Six Tudor Queens, by Alison Weir: Katherine of Aragon VS Anne Boleyn (plus Jane Seymour)

King Henry VIII, one of the best known English kings, was a very controversial historical figure. He took six wives and his obstinacy to divorce his first wife in order to marry  his then mistress was the cause behind his break with Rome and the creation of the Church of England. His reign was a time merriness and fear, of triumphs and tragedies, and above all a time of change. The world was quickly changing, as America had recently been discovered and the neighbouring countries were forging trade empires, but England was changing as well and after Henry VIII’s death it was a totally different country than the one he had come to govern.

Alison Weir, a renowned English historian and writer, has set to write six novels, each telling the story of one of Henry’s wives. So far, the first three books of the series, corresponding to his first three wives, are out. The fourth one should be released earlier next year I think.

I have read and enjoyed all three books already and I thought I would write a post about them. What follows is a bit of a hodge podge, as there are mini reviews of the books mixed with my opinions of the queens portrayed in them and a brief glimpse of that turbulent time.

Katherine of Aragón, the True Queen

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Katherine of Aragón was Henry VIII’s first wife. She was Spanish princess and doubly royal, as both her mother and her father were queen and king of their own territories in their own rights. It was their union what brought together the Spanish regions and shaped Spain as the country it is now. She had first married Arthur, Prince of Wales, the elder son of Henry VIII, who died shortly after the wedding. Katherine always said that their union had not been lawful, for their marriage was never consummated and Henry married her after coming of age and being crowned king. However, those subtleties that he gladly ignored in order to marry her were the very argument that he used against her many years later to declare their marriage void.

I read Katherine of Aragón, the True Queen, nearly two years ago and I truly loved it. I had never read anything by Alison Weir but I really liked her writing style and how she portrayed Katherine of Aragón. Keeping to all the historical facts available to her, she sketched a portrait of this rightful and self-righteous queen that presented her as a loving mother and wife, a woman truly enamoured of her gorgeous husband, and yet strong enough to stand for herself and her beliefs. Even though the book was over 500 pages, it was a quick and pleasant read, though it is true that the last third, more or less, was a bit of a drag as Katherine hopes time and again that her strayed husband will return to her and even when she’s been banned from court and shunned from the world, she still loves him ardently and fears for his soul.

I didn’t know much about Katherine of Aragón prior to reading this book and I was surprised by all the things she managed in a time when women were considered as baby-carriers first and foremost. And that’s where she failed. She was named Ambassador to the Kingdom of Aragon prior to her wedding to Henry, she was regent of England while her husband was away warring in France, she was an important patron for many scholars, but she failed to proved Henry with a son. And that was the beginning of her end.

Henry VIII was the second Tudor king and one of his main concerns was the legitimacy of this new ruling family; he desperately wanted a son to succeed him on the throne. Katherine was pregnant at least seven times but most of her babies were still-born and only one of her children survived through adulthood and she was a girl. Henry thought this was a sign of God being displeased with his marriage. Or at least that what he told the world. Truth is, he had fathered bastards with several of his mistresses and after Katherine’s best years were past her, he became rather obsessed with one particular lady and moved heaven and earth to put her on the throne.

After reading Katherine of Aragón, the True Queen, I was very curious about the next book on Anne Boleyn. Not only because I wanted to know more of her story but also because I wanted to see how Alison Weir would portray her. Weir is a self-proclaimed fan of Katherine of Aragón – I think she wrote that herself in the author’s note of this book – and even named her daughter after her. So I wonder how she would feel about her sempiternal rival. Hint: Alison Weir did a very fine job with Anne Boleyn and passed the test with flying colours, but read on.

Anne Boleyn, a King’s Obsession

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I was waiting for a long time to find this book in my local library, more than a year, I think. And when it was finally available, someone had borrowed it and I had to wait two further months until I could finally borrow it. But the waiting was worth it!

I started reading it straight away and devoured almost half of it in one sitting, a very remarkable feat when you have two toddlers running around. And perhaps a very silly feat, as I was supposed to get up at 5ish am next day to catch a plane and go on holidays to Spain and yet stayed awake, reading, till 2 am. Oh, how I payed the price during the flight and the rest of that day for having indulged in my reading. And how I longed to go back home in order to read the second half of this book (I never take library books on holidays, just in case I lose them or forget them or splash them with sea water or whatever).

