The Christmas Books of Charles Dickens

The first of Dickens's Christmas books, 'A Christmas Carol', is one of its illustrious author's best known works, famous from the time of its first publication at Christmas time in 1843, and in dramatised form still today a staple of Christmas entertainment on  Australian television.  But it is one of five Christmas books that Dickens published for the Christmas market between 1843 and 1848.  All are novellas, each reaching to approximately seventy pages of small type in the 'Collins Classics' edition.  They have certain similarities - in all of them a major figure (though not always the main protagonist) undergoes a change of character which makes him a better man.  But perhaps the dissimilarities between them, in what they aim to do and their success in achieving it, are even greater.  They are not all set at Christmas time, and it is arguably only in 'A Christmas Carol' that Christmas itself is central.

The story of how Ebenezer Scrooge is visited on Christmas Eve by the ghost of his former partner, Jacob Marley, and by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come, and changes as a result from being one of the meanest and most unsociable of men into a generous and gregarious enthusiast for the Christmas season, does not need to be summarised in detail.  It is of course a fantasy, hardly convincing in psychological terms, but to criticise it in such terms would be equivalent to finding fault with Santa Claus or with Christmas dinner.  The story has established itself as a part of  the celebration of Christmas, and despite elements of sentimentality, particularly associated with Tiny Tim the crippled boy, it is emotionally very satisfying.

Dickens hoped to repeat its success at Christmas 1844, and he apparently believed that 'The Chimes', published that year, was a finer work.  This was not the view of his contemporaries, and it would be hard not to share some of their probable misgivings.  In this story it is Toby Veck, a poor but warm hearted porter who undergoes a nightmarish vision, brought on by the church bells under whose shadow he waits for work (and by consuming part of a dish of tripe!).  The goblins of the bells sternly rebuke Toby, but the language in which they do so is highly convuluted, and the reason why Toby deserves their censure is very hard to discern.  It seems to be that he is too readily discouraged by the disparaging remarks of those who consider themselves his social superiors. The tale is melodramatic, the language somewhat prolix, and the plot emotionally rather unsatisfying.  Several  upper-middle-class characters suffer no hardships despite their appalling smugness and inhumanity, though it must be said that the satire directed at them by the author is biting, and aroused unease in some of Dickens's contemporaries. In one sense 'The Chimes' does balance 'A Christmas Carol': it is a story of New Year, though it does not mention Christmas.

The 1845 Christmas book 'The Cricket on the Hearth' was more successful in its time, and dramatised versions of it were popular throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. Again a mean spirted miser is tranformed, though this is not the major theme.  The action takes place in late January.  Central to it is the dilemma faced by John Peerybingle, a poor but honest carrier, who comes mistakenly to believe that his wife Mary, actually a paragon of all humble female virtue, is being unfaithful to him.  Like all the Christmas books this does of course end happily.  The verbosity of the style, and the extreme element of melodrama, are likely to deter modern readers, but it is probably the unrelenting and utterly unrestrained sentimentality that they will find most off-putting.  The book may have something to tell us about early Victorian tastes, and about Dickens himself, but it is hard to imagine even the more uncritical readers of modern tabloids reading this with any pleasure.

'The Battle of Life', the 1846 book, is probably the least known of the Christmas books, but initially at least this reader found some relief in its cheerfulness after the relentless mawkishness of the previous story.  It also seems to be a promising mystery story, the only one of the five devoid of any supernatural element (though that element is minor in 'The Cricket on the Hearth').  Marion Jeddler, a seemingly happy and vivacious young women, disappears during a Christmas party held to welcome back the young doctor who loves her and whom she is expected to marry.  Her whereabouts are a mystery for several years, during which her older sister marries the doctor and becomes a mother. Marion  then reappears and all becomes clear: she has left the scene out of affection for her sister, and despite her love for the doctor, convinced that what in fact happened would take place. The reunion scene is played for all it is worth in terms of melodrama and sentimentality, but it is hard to imagine that the resolution of the mystery has ever seemed very satisfying

The final book, 'The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain', is a grim, slow-moving piece, set at Christmas time.  A lonely scholar, Mr Redlaw, who has suffered some vaguely explained misfortunes and disappointments, is visited by a spirit who gives him the 'gift' of forgetting the past, and the associated ability, or curse, of passing it on to almost all whom he encounters.  The result is that people become hard-hearted and cruel, sometimes somewhat comically so.  The curse is lifted by yet another Dickension paragon of humble female virtue, Molly Swidger, and the story ends with a happy Christmas celebration.  The element of melodrama is again striking.

