Sickle and circular

What a beautifully fresh alliteration for the usual 'wax and wane' of the moon. 'He saw the moon sickle and then circular.'   Source: Virginia Woolf, Orlando: A Biography, ed. with an introduction by Rachel Bowlby (Oxford: World's Classics, 1992), p....

Time of the mind

Time and our perceptions of it fascinate me.  Here Orlando comments on its strange elasticity inside the mind. Indeed in need of further investigation. 'The mind of man, moreover, works with equal strangeness upon the body of time.  An hour, once it lodges...

A comprehensive indictment

Orlando's elaborate life includes a depressing barrage of lawsuits as conflicting as they are outrageous.  While the law trundles through its processes, she is allowed to retire to her estates and live incognito and in limbo between being male or female on...

Of signs, sympathies and presentiments

Still unravelling the mystery on this one, and enjoy the playfulness and acuity with which we appear to 'pick up' signals when in fact we may be intuitively choosing to see something as a form of subtle self-guidance. Another mystery is the degree to which Jane Eyre's...

Who loves you best, whom you love best …

The sweet playfulness of Jane's relationship with Rochester, and, finally, the happy ending.   'That depends on circumstances, sir - on your choice.' 'Which you shall make for me, Jane.  I will abide by your decision.' 'Choose then, sir - her who...

Busy busy busy

One of the inconsequential but socially better placed characters Jane has to endure, at least until she finds her heart's home.   'Eliza still spoke little: she had evidently no time to talk.  I never saw a busier person than she seemed to be; yet it...

 

One breaks into the canon only by aesthetic strength, which is constituted primarily of an amalgam: mastery of figurative language, originality, cognitive power, knowledge, exuberance of diction.  

Source: The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, Harold Bloom (London: Macmillan, 1995), p. 29

A wanderer

Jane's days in the wilderness are terrifying, taking her close to 'death's door'.   The first refuge she finds from wandering later proves to include another trap, and so she sets off again. But she finds it.  Finds her place on this earth. And so stops...

A plain without bounds

Again, a reference to a cramped and constraining existence and her desperate need to escape its shackles.   I had remembered the passionate relationship with Mr. Rochester but had forgotten the other attempt to bind her, when her Puritanical cousin...

Of frantic birds and free human beings

A withering riposte to any attempt at ensnarement or wing-clipping.  Mr. Rochester tries to bind Jane to him but soon learns that nothing will drive her away faster.   'Jane, be still; don't struggle so, like a wild frantic bird that is rending its...

Enlarging your destiny

The touching, palpable sense of expansion and hope that comes of being treated with respect and affection.  This is a powerful and recurring theme: the need for freedom and being loved strongly and simply and for yourself.   'My thin crescent-destiny...

Gasping for freedom

The departure of the one kind person in the orphanage where she has spent more than half her young life, triggers - in a single afternoon - Jane's realisation that she can no longer stay there. She immediately sets about planning her escape, seeking and...

Of the unspoken

A short and thoughtful statement.  He doesn't elaborate and it is hard to know what drew him to this conclusion.  Given how much religion is spoken, it's an interesting comment. 'What is religion?  That which is never spoken.'  18 August 1858  ...

Wrong by a jugful

A charming way to say that someone is seriously wrong - not right by a jugful.  I will try to slip this into my daily speech and see if anyone notices. '... he says that his account is not right by a jugful, that he does not come within half a mile of the...

Studying the ways of men

So that's the secret of the fox's cunning - they hide out of sight and study us!  Thoreau has dozens of these tiny observations about animals.See also Mervyn Peake's foxy simile.'Farmer said yesterday that he thought foxes did not live so much in the depth...

The past as a concertina of time

I collect comments on and perceptions of time.  This one is striking and I am as guilty of it as anybody.  While we allow significant differences between recent centuries (the 18th century being Very Different from the 20th) we readily assume that the...

Which would you choose?