Anyhow. I went home and finished the rest of the book in a couple of days and I was once more impressed by Weir’s mastery of historical fiction writing. I think historical fiction sounds easy. After all you just have to do some research and put together those facts and infused them some life with your words. But in reality, I think that historical fiction is anything but easy because you’re constrained by reality and your fiction needs to be plausible. And the less information you have, the less easy it becomes because then you need to speculate and I guess it is just to easy to be carried away and fantasize way too much.

That could have been the case with Anne Boleyn, as there historical record on Anne Boleyn are not as extensive as those of Katherine of Aragón (and they’re even poorer for Jane Seymour, but I’ll get back to that later). However, Weir made the best of what little information she had and sketched a believable portrait of Anne Boleyn. Granted, she took her liberties while depicting her early years in France of what little is known and then stuck to historical facts and reliable accounts about her time in England. In that sense, I think that Weir has done an outstanding job in this book, as it might have been much harder to write than the previous one on Katherine of Aragón.

Furthermore, with Alison weir being such a staunch supporter of Katherine of Aragón, I can only imagine that it was not easy to write a neutral fiction on her sempiternal rival, Anne Boleyn. Also, most accounts about Anne Boleyn were written by her enemies, thus historical opinions on her were definitely not favourable and that doesn’t make the task any easier. And yet Weir succeeds portraying Anne in a positive (and realistic) light. She presents Anna as a courageous woman, a self-educated lady in a time when women did not have access to education, and girl who had found great mentors in France and the Low Lands, who taught her that women’s opinions were worth it, and Anne would follow their example and be outspoken and passionate about her duties regardless of the consequences.

It was also in France where Anne became acquainted with new religious ideas and upon her return to England she would hold onto that new-found zeal and ultimately use those revolutionary ideas to push Henry to break with the Church in Rome so that they could marry and their much awaited son be legitimate and therefore a heir to the crown. But Anne also failed in her most important duty and never bore a son. And an ageing Henry would not be that patient second time around.

Their marriage didn’t last long and Anne’s end was tragic. Unlike Katherine, Anne had not been brought up to be a queen and it might have been that she failed to draw boundaries between a mistress’ behaviour and that of a wife. The same personality traits that had once infatuated Henry VIII were now putting him off Anne and soon he was chasing other women. Eventually, somebody came along and stole Henry’s heart once more and that precipitated Anne’s downfall.

Jane Seymour, the Haunted Queen

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Jane Seymour was King Henry VIII’s third wife. Little is known of her before she arrived to court to wait on Katherine of Aragón and not much more after she became Queen of England – a title that she held for little more than a year. And yet she’s gone down in history as Henry’s most beloved wife. She’s the only one who was given queen funeral honours, she’s the one resting eternally beside Henry VIII, she’s the one who gave him a male heir.

Jane Seymour was a plain girl from a family with certain connections to the crown. She had a happy childhood, although it might have been clouded by a dark incident between her father and her older brother’s wife. But other than that, not much is knows about Jane so Weir has taken full license to let her imagination run wild and portrayed Jane as a devout catholic who intended to be a nun. Yet, when confronted with the hardships of life in a convent, she decided that contemplative life might not be for her after all and sought a place at court.

At court she served Katherine of Aragón first and the Anne Boleyn, until she could take no more of it. Jane is thought to be an ardent defender of Katherine and suffered to see how Henry mistreated her and favoured Anne instead. Again, Weir has speculated freely about this theory but what is true is that Jane definitely had sympathies for Katherine and her daughter Mary and somehow meddled to restore Mary to succession.

At first, Jane might have tried to resist the approaches of the King but eventually gave in – either because she discovered a softer side to him or to use her position to bring Anne down or simply because one cannot say ‘no’ to a King. Particularly not to Henry VIII. My favourite part of this book was the middle section, when Jane is caught in this political game to take the crown off Anne’s head. I was surprised at how fickle allegiances were and how much people were willing to risk in order to see Anne fall out of favour. But again, how much true is there in all that remains to be seen (though a big part of it might be true, as there are several historical records from the actors involved in this plotting, such as Mr Chapuys correspondence).

But other than that, this third book is weaker than the two previous ones. Jane is not so interesting as a historical persona, merely a pawn into a bigger scheme. And she dies shortly after giving birth to her first child, thus is she had any potential as a queen, it was never realised. Besides, part of this book overlaps with the stories on the two previous books so by now it can be a bit tedious to read for the third time how Henry snapped to Anne that ‘women worthier than her had endured much worse’ and so on.