Posterity has come to regard 'A Christmas Carol' as one of the finest novellas in English, and largely forgotten its four companion pieces.  This reader would have to conclude that he sees little injustice in this.  The four later books are of some interest as works from their time, though even then they were not resounding successes.  Their slow pace, extreme melodrama, and unrestrained sentimentality make them tough reading today.

"The Road to Wigan Pier" by George Orwell

George Orwell wrote this work in 1936 following an investigative tour of several Lancashire and Yorkshire mining centres - villages and towns - still suffering unemployment, dire poverty and   the effects of the Great  Depression.  He set out to research the living conditions of these places following a specific commissioning from Victor Gollancz , the left wing publisher of the day.  What we have got as a result of this journey and research is a strong work in Orwell's  brilliant clear prose of the conditions of the working coal mine along with aching portrayals of the  living conditions of the workers and their families and a personal, clear polemic  essay to support this research. The book, then  is in two main parts  1) portrayal in brilliant clarity of the lives of real people from observation , involvement and interview  backed up by actual data on wages, cost of living etc from the mine records and other records in the local library and 2) a strong and  intellectual essay on the state of social and political  England -   with the first part informing the personal  opinion essay of the second part.

The  style of the first section is investigative journalism at its very best  - the blueprint in fact. Orwell visited miners homes and talked with the families, he went down the coal mines and observed the workers at first hand and presented us with unforgettable descriptions of the way these mines were worked at that time  - conditions which I am sure were similar in Australia. He noted the deprivations of the unemployed and the underemployed in those hard time and recorded it clearly and with no nonsense humanity. A most startling fact of the mining occupation was that the miners worked  on their knees doing their picking and "filling" because of the low height of the mine roofs . A man could not stand up there. Orwell doesn't dwell sentimentally on this fact - on the contrary his description of the physical strength and ability of the mine worker is  discussed with admiration. We learn that these miners were usually of small stature because a taller person such a Orwell himself just could not manage to do the work. He is admiring of the miners lean , strong physiques and their  resilience.

Along with this description of working miners Orwell spends time observing the unemployed such as when competing for waste coal  called "scrambling for the coal" . He thought this so amazing that he wondered why it had never been filmed.  This scrambling involved people going through the slag coming  from the mine for any coal left in the delivery train trucks and with others  at the bottom of  slag heap (including women and children)  scrambling again for any left overs after the higher scamblers ,who had first leapt on to the moving trucks as they arrived, had done their sifting.  This way the unemployed got their fuel supplies for free.

The system provided  unemployment benefits enough to just barely feed  a family  - in fact families as an unemployed group were better off   than single unemployed persons who were the very poorest of all .  It is clearly shown however that the families with work were better off in every way than those where the breadwinner, ie male miner , was out of work.  All housing was rented -  mostly  public housing owned by the local authorities . Orwell sets out costs of living from his checking of records including rent and reporting from individual householders on their purchases for the weeks food etc.

Orwells compelling account of these social and working conditions  along with the photographs in my complete edition (Secker & Warburg, 1980) presented a strong case of the plight of the mining working class in those very hard times - a classic, absorbingly interesting,  journalistic work.

Then you come to the second part of the book  - which is a brilliantly argued  essay .  The honesty of this part reaches out to one . This partly because of the autobiographical approach of the essay which in turn adds to its gravity and some of its prophetic tone.

Orwell uses his own life experiences as "test case pieces " (my comment) to stringently examine the English class system .  He applies pithy , economical, descriptive terms like "shabby genteel" and "shadowy cast system"  with biting  yet empathetic  effect in this analysis. For instance,  Orwell labels his class as "Upper Middle Class" and shows  why this is so by  autobiographical reference and  detail  in order to  be able to point out what the other classes are.  He is concerned about this  separation of the classes but realistic that it has a strong  systematic  hold on people . He is proposing that people of the different English classes should be striving  towards a "Good" socialism in order to deliver a fairer society.