I would be hard put to choose but I think I would opt to leave behind a wall where peaches ripen.  And certainly better to go unknown than to burn like a meteor. 'Better was it to go unknown and leave behind you an arch, a potting shed, a wall where...

Trust in dogs and roses

When humans fail you, dogs and roses remain, which has the advantage of simplifying the business of living and stripping it down to a couple of reliable essentials. See the full quotation below. 'Two things alone remained to him in which he now put any...

Of newt’s slobber and peacock’s gall

A high opinion of doctors, clearly.  I loved this scattergun approach to diagnosis and treatment: throw the whole therapeutic cabinet at your patient and see if something sticks - see the full quotation below. All this is due to their bafflement at...

People to go with the furniture

Orlando goes on a massive interior design spree, lavishing huge expense on new furniture and other luxuries for the 365 room sprawl that is his-her ancestral pile. Then she notices something is missing: people to sit or lie in them. 'Chairs and tables,...

Affluence of life and certainty of flow

How about that for a well-wishing phrase to fling into the world!  May you enjoy both affluence of life and certainty of flow, as the strong, fine, kind Diana does.   One of the most attractive characters in this book. Shame about the brother, though he...

Heart and soul

As we begin to grapple with the implications of artificial intelligence and robots, this allusion more than 150 years ago to an automaton and machine without feelings is striking. And, yet again, Jane cannot prevent herself confronting her interlocutor...

Of original, vigorous and expanded minds

A wonderful description of how Jane's potential to blossom intellectually and emotionally is triggered by her relationship with Mr. Rochester.  Both of them defy the conventions of their time and she, having far fewer resources to draw on both financially...

Of freedom and flight

Again, Mr. Rochester has to face the fact that the more he tries to bind Jane to him, the more he drives her away, though he has no idea to what degree.  See also 'Of frantic birds and free humans'.   'Of yourself you could come with soft flight and...

Upright and unflinching

A touching and imaginative fictional description of the complexity of Elizabeth I (r. 1558-1603).  Orlando is a young boy of about 16 when he meets her, by then an elderly queen. I like the word 'caparisoned' to convey her always glorious power-dressing,...

No plebeians here

How noble can you get?  Most aristos trace back to some humble origin until they got a knighthood or some such for pleasing their king and master.  But Orlando's, no, they came out of the mists their coronets already in place. 'His fathers had been noble...

The vegetables of another age

Something wonderfully down to earth about this quick survey of differences between us and the Elizabethans, particularly in that last flourish of differentiated veg. 'The age was Elizabethan; their morals were not ours; nor their poets; nor their climate;...

The elegant disposal of offensive documents

Remember this next time you receive an email or other document which offends you.  Simply summon the footman and have him file it appropriately.  And be sure to protect yourself from further contamination by the deft use of a pair of tongs. I looked long...

Hell and how to avoid it

Brontë's Jane Eyre plumbs depths of emotion both in the child and woman, but there is also a certain wry humour.  Here the tiny Jane, whose small body can barely contain her strong and uncrushable spirit, responds with astounding and refreshing logic,...

Shock and reverberation

Charlotte Brontë captures the lasting impression of fear and injustice, and the emotional outrage caused by both, in a child treated with cruelty.  Here the young Jane Eyre, poor cousin and ward of a hard-hearted distant aunt, is locked up in a dark and...

Of love and kindness

Jane Eyre boils down to two powerful essential needs: to give and receive love amply, and to have the liberty to determine how you live and think, and to do both in a generous, whole-hearted way. After being alternately neglected and tormented by her...

Pleasant things

Jane the young woman is now entering a milieu where her deprived childhood is in stark contrast with her employer's wealth.  She has just emerged from a Victorian penitentiary masquerading as a charity orphanage, where even adequate quantities of...

That grand old poem called Winter

To celebrate the winter solstice, a few crisp quotations.  I loved Thoreau's description of winter as an epic in blank verse, and his words are themselves a grand old poem.  Enjoy. 'That grand old poem called Winter ... What a poem!  an epic in blank verse, enriched...

