Around 600 characters, including roughly 160 historical figures.
Let’s talk about War and Peace.
This book is about a young woman who decides to become a governess and finds the job a lot tougher than she had anticipated. The children refuse to listen to her, their parents blame her for their offspring’s terrible behaviour, and she finds herself increasingly frustrated by the thanklessness of her work.
I’m the same age now as Anne Brontë was when she wrote this book and as an English teacher, a lot of Agnes’s troubles hit home for me. Some struggles are timeless, it seems.
I should probably come right out and say that I did not grow up with A Christmas Carol. In my defense, I am neither British nor American; the story is not as culturally significant in the Netherlands as it is in other parts of the world. Until very recently, my only exposure to the story had been through snippets of the Muppets, Blackadder, and Scrooged. I had some vague idea of the plot and its characters, but I had never seen a full movie adaptation, let alone read the book. Every year I told myself that I would finally pick it up and read it for myself, and every year I either forgot or decided to read other holiday books instead (last year’s pick: Hogfather).
I think I knew that this book would be almost impossible to review. It is the quintessential Christmas read, has been adapted a billion times into other media, and has an iron-clad place in Anglo-American culture. It’s like trying to come up with a fresh perspective on Hamlet; everything has already been said – and probably much better by people much cleverer than you.
So… No pressure.
Far From The Madding Crowd has everything I have come to expect from a Thomas Hardy novel: farming, dead babies, tragic love affairs that come to a bloody end… Everything on the Thomas Hardy bingo card, really. After Tess of the d’Urbervilles (review here), Under The Greenwood Tree, and a number of short stories, I felt more than adequately prepared for the task. I let myself get sucked into the drama, but the whole time, I was on my guard. After all, the mortality rate is high in Wessex. Bathsheba Everdene had all the makings of a tragic heroine and I was waiting for her to meet her horrible fate. However, not only does she live to tell the tale, but she ends up married to the man we knew was right for her all along.
Was Hardy more optimistic here than in his later years? Or is this not such a happy ending after all?
Disney lied to us.
Let me specify.
You probably guessed that Victor Hugo’s novel does not have dancing gargoyles or Wizard of Oz references, but it goes much deeper than that. In fact, we can trace its primary misdirection back to whoever first decided on the English translation of the title of the book: The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. This implies that the main character of the story is Quasimodo, the misformed outcast with a heart of gold who longs to spend oooone daaay ooouuut theeeeere. However, Hugo’s original French title is much more accurate: Notre-Dame de Paris. The focus of the novel is on its setting rather than its protagonists – we follow a cast of characters, but in the end, all roads lead to the cathedral.