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One of the things I liked best about these books is how they portray Henry VIII. We only see him through the eyes of his wives but it is interesting to note how he changed throughout the years and how each of his wives saw him in a different light. Katherine adored him, she was infatuated by him, whereas Anne could not stand him or the sight of him. Jane saw him as a real man, both fragile and mighty, and attractive despite his years. And as the wives come and go, we see Henry as the man he was, the man he became and the man he could have been. He was a golden boy when Katherine first met him, an apprentice of king when they married, and good Christian. But as Thomas More could have said, ‘a lion sleeps inside the lamb’ (or something like that. I don’t remember the exact words on Katherine’s story). Anne unleashed that lion; Henry became a mighty king and did as he pleased. He was obstinate and volatile and often furious. And Jane tamed the beast – or so we are told. Henry found some respite beside Jane, a woman so different from his previous wife. She gave him a son, the most precious of gifts for him. Henry calmed down a bit but he had also learnt his lesson and was determined to never heed the advice of any wife again. He had gone too far to capitulate now, so there was no way that Jane could exert any influence on him. And she was gone too soon anyway.

Have you read this series? Any thoughts you’d like to share?

Also, I would appreciate any recommendations on further reading on Katherine of Aragón and Anne Boleyn.

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The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis

Spoiler alert: This review probably gives away too much of the plot, so if you have not read this book yet you might want to skip it until you have.

I have just read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for the very first time. Yep, that’s right. At the very tender age of 34. I remember having seen the film many years ago but I don’t really remember much about it. I think it would be fair to say that this has been my first introduction to the the universe of Narnia and to the writings of C.S. Lewis. And I loved it!

I am happy and sad at the same time – happy that I finally read this beautiful story (and I can’t wait to read more by C.S. Lewis; some of his non-fiction books are also on my tbr list) and sad because I never read this as a child. I now can only imagine how wonderful this story can be for children. I mean, there’s a bunch of children who find a magic land and meet fauns and beavers and a witch, and of course that’s not too good. But then, they’re having adventures and suddenly Father Christmas turns up and gives them presents. What’s not to love about all that?

But I still enjoyed this as an adult. And I guess that’s fine too. After all, C.S. Lewis dedicated this book to his godchild, who might have been already too old for fairytales but he was hoping she would nonetheless read it and like it when the time came for her to enjoy fairy tales once more. Even the dedication is lovely, so this book couldn’t have a better start.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe tells the story of Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, four siblings who are evacuated from London during WWII and sent to a country house owned by an eccentric professor. This house is huge, and magical. In one of its many rooms Lucy enters a wardrobe and walks and walks until she finds herself walking on snow, snowflakes still drifting in the air. Although her brothers and sister don’t believe her at first, they’ll all end up in Narnia and playing their part to bring back spring and defeat the White Witch. And they’ll meet Aslan. Their saviour, Narnia’s saviour, and ultimately only a lion.

This book (and the rest of the series, as I have read here and there) is very allegorical. This might be too much for small children to figure out but it is crystal-clear for adults – at least the most obvious of it, for sure there are many more meanings hidden in it that cannot be grasped in a first, fast-paced reading. Some people will like it, some people won’t. I didn’t have any issues with it. I was fine with it and thought the story worked perfectly. I was only a bit suspicious about the deeper magic from before the dawn of time as literary resource. After all, Aslan dies because of the deep magic from the dawn of time and then suddenly he comes back to life because of this other deeper magic from before the dawn of time of which the White Witch knew nothing about about. Very convenient. Oh well, I don’t think children will find any fault with it, and us, adults, will see through the allegory to justify this tiny bit of Deus ex machina in the story.

Nevertheless, this was a totally enjoyable read and I can only recommend it, both as clean children’s literature and as a fairytale for adults.

Have you read The Chronicles of Narnia? Did you enjoy them?

Some books for Christmas

Christmas is the best time of the year. And it happens to be my favourite time of the year as well. Funny coincidence, isn’t it?

Last year I kickstarted December reading Letters to Father Christmas by J.R.R. Tolkien and I loved it! A heart-warming collection of letters that Tolkien delivered to his children every December, it is by no means serious literature but it is the perfect read to get into the mood for Christmas (particularly for adults who no longer believe in Father Christmas). And it is a beautiful book! Seriously, a small hard-cover book with a colourful jacket, good-quality paper, charming illustrations by Tolkien himself. It really is the perfect coffee table book for the holidays season.