Sign of the clime

A ready way to reckon with the weather, according to an old boy Thoreau knew.  Can't really go wrong with this formula. Old John Nutting used to say, "when it is cold it is a sign it's going to be warm," and "When it's warm it's a sign it's going to be cold."   22 Jan...

The great freeze of London

Virginia Woolf's Orlando gets under the skin of different moments in a 400 year stretch of English history.  Here she zooms in on the Great Frost of 1608, prising out of the ice images from an historical account given by Thomas Dekker of a rare winter when the Thames...

A poet’s sister or a sister poet?

In Dorothy Wordsworth's journals, you sense the extent to which she supported her brother's writing. Some things she records become material for his poems. She also reads aloud to him, including his own compositions, and copies out his poems. But beyond this, she has...

Need some negus?

A hot drink of port, sugar, lemon, and spice, named after a Colonel Francis Negus (d. 1732), who invented it.  In Dorothy Wordsworth's journal, it seems to have been used medicinally, along with broth.  A delicious sounding toddy for a miserable winter cold. 'We also...

How to win a train ticket to Tashkent

This vast novel, full of war and suffering, also has moments of levity.  Here we have someone refusing to curtail his right to say whatever he thinks about literature, life and politics, talking and arguing his way into being given a free train ticket. 'In 1926...

In praise of senseless, eternal kindness

Another plea by Grossman for uncomplicated, unplanned and even unwitnessed kindnesses, as opposed to those commandeered by ideologies.Whatever your beliefs, may you give and receive such random acts of kindness in equal measure.'The private kindness of one individual...

Of eyes that saw too much

This is part of a detailed, detached account of what happened when people entered a gas chamber, as experienced by Sofya, a Russian doctor in Grossman's 800 page novel of the Second World War in and around Russia. I found it moving that he focuses on her eyes, which...

Captain Grekov’s eyes

This is a memorable description of Captain Grekov, commander of House 6/1 in the rubble of Stalingrad, summing up so much of the man by the look in his eyes. See also in the same book a touching account of the eyes of a woman - with much of what they had seen in the...

The kernel of human kindness

Having been caught between the colliding tectonic plates of two totalitarian systems, it is easy to see how Grossman saw history not in terms of a matched battle between good and evil, but of a juggernaut trying to mow down seedlings of kindness. Despite - or because...

Kindness maketh man

What makes us human?  Simple kindness is a key element according to Grossman.  It depends partly on how you define 'human' of course, whether to describe a particular species, or in the sense that is redolent with tenderness, vulnerability, feeling, sensitivity. 'This...

An anatomy of anguish

This graphic and heart-rending typology of despair makes me conscious of having been mercifully spared much of anything that could be likened to despair.  Count your blessings, indeed. 'Abarchuk sighed.  ‘You know what, someone ought to write a treatise on despair in...

Love among the rubble

This refers to a love affair that burgeons in the grimness of Stalingrad, and I like how Grossman expands the spectrum to show that love can happen in the worst places, full of 'noise, stench and rubble'.  The photo by Angela Compagnone seemed the perfect backdrop for...

A thousand years of history

On the centenary of the October Revolution, I wonder how Russians today would feel about this terse statement by Grossman. 'Russia has seen many things during the one thousand years of its history. There is only one thing that Russia has not seen in one thousand years...

Communing with the cosmos

Glorious moment in this splendid, human novel: an army officer camped somewhere on the steppe enjoys a moment of embracing the magnificence of the night sky even while attending to more basic needs.  I liked the naturalness and philosophic communing with the cosmos in...

Good versus kind

The 800 pages of Grossman's splendid Life and Fate is occasionally interlarded with heartfelt asides by the author, including pleas for simple, spontaneous kindness as opposed to state-sponsored, ideologically gift-wrapped 'good' with a capital 'G'.  Sometimes he...