 Along with the research of the first part of the book this all underpins his analysis and investigation of the political system and the range of "Isms" occupying the minds of the the political intelligentsia  of the time   - Socialism, Capitalism, Communism and Fascism . Interestingly he doesn't mention "Democratic Socialism"  - too historically early for that term I think.  However it is possible to posit that in his overall argument  outlining  the need for "good socialism "   - he is in effect describing  a type of "democratic socialism".

In arguing this way I get the message that Orwell is working hard to show his fellow countrymen that they need to face up to the dangers of fascism in its guises  -  "National" and"Communist"  by striving for the fairer society which good, real  socialism can bring.  Fascism then is the real demon which horrified him.

Interestingly, Victor Gollancz , was uncertain about the essay because he thought Orwell was too hard on the middle class , socialists of his day - Keatings "Basketweavers" and that it might anger the  regular  Left Book Club readers but printed it as is nevertheless.  The rest is literary history. And on that note I should mention the social history inbuilt throughout  this 100 page essay is stunning.

I haven't done this brilliant essay justice but I recommend it highly for the joy of its intellectual strength  and the pleasure of reading one of the best essayists in the English cannon at his finest.

Two final comments -  there apparently was no "Wigan Pier as such at that time  - it was a local joke. (Orwell himself even tried to find the "Pier"at one time).

Second  - the final long paragraph  is a neat Orwellian  summary and witty predictive 1936 comment  which I will  quote a little of  in the hope you will be tempted to read the whole thing.
 "In the next few years we shall either get that effective Socialistic party that we need, …. if not Fascism is coming  …..
And when the widely separate classes who, necessarily, would form any real Socialist party have fought side by side … perhaps the misery of class-prejudice will fade away …. and probably when we get there it will not be so dreadful as we feared, for, after all, we have nothing to lose but out aitches."

Faye Lawrence

"Treasure Island' by Robert Louis Stevenson

Treasure Island is probably one of the best known novels in English, more famous than any of the works of many authors with a far greater literary reputation, such as George Eliot or Henry James.  According to The Oxford Companion to English Literature (7th edn) its 'impact on the popular image of pirates (one-legged rogues, with parrots on their shoulders, in search of buried treasure) has been huge'.

Yet Treasure Island is a book for children, and was intended as such by its author.  It first appeared in parts, between July 1882 and June 1883, in a periodical called Young Folks. It could more accurately be described as a book for boys: apart from the mother of the young hero there are no female roles whatsoever, and she disappears early from the action.  This action, in England or on the mysterious island where most of the novel is set, takes place entirely among males, with young Jim Hawkins, the narrator for most of the story, providing the protagonist with whom boy readers can identify.

The absence of sex is total, but the world described is an often brutal adult one.  There is an extraordinary number of violent deaths in the novel, though they are mainly of pirates on whom little sympathy need be wasted, and the treatement of the violence is somewhat sanitised.  Drunkedness and its consequences also figure prominently.  The novel confronts some harsh realities, notably treachery, despite the inherently romantic motif of a search for hidden treasure with the aid of a fortuitously discovered map.

The novel is set in the second half of the eighteenth century, and one of its great achievements is the success with which its world is evoked.  Young readers are not bored with long passages of description, but the environments of the sailing ship and of the island come vividly before us.  (This reader did find himself consulting a dictionary for some of the sailing terminology, but in the 1880s it probably posed fewer problems.)  It was interesting to note that the island is not the tropic cay of modern pirate movies: its vegetation is more temperate, and it is a hotbed of disease, perhaps a metaphor for the effect of the treasure on many (though not all) who go in search of it.

Treasure Island is memorable for its characters, particularly, of course, the one-legged Long John Silver with his parrot Captain Flint on his shoulder.  But many other minor figures like the blind Pew and Israel Hands, also come vividly, if briefly, to life.  Among the more admirable figures one remembers the good-hearted but impulsive and indiscreet Squire Twelawney, and the much more judicious Dr Livesey, whose dedication to his profession causes him to treat even pirates dedicated to his destruction.