I also read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens for the very first time and I totally enjoyed the original telling of this story that I obviously knew. So, so many versions of it have been filmed or made as animated films. When I was a child my favourite was A Flintstones Christmas Carol. Ah, The Flintstones, I actually liked anything with them in and this Christmas film was no exception. I could watch it all year round.

This year I had another short list of Christmassy stories waiting to be read in December but as I spent the last week of November grounded at home nursing two sick toddlers, I had plenty of time and I already read one of them. So I don’t have many feisty reads left for December. I am hoping to find some more inspiration though. And if not, well, I shall be busy anyway with my brother coming over for over a month (yay!) and my parents also staying with us for the holidays.

Anyhow, the books I was saving for December were The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis and Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. The first one I have just read for the first time ever and I totally enjoyed it (review coming soon) and the second one will be a reread. Little Women was one of my favourite books when growing up and I haven’t read it in ages, so I am very looking forward to it. And that would be all!

Do you also have a reading list for Christmas time? Any favourite you read year after year?

Things I’ve learnt from The Well-Educated Mind (part 2)

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A couple of weeks ago I wrote this post on what I learnt from The Well-Educated Mind, by Susan Wise Bauer. In case you’ve never heard about this book before, it is a comprehensive guide to a classical self-education, complete with suggested readings for several genres. In my previous post I summarised the main ideas of the first part, Preparing for a Classical Education, and in this post I will discuss what I have learnt so far from the second part of the book, Jumping into the Great Conversation. This second part comprises six chapters, one per genre, but I am giving you an overall view of it rather than discuss it genre by genre. Perhaps I might do a series of posts in the future to discuss the key points of each genre – but first I’d have to read all six chapters in more depth, and not only skim through the sets of questions and reading lists.

The genres discussed in this new and expanded edition are novels, autobiographies, historical writing, plays (both drama and comedy), poetry, and science. The names of the chapters are so enthralling that I think it is worth it to copy them in here.

The Story of People: Reading through History with the Novel

The Story of Me: Autobiography and Memoir

The Story of the Past: The Tales of Historians (and Politicians)

The World Stage: Reading through history with Drama

History Refracted: The Poets and their Poems

The Cosmic Story: Understanding the Earth, the Skies, and Ourselves

Beautiful, aren’t they. But I didn’t copy them solely for the aesthetic value. Look at them again and you’ll quickly realise how they somehow relate to each other, they build onto one another. And that’s important.

There’s a reason why Susan Wise Bauer has chosen that order. In fact, there might two reasons if not more. First, because they go from difficult to more difficult to the most difficult, generally speaking. And that makes perfect sense. Just like you shouldn’t run a marathon without having trained a decent amount of time, one shouldn’t jump into a challenging, lengthy book without some proper training. And second, because indeed some genres are difficult to understand without some previous knowledge. Take for example historical dramas; they cannot be fully appreciated without some historical context. On the contrary, the novel, first genre on the list, needs little to nothing in order to be understood. It is fiction, after all.

And that would be my first lesson from this second part of the book: start easy and progress gently. No point in overdoing it, as that will only kill the spark. A second lesson somewhat related to what I have just said, was something that I already touched briefly on my previous post: read chronologically. That will definitely help to build a better sense of time and to see how literary works borrow from one another. Though I don’t think this is strictly necessary in the age of information, it might still be the most effective way to jump straight into the big conversation. After all, it is always easier to join a conversation at the beginning rather than in the middle when much has already been said.

Moving onto more practical matters, each of this chapters includes a set of question that one should ask him or herself as one progresses through the three stages of learning. These question are similar for all genres, though one or two might tackle the specifics of each genre. And of course, the way to dig into each genre will be different and Susan Wise Bauer offers a crash course on how to read these six different genres. Take for a example a novel and an autobiography; the authors have totally different purposes in mind – one might want to entertain while the other attempts to tell his or her truth – and their works cannot be assessed in the same way to determine whether the authors fulfilled that purpose or not.

I am copying here the set of questions included in the first chapter about the novel, which is probably the more general. I hope you can use it a reference for your future readings.

