, a theatre blogger and theatre kid.

I say interviewed; it was more of a chat. Florence is a good friend of mine, and a fellow English student at the University of Nottingham. She wrote her first blog post in December 2016.

Florence Screenshot 2

The first play Florence ever saw was an amateur pantomime production of A Christmas Carol. “I was around three years old, and I remember the guy who played Scrooge putting pyjamas on top of his clothes. Of course, the audience was meant to suspend their disbelief, but three-year-old me was blown away that someone could wear clothes under their pyjamas.”

Since grappling with the discovery of costume in theatre, Florence has moved on to grapple with plays at an advanced critical level.

“I had been tweeting about theatre for a while and people kept encouraging me to start a blog, or asking me if I had a blog. I had been thinking about it for a while, but a few people suggesting it was all it took.” she said.

“I had already booked to see Mary Stuart at the Almeida Theatre and I knew that I’d be able to write an in-depth and interesting review of it. I probably spent more time on that review than on anything else I’ve ever written. I wanted it to be perfect. I wanted to grab people’s attention. I wanted to make a splash.”

‘I wanted to grab people’s attention.’

Florence certainly did make a splash; prominent theatre critics including Andrew Haydon and Matt Trueman both praised and retweeted her first blog post.

Florence Screenshot 3

She is upfront about writing, as well as reading, honest reviews.

“I like reviews that say what they mean, because that’s what they are meant to do. Reviews that mock awful shows can be fun to read, but they’re rarely the best reviews. My favourite reviews to read are assertive, thoughtfully considered, and beautifully worded.”

“I stopped writing negative reviews because all I was doing was annoying people who might employ me when I graduate, and there’s no point in being cruel. It’s fine to be critical – sometimes even mean – but constructive criticism is always best. It’s rude to both the theatre makers and your readers to take the piss out of a show and not give a careful and considered approach to what went wrong.

‘It’s fine to be critical – sometimes even mean – but constructive criticism is always best.’

If I’m going to be really negative about a show, instead of just slating it, I’d rather engage with it on a political level. That way, I can explain why the show had issues.Florence Screenshot 1 Sometimes I am too finicky though. I went to the theatre with a friend recently and I think I weirded her out by asking: Do you think this is problematic?’ during the interval!”

However, although she’s been blogging for a few months, Florence is adamant that writing is not her end-goal.

“I don’t want to be a critic and I don’t want to be a journalist. I don’t think I have a ‘writing style’ either –  other than an overuse of parentheses and a reliance on long paragraphs.”

“I like to think that my writing isn’t dissimilar to Meg Vaughan’s, but I’m kidding myself.”

“I write blog posts for fun.” she continued, “This is something I’m doing while at university, and I’ve met lots of cool people doing it, but being a critic is just not what I want to do with my life.”

Instead, Florence wants to be a director, and theatre has always been a big part of her life.

She has seen a variety of productions, but for her, it all started with a production of Oresteia. “It’s still my favourite play. I know half of it off by heart. Most theatre fans hum along to their favourite showstoppers in the shower. I recite bits of Oresteia in the shower.”

‘I recite bits of Oresteia in the shower.’

As someone who is not so much of a theatre kid, I steered the conversation towards a common interest of ours – Shakespeare.

As part of the BA English course at the University of Nottingham, both Florence and I chose a module title Shakespeare’s Histories: Critical Approaches. The texts we looked at were Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V.  Eagle-eyed followers may note this is why some of my blog posts focused on these last year.

Shakespeare’s Histories has been one of the most enjoyable aspects of studying English at Nottingham so far.” Florence said, “The plays we studied will always have a fond place in my heart; the module really got me into the degree. I think it helped me settle in. And I met you through Shakespeare’s Histories, so that’s always a plus.”

I blush.

When asked about her favourite Shakespeare productions, Florence said, “In terms of a director’s vision, Ivo van Hove’s Kings of War and Roman Tragedies, Thomas Ostermeier’s Richard III, and Icke’s Hamlet. Cheek by Jowl’s The Winter’s Tale and Deborah Warner’s King Lear were also gems.” she said.

‘There’s no such thing as a hard and fast rule to as what makes theatre good, and I’m definitely not the person to ask.’

“I find original practices productions, like Dromgoole’s production at Shakespeare’s Globe, quite hard to engage with. I’m interested in directors who are capable of cutting the text and finely tuning their stagecraft to engineer a tone and an atmosphere based on the events in the play, and actors capable of making Shakespeare’s words sound like they were written yesterday.”