The novel has its 'good guys' and 'bad guys',  but the picture presents some interesting modifications.  Long John Silver is thorougly black-hearted, but he is also intelligent, often charming, and perhaps not incapable of a measure of decency.  In the penultimate chapter of the novel Jim says that he 'has at last gone clean out of my life', but speculates without rancour that he 'still lives in comfort somewhere'.  The reader whom he has entertained probably wishes him no less.

Jim Hawkins himself is in many respects the archetypal plucky young hero.  But he is capable of acting irresponsibly, notably when he sneaks away from the besieged camp on what appears to be a rather hare-brained scheme to set the ship adrift.  Dr Livesey and the ship's captain do not seem ever entirely to forgive him, and one does wonder if Jim considered whether his plan to maroon the pirates would not also have had the effect of marooning his friends.  Stevenson does not dwell on the matter.

There are more profound novels than Treasure Island.  But one does not have to be a boy to find it an unflagging source of enjoyment and pleasure.

"Canada" by Richard Ford

 Richard Ford has a well deserved reputation as being one of the major American writers today.  I have found his writing lyrically poetical  as well as earthy and grounded in the lives of relatively ordinary people - powerfully  evoking a culture and the American landscape . I was intrigued therefore to read his latest work called , Canada,  and to try to understand his purpose in this case. However one does learn, I think, that this work is about America and being American also .  I will now turn to the book and look at some elements of the plot, style, characterisations and apparent purpose.

From the beginning Canada displays  elements of  an unusual  action story. The narrator, Dell Parsons,  introduces the reader to his family in the first chapter.  He tells us right at the beginning  that his parents committed a bank robbery in the Montana region in the the nineteen sixties . This sets himself  and his twin sister when they were just fifteen, on a strange  life course. The intriguingly narrated story gives plenty of evidence of why this has been the case. For example, Dell  warns  us in the very first paragraph that he is going to tell us  about some murders  later thus  producing  an element of suspense for the reader. The first section of the book (almost half) is about the four members of the family and the circumstances leading up to the parents arrest for the robbery .   Following  the arrest and gaoling of his parents , Dell  is whisked away  to Canada by a well-meaning friend of the family in order to keep  him from child care authorities in Montana. His twin sister Bernie runs away from home herself to California.

The second part of the book centres on Dell's life  in the few years after his escape to Canada to a frontier-like  town in Saskatchewan .  He is left there at fifteen in the "care" of a hotel owner  - a relative of the female family friend  who has taken him there from Montana. We learn later she has done this at the request of Dell's mother who is now serving a long gaol sentence. Dell's consequent and sometimes dangerous  adventures which find him observing  a range of remarkable characters and situations,  forms most of  the rest of the book. Dell is looking back  narrating the story of his past as a contentedly married school teacher  in his sixties and as a Canadian citizen. We find that  Dell's aim   - to live quietly and  learn  is achieved after he settles in Canada assisted by another benefactor . Throughout all of this ,  we cant help noting , he is the perfect observer . Dell is telling his story as a now settled sixty year old looking back on these early adventurous years . Overall this is an amazing plot with elements of rite of passage but the strength of the book is with the writing itself.

Ford is above all else a fine writer and  observer of humanity. His  has the ability  to convey vivid  word pictures and the flavour of the environment of the story  - both human and natural.   He achieves this in Canada as he does in his other many works including the Bascombe trilogy, however for me the narration style  in this book doesnt work as well as in other works by Ford.  I am not sure why- maybe it was just the tone.

On the characterisations  in Canada I  have no misgivings  - they are observed and described to perfection especially  Dell's family.  I thought the voice in this the first half of the book was the clearest and I found  special enjoyment in the young, kind and keen observances of the parents as they  jockey around each when  planning  to undertake the desperate robbery.