Like atoms of radium

A fine metaphor for dots of kindness shining through darkness; Grossman's hope for the future is largely vested in the fact that the great machinery of totalitarian brutality has failed to extinguish these random sparks of human warmth. 'Even at the most terrible...

Eighteenth century entitlement

The vivid and voluble Mrs Poyser chipping in with her endless fount of wisdom and human commentary.   I like this as an early expression of someone having a sense of entitlement, which is how I read it.  Mrs Poyser is a character I like very much, but I wouldn't want...

Love in hyperbolical peas

How to show your love for the prettiest girl in the dairy?   As a gardener, you obviously present your avowals through delicious strawberries and outstanding peas. Sadly for her later suffering, Hetty was unmoved, preferring more glamorous and glittering attentions....

Unpitying consequences

This moving and powerful novel is all about the dire consequences of flighty and initially apparently inconsequential decisions, snow-balling into terrible choices. I often wonder about the random effects of 'small' decisions.  You might decide to delay going out by...

Well-chiselled politeness

I'm all for politeness and things being well-chiselled, but this is a chilling form - impeccable yet indifferent as to whether it delivers sugar or venom. 'He always spoke in the same deliberate, well-chiselled, polite way, whether his words were sugary or venomous.'...

Hunger in the raw

This is one of the most graphic, disturbing descriptions of the effects of severe hunger I have seen, written by a man who witnessed it in extreme situations of war and death camps.  It makes a mockery of the common throw away line of 'I'm starving ...' when in fact...

Let’s begin with man

This 800 page riveting novel is in some senses one giant plea for simple, spontaneous, sincere kindness towards and between individuals.  Not as an ideology, but as a day to day modus operandi.  If you read Grossman, you will be more on your guard against ideologies,...

The three ‘S’s of happinesss

A dulcet and sibilant summary of the source of felicity.  Wishing you thrice times blessings of slumber, sunshine and sweets.  I wonder if the three things also begin with 'S' in the original Russian. One of the strengths of Grossman's massive, powerful masterpiece is...

Space for thought

I like the notion that a confined physical space need not impede vast thought.  It reminds me of an injunction I read decades ago, in which the headmaster of Joseph Needham, the great scholar of Chinese science and civilization, told the then schoolboy to 'Think...

Tenderness vs severity

This encouragement to err on the side of tenderness is typical of George Eliot, who quietly, gently pleads for greater kindness and humanity in our dealings with one another.  See other pleas for pity, compassion and tolerance, by Theodore Dreiser and John...

Gladness and despair

A finely phrased evocation of the twin elements of human experience of time, every new morning or moment heralding good or bad for somebody somewhere.  We can only work towards increasing and making the most of 'new forces' for gladness, genius and love. 'For there is...

Defining moments

It has always interested me how life can turn on a sixpence, for better and worst.  Adam Bede is one of the finest English novels, and it has a number of moments when events take a fateful turn.  Here we have Adam recalling - all his life - exactly where he was and...

Living like pigs

With all due respect to our porcine friends, I loved this line by the competent, demanding and house proud farmer's wife, Mrs Poyser, who keeps her 18th century home and dairy buildings spic and span, laying into the housemaids for their slatternly ways.  However,...

Dogs of war

How clever these creatures, able to distinguish between the sound of planes that unleash havoc and so should be hidden from, and those that simply fly over to unleash havoc elsewhere. ‘I don’t know … Take dogs, for example – they can tell different planes apart.  When...

Birds of war

The more I learn about birds, the more that 'bird brain' seems a misnomer.  Here they are in a war zone, imitating the whistle of bullets so accurately as to put experienced soldiers on the alert. ‘Once there was a terrible whistling right over our heads, but we...

Street dogs

I love dogs and the towns owned by them, always feeling reassured when you see dogs confidently, busily and independently trotting about the streets, checking that all is in order.  And this description of them as moving about 'like businessmen'! I have a theory that...

Of no human agency or purpose

Ever had that grim feeling as you drive through some urban bleakscape? Utility and ugliness both begin with 'u' but they don't need to be synonymous.  I coined the term 'beautility' to capture the meeting point of beauty and utility.  You'll see this propounded...