Quick-fire Questions:

Favourite theatre actor?

Andrew Scott or Hans Kesting.

Favourite theatre actress?

Lia Williams, duh.

If you could be any female character in any play who would you be and why?

Most of the plays I see are far too depressing to actually want to be any of the women in them. None. Literally none.

What about a male character?

Nope.


At any rate, it’s clear Florence is a confident theatre blogger and theatre kid but, crucially, she is not a theatre critic. She has other plans for when she grows up.

‘What do you wanna like be when you grow up?’

‘I am grown up.’

(Annie Baker, The Flick at The National Theatre)
(Florence Bell, Top Ten Plays of 2016)

***

Thank you for reading! I had so much fun talking to Florence and writing this interview. Please click ‘Like’ if you enjoyed, and share it around.

You can find her blog at: bellflorence.wordpress.com

You can follow both of us on Twitter as well:

– Judith

 

 

 

 

WWW Wednesdays: What Am I Reading? (4)

WWW Wednesdays: What Am I Reading? (4)

WWW Wednesdays is a weekly meme that is hosted by Taking on a World of Words. The “rules” are simple – answer the 3 questions below:


1. What are you currently reading?

I’m reading a non-fiction, Shooting History, by Jon Snow – an autobiographical account of modern history and journalism Snow was involved in. I’ve also been sent another book to read for Rosie’s Book Review Team, The Devil In The Countryside, a historical thriller by Cory Barclay. I’m also reading another free book to review – Being Simon Haines, by Tom Vaughan MacAulay.

It’s also exam-season, so as a form of revision, I’m aiming to re-read texts that will be covered in my exams. Here’s how I’ve got on so far:

2. What did you recently finish reading?

I read so much over the Easter break! I read The Seagull, a play by Anton Chekhov, as well some more Stephen King novels of course – The Shining and The Tommyknockers. I also finished the thriller Perfect People by Peter James, as well as The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy. I also received a new book, Commune: Book One, to read and review for Joshua Gayou, a new author.

3. What do you think you’ll read next?

As I really enjoyed Perfect People, I want to explore the works of Peter James, and the thriller genre as whole, further. It would also be nice to read some more classic literature as well.


What are you currently reading?

– Judith

Read and Review: The Mayor of Casterbridge

Read and Review: The Mayor of Casterbridge
  • Title: The Mayor of Casterbridge
  • Author: Thomas Hardy
  • Published: 1886

The Mayor of Casterbridge is dubbed a ‘tragedy’ novel. It is about Michael Henchard, a hay-trusser who sells his wife Susan and their daughter Elizabeth-Jane to a sailor on a drunken whim. Years later, Susan arrives in Casterbridge and, to her surprise, finds Henchard is the Mayor and is a reformed man. The pair reunite, but both Henchard and Susan are keeping secrets from one another, and the past refuses to stay buried.

In true Hardy style, multiple taboos are introduced quickly in The Mayor of Casterbridge, such as the maltreatment of women, drunkenness, fights, fake identities, and death.

The number of problems each character faced, and how these problems impacted upon the other characters made the book feel very much like an 19th century predecessor to The Jeremy Kyle Show!

I thought The Mayor of Casterbridge was okay, despite having a dislike for most of the characters; each character was selfish and deceptive in varying amounts, so it was hard to feel sympathetic for any of them.

The Mayor of Casterbridge has particularly witty moments, and I liked the Harry Potter-like language in this passage:

‘she [Elizabeth-Jane] no longer spoke of “dumbledores” but of “humble bees” […] that when she had not slept she did not quaintly tell the servants next morning that she had been “hag-rid,” but that she had “suffered from indigestion.”’

(Chapter 20)

I think it’s still unclear as to whether this passage inspired J.K. Rowling, when it came to writing her best-selling children’s fantasy series. In an interview with Stephanie Loer for The Boston Globe, Rowling said:

“Some of the names are invented… Dumbledore […] is an Old English word meaning bumblebee. Hagrid, who by the way is one of my favourite characters, also comes from an Old English word – hagridden – meaning having a nightmarish night.”

Regardless, I liked The Mayor of Casterbridge (not as much as Jude The Obscure however) – not because of its maybe links to the Harry Potter books, but because of Hardy’s ability to simply tell a good story.

Thanks for reading! Please click ‘Like’ if you enjoyed.