One question that kept coming before me with my reading of Canada was about the purpose of this particular story.  I dont think it is to tell us about the qualities of Canada as such - only in that it brings out the sense which  Americans may have of the safety net  on the continent for  a country very like  their own in many ways and so very close by  -  something like we might think of New Zealand and like which  NZers might think of Australia.  It is definitely about memory  - perhaps a memory which is a little too good and not quite fallible enough is part of the  little problem I have with the story. And possibly there is just too much adventure clouding the observations a bit.   Overall I found it a reasonably  good  read by a superior writer (one of the very best  in my view) but not as effective in conveying   the essence of being  American   as in  other works of his such as  The Sportswriter, Independence Day and The Lay of the Land - these three making up the wonderful Bascombe trilogy which I strongly recommend.

I would be grateful to hear of any other views  - including those which may contradict mine.


"I for Isobel" by Amy Witting

 Amy  Witting, 1918 - 2001, had written her  beautiful little novel of Sydney about young Isobel  when she, the author,  was a  mature woman by any standard . It was published in 1989 when she was 71 years  of age.  She had her very first  story published  in The New Yorker in 1965 when she was a 47 years of age and teaching at Cheltenham Girls High School,  befriended and encouraged by fellow teacher and established writer, Thea Astley who had admired the story called 'Goodbye, Ady, Goodbye, Joe'.  

Anyhow, when  I for Isobel was published it was a recognised success and resulted in most of her earlier work of poetry  and stories  before then being  re-published .  Her works include the sequel  Isobel on the way to the corner shop, several volumes of poetry including a collected poetical works of  1998, short story collections and two other novels.

I for Isobel  is structured around five chapters which are each like perfectly crafted short stories bringing to life significant stages and awakenings in the life of Isobel. The whole novel comes together when read through as a rare insightful telling of childhood , family relationships and adolescent experiences with a positive, believable ending.

 We first meet Isobel at age nine as she is pondering about and wishing  to get a her birthday present (a first) from her parents in the eponymous chapter  "The Birthday Present" where they are holidaying at a summer  boarding house. Her mother is a jealous, sad woman in an unhappy marriage who uses her often unfair corrections of Isobel, a nine year old, to justify her own unhappy, straightened existence.  Isobel's dawning awareness of this as a nine year old is resoundingly stated in this sentence towards the end of this chapter:
 "There was not much to cry about, for her mother's intentions were far more violent than her blows. Her hands flapped weakly as if she were fighting against a cage of air"
 This book astounds with pictorial and verbal economy in making small scenes such as this so etched, so developmental and real, you can hardly believe it. The story is told from Isobel's point of view but not in the first person. A factor which, I observe, gives a greater weight to the strong dialogue throughout the novel.

 The second chapter "False idols and fireballs" tells a wonderful story about  Isobel witnessing a fireball  - which turned the "welling storm water rosy red" before her eyes. At the end of this chapter Isobel experiences an awareness of adult fear and subterfuge which is so different from her own - but is it?

In the evocatively entitled longer chapter 4, "Glassware and other breakable items", Isobel is starting out on her own in the world of work . She is now a school-leaver aged orphan, and being  set up in a boarding house in Sydney and a typing job by a friendly-enough Aunt.  The characters in the Boarding House and at the Glass Importers where she is working as a typist are very well sketched and add much colour and delight to the story. Isobel's working experiences as a translator of letters from German at the Glass Importers  are often  humorous -  with dry, ironic observant  humour being a feature  of the writing in Isobel . It is in this chapter that we see Isobel find her feet a bit in the world of young adulthood. Several  great scenes are set in a cafe with a group of Sydney University students who  befriend her , and from whom she discovers a whole new world  of poetry and literature.

The final chapter 5, entitled "I for Isobel" sees our main character come into her own via a couple of painful experiences including one obsessive , silly behaviour pattern she has set herself - in order, I suppose, to thumb her nose at society and the tough lessons life has given her.  In the final sections of the story Isobel comes to a strong self  realisation. I found the ending believable because  my reading of Isobel's rite of passage, and her analysing of the world around and the experience she was gathering,  was that she going to sort things out in her own way .