Wine-tasting à l’aristocrat

One of the charms of Brideshead is the free run the two young men occasionally enjoy of this vast, rambling pile, including its copious wine supply.  Left to their own devices, they decide to 'study' wine-tasting, following the book until it all becomes a blur. This...

Picking up bear habits

Aloysius must be one of the most famous bears in literature (apart from Winnie the Pooh) although Sebastian's curious relationship with him is never explained. After throwing up through Ryder's window, Sebastian sends a note saying that unless he is permitted to make...

Will to live or fear of death?

This refers to the looming death of the Brideshead patriarch, surrounded by his family. I was struck by the implication that the will to live gives strength, while the fear of death drains it. If you extend that, it might suggest that people are more motivated by...

Evidence of life?

This response by Charles Ryder to his wife's question is striking.  While change is inevitable, I am not sure it is 'evidence of life'.  The dead also change. Yet given the state of his marriage when his wife posed the question, and the about-to-bloom love with Julia,...

Maps for all comers

I wonder if such a mecca of maps exists?  A map for all seasons, all reasons.  Maps for thieves to find targets and for the police to find thieves. 'He sold maps to poets that showed where thoughts of power and clarity had come to other poets.  He sold well-digging...

Maps imagined

I love maps and regularly buy them. Here you have a map inside the map-seller's mind, drawing on his knowledge of the world and its ways. If only one could buy some of these maps, such as 'journeys to hidden sources of wisdom'. 'He would close his eyes, seeing clear...

Hello for the first time and goodbye for the last

This beautiful, gentle woman provides a haven to one of the protagonists.  A father finding himself, a son finding his father, and maps and lions in between. ‘You make love as if you’re saying hello for the first time and goodbye for the last.’   Source: Russell...

Where place and time meet

Russell Hoban's is one of the most imaginative, limpid novels I have ever read.  Maps loom large in it, real and imagined.  I loved this meeting of time and place.  See you there? "‘There is only one place,’ he said, ‘that place is time, and that time is now.  There...

The root of all wisdom

This is surely the crux of Brideshead Revisited and its most arresting, limpid quotation. It comes quite early in the book and it takes until the closing pages to see what that involves. And this in a book where love is thwarted. This was my first reading of...

Glee between two leaves

Ryder's father seems to have a quiet, relentless sadism about him, positively enjoying any discomfiture he can inflict on his son.  He's awful. 'I had not seen my father so gleeful since he found two pages of second-century papyrus between the leaves of a Lombardic...

Long range planning

When I look at old or ancient things which we still cherish, I sometimes ask what we are creating today that will endure, not just materially, but in terms of holding value for future generations. This quotation takes that question a step further; not just what are we...

The power of a name

One of the finest devices of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited is the flashback from present war to past Arcadia.  When Captain Ryder finds himself billeted to Brideshead, his past rises before him like a morning mist.  Names, of people or places, can evoke powerful...

Make way for others

This made me laugh but sadly, Thoreau didn't record the response of Dr. Bartlett when his kind invitation was declined.  I wonder if there are any statues of Thoreau anywhere, because he would not have approved if so. So, make the most of your time here, and then make...

The liberating influence of a river

I like the idea of a river's motion and indefinite length as being liberating.  But I'm pondering corresponding aspects of a lake that might also be liberating: the lack of motion allowing you to float on its surface looking up at the sky? Clearly, we need an essay on...

Joining thought to thought

Thoreau is a vigorous soul and I found it refreshing that he associates vigour with connected thought.  As you see from the second quotation below, thinking a thought about life and getting it expressed is a Herculean labour. 'No exercise implies more real manhood and...

My kind of uncle

Wouldn't you love an uncle who could walk up and down both sides of a straight ladder, especially the part about walking down the other side facing away from the ladder, kicking the steps behind him?  That sounds like a Jacques Tati kind of uncle. 'Hosmer says that a...