GRAMMAR-STAGE READING

  • Look at the title, cover and table of contents
  • Keep a list of characters as you read
  • Briefly not the main event of each chapter
  • Make initial notes on passages that seem interesting
  • Give the book your own title and subtitle

LOGIC-STAGE READING

  • Is it a “fable” or a “chronicle”?
  • What does the central character (or characters) want? What is standing in his or her way? And what strategy does he or she pursue in order to overcome this block?
  • Who is telling you this story?
  • Where is the story set?
  • What style does the writer employ?
  • Images and metaphors
  • Beginnings and endings

RHETORIC-STAGE READING

  • Do you sympathize with the characters? Which ones, and why?
  • Does the writer’s technique give you a clue as to her “argument” – her take on the human condition?
  • Is the novel self-reflective?
  • Did the writer’s times affect him or her?
  • Is there an argument in this book?
  • Do you agree?

 

As you can see, the questions and tasks are organised in three stages, which ideally would correspond to the three necessary readings to grasps as much as possible from a book. The first third of questions mostly will have you looking at the book and inquiring how it is organized and what does it tell. The second third of questions will make you reflect on what has been said and how it has been said; and the final questions will have you thinking on why the author has used that particular style to convey his or her message and to assess whether he or she has fulfilled the purpose of the narrative.

All chapters in this section are organised as it follows: a brief explanation of the genre and why its matter, a concise history of its most important developments and a set of questions to help you get the most of each reading. After that, Susan Wise Bauer offers a list of suggested reading. Some of the books in the lists are classics and some aren’t, some are timeless and others not. But altogether they represent the historical evolutions of said genre and some might have had a great influence on some generations and even shaped certain historical events. But Susan Wise Bauer even acknowledges that her lists are in no way universal; they only attempt to take the reader on a journey of the history of the genre and to serve him or her as an entry door into said genre. It is up to the reader to decide what to read and what not and to expand these lists in any way that he or she might find interesting. And that would be my final lesson from The Well-Educated Mind, a list is just a list. So feel free to adapt these lists to your purposes and tastes, give or take as many books as you consider necessary, or start your own lists from scratch. In the end, what matters is that this journey of classical self-education matters to you, that the learning you are doing is meaningful to you.

 

I hope you have enjoyed this post and learnt something from it. You can read the previous post on TWEM here.

If you have read The Well-Educated Mind or are working your way through the lists, I’d love to hear about your experience and what you’ve taken from it. If you want some further inspiration into this classical education journey, one great blog to follow is A Great Book Study, by Ruth – she almost halfway through and has read the novels and autobiographies; you can find reviews of everything she’s read in her blog.

 

Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

I remember that Little House of the Prairie was a very popular tv series in Spain back in 90s. I think it was broadcast every morning summer after summer. And I never watched a single episode. So I was totally clueless about its plot, characters or anything about it really. The only thing I knew about it – and I obviously learnt this rather recently – is that it was Amy Farrah Fowler’s favourite tv show. Amy Farrah Fowler of The Big Bang Theory, that’s it.

It might have had something to do with TBBT being my fave tv sitcom or with the fact that I have been reading much praise about this book series in many homeschooling blogs recently, but the thing is that when I saw this cute little book in my local bookshop a few months ago I couldn’t help myself and bought it. I thought it would make for a light read that I could enjoy in between all the big books and reread later with my children.  That’s one great thing about having children. One can go back to children classics and buy tons of children books without feeling any guilt.

So, a few weeks ago we went for a long weekend to the mountains and I thought that would be the perfect time to read this beloved American classic for children. And let me tell, it was grand! This is a story of a time long gone, when people lived and worked from sun to sun and still had time for each other – to engage in meaningful conversations, to play outside, to do crafts or play the fiddle in the evening by the fire. Life was busy, but not hectic; simple but not dull. So no better place and time to read this than on a cold autumn evening in cosy house in the mountains while the children play nearby the hearth. Not really, they were watching Disney Chanel.

Little House of the Prairie tells the adventures of the Ingalls family as they move west and become pioneers in a vast land with few (white) people but full of wild beasts and Indians. They built their own house there with nothing but wood, they cooked their food from scratch with as little as corn meal and some meat, they dig a well, kept a small farm and tended their own crops. They had plenty to keep them busy and to make them tired and grumpy. And yet they were content, even satisfied. Oh, how I wish I could live in a more simple age when one would labour for their food and mind their own affairs. There’s so much we could learn from the resilience of the pioneers.