I cannot recommend this book more highly. Amy Witting brings an awesome intelligence to the telling of her tales in a prose which is  spare, poetical and full of rich images. Various suburbs of Sydney feature in the story and it holds up as one of those novels  which can be pointed to as 'being about Sydney'.  I enjoyed that part of the book very much too - there  are many good  descriptions of street scenes, public transport and so on.

I for Isobel is a work to savour and bears re-reading several times. As a background note on her personality we know Amy Witting is a pseudonym and this choice, as was said in a biographical note by Yvonne Miels of Flinders University, reflects a long held promise to herself to 'never give up on consciousness'  not to be unwitting but  to always remain 'witting'.    I also recommend for any one enjoying this  book to have a quick look at some of the entries on various web sites about her.

For discussion , I would like to ask.
Did you find Isobel a convincing character?
Can you date the settings of the book?  I am not sure   - I thought the 50s but I havent come across a reference yet.
 Do you have a favourite section or incident?

Faye Lawrence

The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson

A few months ago The Land of Spices by the Irish novelist Kate O'Brien was featured in this blog. This month our subject is an Australian novel which has some similarities to the Irish one. The Getting of Wisdom, published in 1910 by Henry Handel Richardson (1870-1946, real name Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson) is like the somewhat later Irish novel set in a private girls' school whose pupils largely come from privileged backgrounds. Both novels are set in a period not long before the First World War, and the main student character in both comes from a home where there are financial problems not experienced by many of the other students. (It might also be mentioned that Richardson was rather proud of her Irish descent!)

The differences are nevertheless considerable. The Irish novel has two central figures, whereas The Getting of Wisdom is very much the story of Laura, whose experiences in the novel are to a considerable extent based on Richardson's own as a pupil at Presbyterian Ladies' College Melbourne. For much of the novel Laura is the only school character who is developed to any extent , and throughout the novel, apart from a few cameos, the teachers are all minor figures, or caricatures, like the preposterously formidable 'dragon', Mrs Gurley. Both novels were unpopular with the schools that their authors had attended, but it is far easier to understand the unhappiness of PLC Melbourne. Teachers and pupils at the school almost all seem obsessively snobbish and mean-minded. Until the later chapters it would be difficult to name a sympathetic character.

Much of the book is the story of the bruising encounters between Laura's unsophisticated impulsive, high spirits, and desire to fit in, and her companions' relentless determination to exclude or ostracise here, often on the basis of evidence that her family in not well-to-do that she inadvertently provides. It is comic, because Laura's is often her own worst enemy, but it also fills the reader with a contempt for those around her who are so eager to take offence. In the later chapters of the book, following a summer in the company of her sister when she comes to feel that little though she may fit in at school, she has grown apart from her family at home, Laura does make some friends and win a measure of acceptance. She gains the friendship of the priggish 'M.P.' and her offsider 'Cupid' by cleverly exploiting M.P.'s wish to be a moral arbiter, and later becomes the chosen companion of the school's most beautiful and most privileged student, an older girl called Evelyn. Richardson makes very clear that Laura's infatuation with the older girl has a strong element of the sexual in it, but the reader may perhaps wonder at Evelyn's choosing Laura as her companion.

The title of the book is clearly ironic. The wisdom Laura learns is that of outwardly conforming, and saying what her companions expect of her. One of Richardson's achievements is that despite the autobigraphical element Laura never becomes a heroine whose inner strength and genuine moral superiority set her apart. It is quite clear that Laura objects to snobbery and bullying because she is the victim, not because she dislikes snobbery and bullying per se. The final scene, when Laura, having just walked out the school gates for the last time as a pupil, runs joyfully through a park, is somewhat ambivalent. We must wonder how free she really is.

 H.G. Wells is said to have described this book as the best school story he knew. It has been in print almost continuously since 1910, and a new edition, with an introduction by Germaine Greer, is about to appear. It is a splendidly narrated book, vivid, entertaining, and convincing, and impressive in the honesty of its presentation of the flawed but ultimately rather attractive central figure.

A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry

This novel is the story of a young man who at the age of eighteen volunteers to serve in the First World War. It follows him from before enlistement through most of the war to his death in its final weeks. He fights on the Western Front, and experiences the wellknown horrors of trench warfare in that theatre.