Dumb as …

Thoreau doesn't seem to have had a particularly harmonious relationship with formal religion, and he makes some side-swiping comments about the church and its representatives, while also being an immensely reverent - and in that sense - religious person. 'I see...

The lovable vigour of weeds

Yes, I know what he means.  I'm becoming increasingly tolerant of weeds and have started protecting and even nurturing some. As a result, our lawn is taking on the character of a wild flower meadow, and this week I was heartened to see the first invasion of cow...

Me too

And sometimes I'm not even sure I know what I think because it's been so long since I was invited to express it. 'I am surprised as well as delighted when any one wishes to know what I think.'  23 Mar 1853 Source: Henry David Thoreau, The Journal 1837-1861, Damion...

A straight-cut ditch or a meandering brook

Thoreau's comment about education will resonate today with many teachers and students, but I am glad he included the word 'often'.  There are many teachers who have (or create) the freedom to turn meandering brooks not into straight-cut ditches but into expanding...

The heart of a rock

Having commented on the inaccessibility of rocks to the human spirit, Thoreau points out how much softer they can be than stony-spirited humans.  I smiled when I read that he would escape from hard, insensible men to go and commune with (relatively) soft-hearted...

It is hard to know rocks

I don't know rocks, but I do appreciate stone and am forever finding marvelous pebbles.  I've started using them in plant pots to cover the exposed earth; it reduces evaporation and therefore watering, but just as importantly, it looks beautiful.  Sometimes when a...

What was Nature thinking of?

Another of Thoreau's amazing fungus finds, only this one comes back to haunt him.  Installed in his house it reeks the place out, filling it with the heady vapours of dead rats.  As for his comment on nature, I hope it makes you laugh too. See also his parading a...

The fungus and the toadstool

Thoreau has a habit of bringing interesting things home from his walks the better to observe them. Twigs, fungi, animals (which he usually releases).  Two examples of his fungus-gathering made me laugh. This one, he takes out into the village, like parading a new dog,...

Watermelon casks

We were working our way through a watermelon even as I came across this quotation.  Never thought of them as rolling casks.  A little heavy to carry of course, but if you only have get them as far as your boat, and can then rest them there until you reach your picnic...

Benign in his bowels

Don't worry, this is just a metaphor for people who are cloyingly, invasively kind and try to absorb you into their world.  This amazing tirade, which takes up half a page, firmly rejects those who are overly friendly and solicitous, with a touch of condescension in...

Don’t try this trick at home

What a joy to read this sentence; there is no limit to the detail and originality of Thoreau's observations. 'A turtle walking is as if a man were to try to walk by sticking his legs and arms merely out of the windows.'  27 May 1853   Source: Henry David Thoreau,...

As dumb as putty

Good we now have another way to tell someone they're dumb - please feel free to revive this fine phrasing next time you need to point out stupidity (your own is also acceptable). But how many inventive phrases get lost because there isn't an all-noting, all recording...

Towing a sinking ship with a canoe

A clear portrayal of something being unequal to the task, Thoreau uses this maritime metaphor to describe words which strike him as inauthentic, being only half justified or improved by some modifier ('church' made true by calling it 'true church' - he doesn't...

Not long to wait, then

At last, we learn that an explanation is on the way.  And the day after never isn't far off, now, is it? I'm sure it'll be worth the wait.  Meanwhile, I'll just keep asking the question. 'The day after never, we shall have an explanation.'  8 November 1857  ...

As much as if I were a cow

Wonderful character this Henry David, he gets excited when he reads of the 'Land of Grass' and then comments on how curious this is.  The image of a cow reading about the Land of Grass is also delightful. You can imagine it calling its travel agent and booking a one...

Death and funerals

Thoreau's tricky relationship with the Church is neatly and humorously summed up here. 'If it were not for death and funerals, I think the institution of the Church would not stand longer.'  15 November 1851   Source: Henry David Thoreau, The Journal 1837-1861,...

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