The Little House series, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, is a semi-autobiographical account of her life with her family as they moved from one place to another in the US and settled into their new life as pioneers in the West. The series sees Laura going from small child to teenager and then to adult, it even follows into her marriage and subsequent life as a wife and mother. The Little House in the Prairie is the second book in the series and fictional Laura is around six years old at the time. Then she lived and travelled with Pa, Ma, her older sister Mary and baby sister Carrie.

I truly enjoyed this book, in spite of being a children book. Yes, its argument is simple and not without flaws – like, why do the Ingalls family leave their new home and farm in such a rush at the end of the book? – and the writing is plain. Yet, it is beautiful and clear and there are enough adventures to keep children entertained. The descriptions of the daily chores and big projects and lengthy and detailed but they’re a joy to read. And the most enthralling aspect for me was the insight into the hard and yet uncomplicated pioneer life. It made me yearn for an uncluttered and predictable routine, for a more simple life.

Two aspects that caught my attention were the racists comments and the importance of Pa’s gun throughout the book. I think that this story – along with many others – sheds some light into the complex American mentality: their defence of freedom, their need for arms, their self-reliance and pride in their pioneer past.

Racism has been apparently an issue with modern readers and I totally understand their concern regarding young readers. But as a literary work, I think it would be wrong to censor this book because of its racist ideas. After all, they’re just a reflection of that age and they still worked well by the time these books were written. Things would be written differently today – they are being written and filmed and painted different today – but I personally think it would be just wrong to wipe out those ideas. Any story about that pioneer time depicting the White Man as a good friend to the Indian would be just a fiction. And an incongruent one.  Besides, being honest about our past can only help to better understand our mistakes and try to prevent them from happening again.

And about guns … well, I’m European, so for me it is really hard to understand that old-fashioned mindset that the defends the right of every citizen to possess firearms for personal defence. The Second Amendment and all. But seeing how Laura noticed her Pa’s gun (she first talks about it in the first chapter and hardly a chapter goes when she doesn’t mention it) helps me understand how guns were a key element for survival back then. They needed to kill their own food and to protect their families and houses from all sorts of dangers. But that was then, when Indians were thought a menace and wolves, panthers and all sort of beasts lurked around the vast prairies. There’s little left of those perils in our comfortable 21st century cities. And that’s why I struggle to understand that stubbornness to keep fire guns in almost every home. However, after having read Little House on the Prairie, I understand how this right has always been part of the American identity and perhaps these narratives help to ingrain that idea in today’s American collective mentality. Still it seems odd to me. And outdated.

Anyhow, I can only recommend Little House on the Prairie. It is a heart-warming book about a loving family and I can’t wait to find out more about the Ingalls family.

Have you read the Little House books? Did you enjoy them? And the tv series?

The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde

Ah look at that card! I got it a few years ago when I lived in Dublin at The Little Museum of Dublin. For free! The Little Museum of Dublin is a little museum housed on a beautiful Georgian house in Stephen’s Greens that goes through the most recent history of Dublin, say from the the 19th century onwards. It displays a most eclectic collection of gadgets, ranging from old, old papers to U2 vinyl plates. And best of all, this collection has been assembled thanks to the donations of hundreds or thousands of Dubliners. But enough about The Little Museum of Dublin – today I meant to write  brief review of The Importance of Being Earnest. And If you take a closer look at the picture you can see that the quote on the card comes directly from that play by Oscar Wilde And either he liked that line very much or the reference on the card is wrong. Things that happen …

The Importance of Being Earnest is the last play written by Oscar Wilde and probably the most famous. He wrote it in 1894 and it was first acted in 1895 with great success. Unfortunately, it was this very spectacular success what somewhat precipitated Wilde’s downfall. But I won’t go into much detail here. I rather focus on the play itself, which really is as spectacular as its success.

The Importance of Being Earnest is an absurd play that mocks many of the conventions of Victorian society, particularly the institution of marriage and its predecessors, courting and engagement.

“LANE I have often observed that in married households the champagne is rarely of a first-rate brand.

ALGERNON Good Heavens! Is marriage so demoralizing as that?” (Act 1)

That dialogue, already on the first page, really gives you a taste of what’s to come.