A rather similar description could of course be applied to many novels. The classic example of the genre is probably still Im Westen nichts Neues by Erich Maria Remarque, first published in 1928 and translated into English the following year as All Quiet on the Western Front. The question might be asked why we need yet another book on the subject, though arguably the horrors of the mass slaughter of young men who at the start of the war had no idea what they would encounter have a powerful resonance that permits repeated treatments of the subject.

A Long Long Way has distinctive features, however. Willie Dunne is Irish, a Dublin construction worker, the son of a senior police officer who is firmly loyal to the British Crown in an Ireland then still part of the United Kingdom. Willie seems to enlist without much thought, in part from a desire to prove himself to his father, who has been disappointed by his dimunitive son's failure to reach the minimum height required to join the police. Willie's enlistment does not favourably impress his girlfriend, Gretta, who feels that it demonstrates a certain lack of knowing his own mind in a man who wants to marry her, and Gretta's ultimate decision to marry another man who has not gone to war forms part of Willie's private tragedy.

The fact that Willie is Irish and Catholic, part of what is initially an Irish regiment, is central to the novel, because it leads him to uncertainties and troubles of mind not experienced by soldiers from different backgrounds. Willie finds himself, perhaps a little too coincidentally, marching through Dublin on the day the Easter Rising of 1916 breaks out, and he is soon a bit confused as to where his loyalties lie, something he tentatively indicates in a letter to his father, who responds with fury. One of the successes of the novel is its treatment of this inner conflict: Willie never resolves it, and this is presented in a way that seems entirely convincing.

Willie is in some ways an 'everyman' (or at least every Irish World War I soldier) figure, but he comes vividly to life. He is of ordinary intelligence, likeable, brave enough but no hero, often confused, often frightened, but capable of snatching what happiness he can from his circumstances. His letters home are poignant and seem utterly convincing for someone who is, of course, little more than a boy.

The book has won considerable praise, though some military historians have pointed to errors of fact, particularly in regard to the command structure of the British Army. The suggestion that towards the end of the novel Irishmen were rarely encountered in the ranks seems exaggerated: 200,000 of them served, of whom 30,000 were killed. It is true, however, that for a variety of reasons, not all alluded to in the novel, recruitment from Ireland became sparse in the last years of the war. (Of course it must be remembered that Barry is writing a novel, not history, though the creator of an historical novel does probably have to observe some of the historian's obligations.)

There is much that is powerful and moving in this novel. Not least moving is the way towards the end Willie, having lost Gretta and having being more or less disowned by his father, feels real happiness at getting back to the front and rejoining the few of his longterm fellow soldiers who are still alive. The book is the work of an author well known as a poet as well as a novelist, and the style throughout is poetic. For this reader, at least, the poetic element in the style quite frequently seemed a bit overwrought. An example taken at random is from the opening paragrapy of chapter 20: 'Like an old ash tree he feared he would slowly hollow out, the rot taking him inwardly ring by blackened ring, until the winter wind came and blew him down'.

I was moved, and impressed, by this novel, though more on the first reading than the second. I did find that the style tended to irritate slightly the second time round. But I am glad to have read it.

The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China by Lu Xun

I enjoyed this very rich collection which is the complete fictional works of Lu Xun (Penguin Classics Ed'n, 2009 ) . I have just re-read it but I need to say that introducing it for discussion has been more daunting than other books I have jumped in and had opinions about. I think it is the cross cultural experience which makes me timorous so I apologise upfront for any ineptitude of my comments about these stories to anyone more familiar with the cultural and literary background here so masterfully represented.

First-we need to note , we are reading a book in translation which rings smoothly in English with fine prose and good story lines and content. There are many favourable commentaries acknowledging the work of the translator , Dr Julia Lovell , a Lecturer in Modern Chinese History and Literature at the University of London. You can find interviews with her by googling her name or the title. She talks of Lu Xun in one of her interviews as China's "Dickens and Joyce rolled into one" because of his range of social comment and criticism and the new form of language in which it was expressed.