– Judith

Themes in: Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti

Themes in: Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti

Goblin Market is a Victorian poem about two women, Lizzie and Laura, one of whom is tempted by the goblins that frequent their village to sell exotic fruits all year around. Laura becomes grievously ill after eating some of this fruit, and is saved by her sister’s bravery and heroism against the goblins.

To me, the most striking element in Goblin Market is its use of symbolism – of religion, of the patriarchy and, as an offshoot of this, the sexual oppression of women.

Religion

Firstly, Goblin Market’s religious imagery is overwhelmingly clear. The premise of the poem is that deceptive, supernatural creatures tempt a pure woman into eating a mysterious and forbidden fruit, which then has negative consequences. This is a direct parallel to the events in Genesis 3; the goblins symbolise Satan and Laura symbolises Eve.

However, there is a second layer to this religious imagery. Lizzie saves her sister by standing resolute in the face of the goblins’ horrid behaviour towards her, enduring suffering for the sake of Laura. She is described as ‘fruit-crown’d’ – an irony – because a crown is meant for royalty, highlighting Laura’s virtuous and honourable nature, yet it is made from fruit, the goblins’ “weapon” of attack. This may be a parallel to the ‘crown of thorns’ (Matthew 27:29) worn by Christ during the crucifixion, to mock him. Furthermore, during Lizzie’s attack from the goblins, she ‘utter’d not a word’, again imitating Christ’s behaviour when he was trialled by Herod:

  • ‘He [Jesus] was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth’ (Isaiah 53:7)
  • ‘He [Herod] plied him [Jesus] with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer.’ (Luke 23:9)

Patriarchy

Secondly, although the goblins are in some ways supernatural, they are also described as ‘goblin merchant men’. The significance of calling them ‘men’ suggests the poem can also be read as a poem about the male oppression of women within a patriarchal Victorian society. It is important that while the goblins are running their market and earning money, both Lizzie and Laura are confined to the home, undertaking stereotypically female tasks, such as sewing, baking cakes and talking like ‘modest maidens’. This highlights the separate spheres ideology which was rife in Victorian society, that encouraged men to leave the house and work to provide for the family (in the “public” sphere)  whilst women were to stay at home as housekeepers and mothers (in the “private” sphere).

Yet there is more. Rossetti also highlights that within a patriarchal society, not only were women confined to their domesticated “sphere” of life, but they were also victims of sexual abuse. This is evidenced by the goblins’ attack on Lizzie. The goblins, whilst ‘grunting and snarling’, ‘tore her gown’, ‘held her hands’, ‘kick’d’ and ‘maul’d’ her in order to force her to eat their fruits. The goblins’ fruit is a metaphor for sex, and thus this distressing scene symbolises one of rape and domestic abuse, a scenario sadly commonplace within Victorian relationships.*

*A harrowing statistic: marital rape wasn’t criminalised in the UK until 1991.

***

Of course, there’s so much more that could be said about the poem. I enjoyed reading Goblin Market; it’s beautifully written narrative poem with vivid imagery and multiple interpretations. There are many other offered readings of the poem, but I think Goblin Market’s parallels with the Christian faith, and the message of female oppression are its most significant undertones.

Thank you for reading this blog post.

Please click ‘Like’ and leave any responses you have in the comments below.

– Judith

NTL Review: Twelfth Night

NTL Review: Twelfth Night
  • Title: Twelfth Night
  • Director: Simon Godwin
  • Broadcast: 6th April 2017

I went to see Twelfth Night, broadcast by National Theatre Live on Thursday night.

Initially, I wasn’t sure whether to write this review or not, – theatre isn’t my forte – but once I left the cinema, I had so many thoughts about the production and I wanted to share them.

Godwin’s Twelfth Night is a play which, for the first time that I’ve seen, truly foregrounds the Malvolio subplot of Twelfth Night – or should I say, the Malvolia subplot.

Tamsin Greig played Malvolia, a female representation of everybody’s favourite self-righteous and controlling steward. Although characters’ teasing comments about her Quaker-like behaviour were still included, Malvolia was less pious and more of a narcissistic control freak, which made for good humour for a contemporary audience. The infamous scene with Malvolia’s yellow stockings now included a musical number, and watching Greig flaunt about the stage to musical accompaniment, as well as the horror of the other characters, was wonderful comedy.

NTL 1 [Malvolia].jpg
Photo by Marc Brenner via Twelfth Night Production Images.

This gender swap is one of a few changes made to the original Shakespeare play and spotlights contemporary issues surrounding gender roles and sexuality; Antonio’s implicit homosexual love for Sebastian is given more prominence (the two share on onstage kiss), the Malvolia / Olivia narrative suggests Olivia’s potential bisexuality, and Feste is now a woman.