Algernon and Jack are two bachelors who have come up with an imaginary person to help them escape from the routines of their lives. Algernon has even coined the term ‘bunburying’, after his very own invention Bunbury – an old sick man who often requires him by his death bed – to explain this double life of his. Both Algernon and Jack pretend to be called Ernest and it is being Ernest, though not earnest, what grants them the attention, though perhaps not the affection, of Cecily and Gwendolen respectively. Lady Brackwell, however, opposes to those matches at first but the situation will ease up at the end of the play after several misunderstandings and many absurd situations.

“In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.” (Act 3)

The Importance of Being Earnest is a play about play. Seemingly unrespectable gentlemen lead a double life and yet they come out of it in a respectable fashion and engaged to the women they ‘love’. It is all about appearances and the shallowness of the society of that time. And eventually, any mockery or criticism to the Victorian society is diluted and lost amid that same shallowness. Because when every character of the play is being absurd, saying pun after pun, it is difficult to take any of it seriously. And that totally makes sense; after all the play subtitle is A Trivial Comedy for Serious People. And as Lady Brackwell says, “we live, I regret to say, in an age of surfaces.” (Act 3)

And in the end, this is all there is, both in earnest and in play. Both in Victorian England and in the 21st century.

Have you read The Importance of Being Earnest? Did you enjoy?

This one wasn’t part of my list for The Classics Club but I’m considering adding an extra section with classics that weren’t on my original list but that I have read while completing this challenge. And this one makes for a particular good case, as I had another work by Oscar Wilde in my original list (The Picture of Dorian Grey).

The Return of the King, by J.R.R. Tolkien

“I am glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things, Sam.”

And so it is that I have finally finished reading Tolkien’s masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings, and I, too, am glad to be with Sam, Frodo, and company at the end of it. But particularly glad to be with Sam, the real hero of this epic. I have long been fond of Sam, ever since I saw the films, and reading the books has only deepened my appreciation of him. He’s probably the most humble of all hobbits, only a gardener who somehow gets tangled up in this unexpected and dangerous adventure. It is only his loyalty to his master Frodo that pushes him forward, the simply gardener, and yet he is full of hope and cheerfulness even in the darkest of hours and is able to find the courage in himself to see this whole enterprise through, even when everyone else is feeling defeated. This is Sam in a nutshell, Sam Gamgee, briefly a bearer of the Ring and largely a hero.

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The Return of the King is the third part of Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings. This had been on my reading list for way too long and I am happy to say that I finally read it. And loved it. The Return of the King comprises books five and six of The Lord of the Ring (weird, I know) which follow the adventures of Aragorn, Gandalf, Merry, Pippin and co. and the final moments of Frodo’s quest, respectively. As most of you will probably know the story and how it ends by now, I don’t really have that much to add by now. You can read my reviews of The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers if you want to find out more about it.

The Return of the King is the shortest of all three volumes, although it is the heftier book of all three, as it has many appendices that include chronologies and genealogies of the kings of old, thus offering a broader view into Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. Funnily enough, the epic adventure is over way before the book is finished – in my copy there were still a hundred pages left after the Ring was finally destroyed. Which is something that doesn’t normally happen in a book – or film, for that matter. It is hardly the case that we get to glimpse what happens into the characters’ lives after the happy ending but Tolkien does that. We get to know that Faramir falls in love, that Aragorn marries, that Gimli and Legolas tour part of the Middle-Earth together, that Galadriel departs, that the hobbits have one last mess to clear before they settle back into their quiet Shire, and some more. Perhaps this is yet another beautiful lesson by Tolkien, that the ending is never truly the end but a beginning of sorts.

While I loved the trilogy as a whole, I must say that The Return of the King is probably my least favourite book of all three – again, funny, as it is probably my favourite of all three films by Peter Jackson. For most of it I had the feeling that Tolkien was more concerned with teaching a geography lesson about Middle-Earth than with tying all loose ends and bringing this adventure to a close. Also, I think that the writing wasn’t as brilliant as it is in other parts, particularly those plagued with poems, songs and riddles. This is especially true in the middle section, when Minas Tirith is busy fighting back the enemy and when Frodo and Sam finally reach their fateful end. The writing in those section is much plainer than in the rest of the book (or in The Hobbit); there are many sentences joined simply by and and many propositions within one sentence all joined by and, as well. But it’s not too bad and I guess it serves a purpose, for the prose in those chapters sounds more epical, even biblical.

Well, I think this is the end of it for now. I am sure I will reread it some time and I will have more to say. But for now, this is all. But as Gandalf says, “go in peace! I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.”