Lu Xun , 1881 - 1936, came from a privileged background of the classical ,Confucian upper class educational and professional tradition. His break with that tradition to write in vernacular prose rather than using the classical tradition of the time set him apart from many of his contemporaries. Of course it was an iconoclastic period in modern Chinese history so he found both acceptance along with much antagonism at times. I will just add one startling , seminal fact about his professional life and then leave the rest for you to follow through for yourselves either in the introduction to this edition or the many short summaries in the usual google sources.

Lu Xun set out to study Western style medicine in Japan ,which in itself was radical given his family background and expectations. However an epiphany when seeing a Japanese lecturer (during the time of the Russo-Japanese War) showing a film of a beheading of a Chinese Nationalist by a Japanese executioner with a passive crowd of Chinese people watching - changed his point of view. He became concerned with the mental health of his countrymen rather than the physical. He determined to become a story telling writer.

Lu Xun met his goal well. His 34 stories in this collected edition are full of irony and black humour . The whole makes up a very rich body of work. He uses his talents to explicate social norms which are stultifying the progress of his people as he sees it. I think he makes many universal observations however despite the special and particular mores of his nation and its immense cultural history. This universality comes through particularly in the rich characterisations of the principal characters and also in the many smaller players in the stories. Ah-Q for instance is so puffed up and stupid he could indeed be a Dickensian player in another setting. I am empathetic to poor old Ah-Q and I think the reader is drawn by this empathy to look keenly at the situations applying to him and what made him the way he is. "Diary of a Madmen" as a comparison is rather Freudian and highly satirical and I am reminded of "A Modest Proposal" by Jonathan Swift . I find Lu Xun uses many vivid literary ways to get his points across.

By contrast again some of the stories in the large sub collections in the work "Outcry" and "Hesitation" are poignant and lyrical . Try "My old home" for instance with its nostalgia plus yearning for a new life for a new generation and ending with a beautiful and insightful description of "Hope" as "an intangible presence that can neither be affirmed nor denied - a path that exists only where others have already passed".

The wry humour of "The Divorce" in the "Hesitation" collection makes an observation of the human condition and psyche over and above the sad human comedy and social inequality it evokes.The public authoritarian figures in the story and the economically yet excellently drawn lower class characters just jump from the pages- they are so real and dare I say, modern.

The final collection in this complete fictional works of the author is called "Old stories retold". I liked these stories very much - whilst the "creational" mythological ones are a bit obscure, the re-tellings of Daoist, Confucian legendary myths/tales are marvellous. For example, two Daoist tales "Leaving the Pass" and "Bringing back the Dead" are both approachable and strong reminders of the ancient cultural tradition we are reading about. "Bringing back the Dead" - a cautionary tale if ever there was one is told in dramatic dialogue format which would be a perfect little drama piece to enact." Leaving the Pass" about "Laozi" the mythical founder of the Daoist tradition, ca 600 BC is a witty telling of a venture of the Master as he tries to negotiate a Customs House Police Barracks and needs to sing for his supper by teaching his captors the ways of wisdom . I think the joke is that he unwittingly (or not) bored them to tears and was sent on his way. Universality comes out clearly in these re-told ancient myths just as well as with the "modern" tales in the collection.

I would recommend the Introductory essay to gain an overview of Lu Xun's career. His avowed position as a social critic and reformer took place throughout the formative and tumultous period of modern China's development with revolutions, civil wars and ultimately the rise of Mao Zedong and Communism . After his death in 1936 he was feted by the Communist hierarchy and became a cultural hero. It is fascinating to consider what he would have thought about it all - he was such a complex man.
In the short afterword Yiyun Li ,an awarded Chinese American writer who was educated in Beijing , speaks of re-reading Lu Xun in English "in this great volume of translations and in the original" and coming once again under his spell. She wonders however whether "the posthumous fame would have pleased Lu Xun" She is questioning the role he set for himself and whether literature can change social behaviour as such.

In summary , there is perhaps doubt on whether his literary prowess worked to change the outlook or fortunes of the Chinese people but his storytelling has left a very witty literary legacy to ponder and wonder at through the characters and situations he created. I would be very pleased to receive any comments about favourite stories a reader may like to share.