Doon Mackichan played Feste, although I thought her portrayal fairly standard. She was a comical enough ‘fool’, but I felt her humour was at its peak when in interaction with Sir Toby Belch, played by Tim McMullan, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, played by Daniel Rigby.

Every aspect of Rigby’s Aguecheek was absolutely hilarious; his body language, his line delivery, his costume was all spot-on. Aguecheek, for once, finally had his own style and personality, which was such a refreshing change from other productions of Twelfth Night, in which Aguecheek is simply ridiculed, rather than developed as a character.

NTL 2 [Aguecheek and Belch].jpg
Left to Right: Rigby as Sir Andrew Aguecheek and McMullan as Sir Toby Belch. Photo by Marc Brenner via Twelfth Night Production Images.

However, I think the relationship between cruel mocker and light-hearted comedy is incredibly important in this production of Twelfth Night.

Before the screening, Greig said in a VT that Twelfth Night is a witty play with a continuously melancholic undercurrent, and I wholeheartedly agree with this.

Viola and Sebastian are torn apart from one another. Olivia falls in love with someone she thinks she knows, who turns out to be somebody different. Antonio admits his feelings for “Sebastian”, who in reality was Cesario, and is left rejected and crushed. Sir Andrew is repeatedly humiliated by Toby Belch’s manipulative schemes as well as repeatedly heartbroken because he knows he stands no chance at winning Olivia.  Malvolia comes to terms with her own sexuality and openly expresses her feelings for Olivia in front of the entire household, only to be laughed at, imprisoned and treated like a madwoman. Thus, Greig’s final line: ‘I’ll be reveng’d on the whole pack of you’, had such poignancy, that I felt more sympathetic for the plight of Malvolia then I ever had before.

Godwin’s Twelfth Night was thoroughly enjoyable, brilliantly comedic, but also cleverly melancholic and thought-provoking.

In short, when can I see it again?

– Judith

If you’d like to read about more this production of Twelfth Night, you can click this link to go the National Theatre Live website, or read this article by Susannah Clapp in The Guardian.

Read and Review: The Wife’s Lament

Read and Review: The Wife’s Lament

This is a slightly more unconventional book review, or should I say, manuscript review.

As a university student, I recently went exam season, which meant it was really hard to read (and finish) any new books, so I thought I’d talk about some literature we studied on the course instead.

The Wife’s Lament is an anonymous poem, in the form of a lament, written in Old English. The edition I read was published in The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology by Kevin Crossley-Holland.

The Wife’s Lament is quite a short poem, which was refreshing for me – poetry isn’t my favourite form anyway, and I already worked my way through the entirety of Milton’s Paradise Lost earlier in 2016.

This poem is primarily about love and loss, but what I find so fascinating is the variety of interpretations that can be drawn from the poem.

Some like to read the poem as a message from a retainer to their lord. Anglo-Saxon England, loyalty to leaders was hugely important and lords and retainers had a special relationship. This interpretation also works well when considering the poem uses terms such as ‘lord’ and ‘master’ frequently.

However, translators have assigned this poem The Wife’s Lament – suggesting a female author, and thus not a retainer, but a wife longing for her husband. Again, this could be evidenced in the text as it uses words such as ‘family’, ‘lovers’ and the phrase ‘dearest loved one’.

It has even been suggested that The Wife’s Lament symbolises the relationship between Christ and his people, longing for them to turn from their pagan ways and embrace Christianity. I’m not sure how convincing I find this argument.

Instead, I prefer the interpretation that the narrator in question is actually… dead!

What I find so favourable about this idea is how it fits with the elusive word ‘earth-cave’ in the poem – nobody really seems to know what it means. Of course, with a Gothic head on my shoulders, I’d love to think that her ‘earth-cave’ means her grave. This seems particularly convincing, when she goes on to refer to the those who are still alive and present on Earth, and can enjoy love and happiness.

All in all, it doesn’t matter which interpretation you pick, or whether you come up with another idea of your own.

The Wife’s Lament is a short poem packed with emotions, and it is my favourite Old English text I’ve read so far. It really doesn’t take long to read (a whopping 2 pages) so if you can get access to it, I strongly recommend you read it.

Thank you for reading this slightly unconventional book review! Please click ‘Like’ if you enjoyed, or click ‘Follow’ to read slightly more conventional book-related blog posts in future.

That’s all for now!

– Judith