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26. Sherlock Holmes’ beginnings

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Here at Oxford University Press we occasionally get the chance to discover a new and exciting piece of literary history. We’re excited to share the newest short story addition to the Sherlock Holmes mysteries in Sherlock Holmes: Selected Stories. Never before published, our editorial team has acquired The Mystery of the Green Garden, now believed to be Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first use of the Sherlock Holmes’ character in his writing. Written during Doyle’s time at Stonyhurst College before entering medical school, the short story displays an early, amateur style of writing not seen in his later published works.

The Mystery of the Green Garden is set during Sherlock Holmes’ childhood – a rarely discussed part of Holmes’ life. Holmes’ is only sixteen years old when he is called to his first case. Unlike many of the stories in the Holmes series which are narrated by the loyal Dr. Watson, Holmes himself tells the short, endearing tale of his mother’s beloved garden. Getting our first look at his parents, Holmes briefly describes his mother as a “lively but often brooding woman.” We catch only a glimpse of his father who he calls a tireless civil serviceman with, “rarely enough time to fix even a long ago missing board in the kitchen’s creaking floor.”

Before attending university where he first acquired his detective skills, and moving to 221S Baker Street to practice his craft, Holmes lived at 45 Tilly Lane overlooking “a lush, never ignored garden.” Described as his mother’s favorite pastime, she gardened tirelessly day in and day out. As a young boy he recalls “spending countless hours playing in the dirt as mother tended to her beloved flowers and ferns.”

One morning, Holmes wakes to discover the garden destroyed. Flower beds are overturned, and shrubbery and plants are ripped apart. His mother is beside herself upon seeing her hard work demolished, and Holmes vows to discover the foolish culprit behind the dastardly act. A neighbor provides the first clue that sets the wheels in motion. His elderly neighbor who often wakes “before the sun has met the sky,” describes to Holmes a “tall, lean man with a crooked gray cap” that he saw running down the pathway between their two houses in the early hours of the morning while everyone in town still slept. Without any experience at solving cases, Doyle displays the first use of Holmes’ abductive reasoning skills later developed in the stories. As Holmes gathers clues as to what seems to be a random act, a story bigger than anyone can imagine slowly unravels.

April Fools! We hope we haven’t disappointed you too much. Although The Mystery in the Green Garden is just the work of a fool’s mind, there are seven Sherlock Holmes novels in the Oxford World’s Classics series. Sherlock Holmes: Selected Stories includes over a dozen stories truly written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

9780199672066For over 100 years Oxford World’s Classics has made available the broadest spectrum of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford’s commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, voluminous notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more. You can follow Oxford World’s Classics on Twitter, Facebook, or here on the OUPblog. Subscribe to only Oxford World’s Classics articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS.

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27. Sex and the ancient teenager

By Jane Alison


Jane Fonda spoke passionately about teenage sexuality this week on the Diane Rehm Show. (Her new book is Being A Teen: Everything Teen Girls & Boys Should Know About Relationships, Sex, Love, Health, Identity & More.) Fonda’s book and words are very much of our age, yet some of her most moving points evoke the ghost of Ovid and his mythic stories of young sexuality that are over two thousand years old. His tales tell of the awful desire to melt into someone else, or the misery of living in the wrong sexual form, or the terror of first being touched by another. If someone can pierce you in sex and in love, how do you survive?

Here’s Jane Fonda on girls and anorexia:

It’s interesting that the eating disorders start with girls when they enter puberty, which is the time when girls very often lose their voice. Their voice goes underground, and they become what they think other people want them to be.

Echo and Narcissus, John William Waterhouse, 1903.

Echo and Narcissus, John William Waterhouse, 1903. Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, UK.

And here’s Ovid, telling the story of Echo and the beautiful boy Narcissus, who is wanted by girls and boys alike but has no need for anyone:

Seeing Narcissus drive frightened deer into nets
was that chattery nymph who couldn’t keep quiet
or start talking herself, poor clamoring Echo.
She still had a body, she wasn’t just voice,
yet could use her mouth then only as she does now:
helplessly repeating the last words someone says. . . .
Echo singsongs back
another’s voice and parrots the words she’s heard.
When she saw Narcissus roam alone in the woods
she was excited at once and secretly trailed,
and the closer she followed the hotter she grew,
as when sulfur is daubed at the top
of a torch and snatches the dancing flames.
Oh, how she wanted to go with sweet words and say
how she longed for him! But her nature stopped this,
would let her start nothing. So she would wait
and do all she could: cry back any words he said.
The boy had somehow lost his close gang of friends
so called, “Is anyone here?” “Here!” called Echo.
He was surprised, looked around, and then shouted
“Come!”—and she shouted it back to him shouting.
He looked again, and when nobody came, he called
“Why stay away from me?”—she called the same.
He stood still, tricked by the sense of an answering voice,
and cried, “Be with me, come!” Never more lustily
would Echo cry any words: “Be with me, come!”
And she herself followed these words from the woods,
rushing to throw her arms around his sweet neck.
But he bolted and, bolting, shouted, “Hands off!
I would die before I’d give you anything.”
Stricken, she could only say, “I’d give you anything . . .”
Then she hid in the woods, kept her mortified face
muffled in leaves, and lived only in lonely caves.
But her love clung, swelled with painful rejection;
sleeplessness wasted away her poor flesh
and pulled her gaunt and tight. Her freshness and sap
drifted into air; only voice and bones remained.
Then voice alone—they say her bones became rock.

Now here’s Jane Fonda on teenagers and sexual orientation:

The suicides, the depression, the cutting, the damage to self for young people who question their sexual orientation is absolutely heartbreaking . . . Some people are born into the wrong apparent gender. They appear to be one gender but everything about them knows that they’re really another gender . . . More and more young people are saying to their parents, I’m not a girl, or I’m not a boy—I won’t wear those clothes . . .

And here’s Ovid, telling (with irony) the story of Iphis, whose mother has raised her secretly as a boy to save her from being killed. Iphis is now betrothed to an unsuspecting girl, Ianthe, and is utterly perplexed:

The two had the same age and same looks; the same
teachers had taught them their letters and numbers.
Love struck each fresh heart and gave each the same
longing—but in hopes they were far from the same.
Ianthe wants her wedding, bridal torches and all,
certain the one she takes for a man will be one.
Iphis loves, too, but can’t hope to savor that love,
and this kindles her hotter, girl burning for girl.
Barely holding back tears, she says, “What will become
of me, smitten with this freakish, unheard of new
love? If the gods had wanted to ruin me, they
could just have given me a natural problem.
Cows don’t itch for cows, or mares for other mares.
A ram craves a ewe; a hind follows her stag.
Birds mate like this, too—in the animal world
no female’s overcome with lust for a female.
I wish I just weren’t! In case there’s some monster Crete
didn’t yet have, Pasiphaë fixed her heart on a bull.
But that was female-on-male, and my love’s truly
more brainsick than that. . . .
If all the world’s cleverness poured down upon me
or Daedalus flew his wax wings right here, what
could he do? Make a boy of this girl with clever
contraptions? Or is it you he’d change, Ianthe?
Pull yourself together, Iphis. Toughen your soul.
Give up this stupid obsession, this hopeless hope.
You see what you are. Or do you fool yourself, too?”

At the last minute, though, Iphis is transformed into a boy: a happily magical ending.

Bodies do change, and who feels this more acutely than teenagers? Ways of talking about sexual changes and encounters—the strange borders of the self when first touching another—change too, from the metaphorical psychologies of Ovid to the popular teachings of a modern icon. But the truths inside both bodies and the tales we tell about them seem indeed to stay the same.

Jane Alison is author of Change Me: Stories of Sexual Transformation from Ovid. Her previous works on Ovid include her first novel, The Love-Artist (2001) and a song-cycle entitled “XENIA” (with composer Thomas Sleeper, 2010). Her other books include a memoir, The Sisters Antipodes (2009), and two novels, Natives and Exotics (2005) and The Marriage of the Sea (2003). She is currently Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Virginia.

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Image: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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28. Firefly July by Paul Janeczko

Firefly July: a year of very short poems Selected by Paul Janeczko; Illustrated by Melissa Sweet Candlewick Press. 2014 ISBN: 9780763648428 All ages (Preschool up through high school) I received a copy of this book from the publisher. There are times when a book comes across my desk that is so perfect I am at a loss for the best words to describe it. From the design, selection of poems, to the

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29. “A peaceful sun gilded her evening”

On 31 March 1855 – Easter Sunday – Charlotte Brontë died at Haworth Parsonage. She was 38 years old, and the last surviving Brontë child. In this deeply moving letter to her literary advisor W. S. Williams, written on 4 June 1849, she reflects on the deaths of her sisters Anne and Emily.

My dear Sir

I hardly know what I said when I wrote last—I was then feverish and exhausted—I am now better—and—I believe—quite calm.

Anne Brontë - drawing in pencil by Charlotte Brontë, 1845

Anne Brontë by Charlotte Brontë, 1845

You have been informed of my dear Sister Anne’s death—let me now add that she died without severe struggle—resigned—trusting in God—thankful for release from a suffering life—deeply assured that a better existence lay before her—she believed—she hoped, and declared her belief and hope with her last breath.—Her quiet Christian death did not rend my heart as Emily’s stern, simple, undemonstrative end did—I let Anne go to God and felt He had a right to her.

I could hardly let Emily go—I wanted to hold her back then—and I want her back hourly now—Anne, from her childhood seemed preparing for an early death—Emily’s spirit seemed strong enough to bear her to fullness of years—They are both gone—and so is poor Branwell—and Papa has now me only—the weakest—puniest—least promising of his six children—Consumption has taken the whole five.

For the present Anne’s ashes rest apart from the others—I have buried her here at Scarbro’ to save papa the anguish of return and a third funeral.

I am ordered to remain at the sea-side a while—I cannot rest here but neither can I go home—Possibly I may not write again soon—attribute my silence neither to illness nor negligence. No letters will find me at Scarbro’ after the 7th. I do not know what my next address will be—I shall wander a week or two on the east coast and only stop at quiet lonely places—No one need be anxious about me as far as I know—Friends and acquaintance seem to think this the worst time of suffering—they are sorely mistaken—Anne reposes now—what have the long desolate hours of her patient pain and fast decay been?

Why life is so blank, brief and bitter I do not know—Why younger and far better than I are snatched from it with projects unfulfilled I cannot comprehend—but I believe God is wise—perfect—merciful.

I have heard from Papa—he and the servants knew when they parted from Anne they would see her no more—all try to be resigned—I knew it likewise and I wanted her to die where she would be happiest—She loved Scarbro’—a peaceful sun gilded her evening.

Yours sincerely
C. Brontë

The Oxford World’s Classics edition of Charlotte Brontë’s Selected Letters is edited by Margaret Smith, with an introduction by Janet Gezari.

For over 100 years Oxford World’s Classics has made available the broadest spectrum of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford’s commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, voluminous notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more. You can follow Oxford World’s Classics on Twitter, Facebook, or here on the OUPblog. Subscribe to only Oxford World’s Classics articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS.

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Image credit: Anne Brontë – drawing in pencil by Charlotte Brontë, 1845. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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30. The Interestings

Occasionally, you encounter a book that devastates you just because it has to end. The Interestings is one of those remarkable books that you start living in... and, emerging, you are all the richer for the resultant, uncomfortable reflection. Books mentioned in this post The Interestings Meg Wolitzer Used Trade Paper $11.95

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31. I Loved You More

No one is better than Tom Spanbauer at exposing the hidden pain inside us. In I Loved You More, he reaches even deeper, plumbing the terror of death, love, AIDS, cancer, propinquity, and the complex business of being a man in the world. Books mentioned in this post Portland Noir (Akashic Noir) Kevin Sampsell Used [...]

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32. Silver Star

In typical Jeannette Walls style, The Silver Star is hilarious, sweet, and sad at the same time. Walls' books are often populated with flaky, irresponsible adults and kids who have to fend for themselves, and this is no exception. The two Holladay sisters, after struggling with their mostly absent mother, try to find themselves a real [...]

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33. The Rise and Fall of Great Powers

Tom Rachman has an uncanny ability to create well-developed and fully realized characters. His debut novel, The Imperfectionists, was a staff favorite here, and I have no doubt that his follow-up, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, will prove just as popular. It has a wonderful sense of time and place ('88 Bangkok, '99 [...]

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34. All the Light We Cannot See

In Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, set in France in 1944, a 16-year-old blind French girl and a 17-year-old German soldier are on different yet converging paths. This is an amazing, masterfully executed tale. Each perfect word, each perfect sentence is magnificent. Gorgeously written scenes, whether tender or brutal, are told with [...]

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35. The Goldfinch

This book is perfect. My reading of it was more of an immersion. I loved Theo and Boris. I felt I was there with the characters and in their heads. I could not stop reading this book! It's one of the best books of the year. Books mentioned in this post The Goldfinch Donna Tartt [...]

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36. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is so emotional and deeply felt. I loved the stark concept yet in-depth portrayal of characters. The psychology of being human and realities of life illuminate this wonderful novel. Books mentioned in this post The Twelve Tribes of Hattie (Vintage) Ayana Mathis Used Trade Paper $10.95 The Twelve Tribes of [...]

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37. Entitling early modern women writers

By Andrew Zurcher


As Women’s History Month draws to a close in the United Kingdom, it is a good moment to reflect on the history of women’s writing in Oxford’s scholarly editions. In particular, as one of the two editors responsible for early modern writers in the sprawling collections of Oxford Scholarly Editions Online (OSEO), I have been going through the edited texts of women writers included in the OSEO project, and thinking about how well even the most celebrated women writers from the period 1500 – 1700 are represented in this new digital format. In short, early modern English women writers have fared, perhaps predictably, badly.

The essayist, philosopher, and historian Francis Bacon has his place, in the Oxford Francis Bacon in fifteen volumes; but the philosopher and poet and essayist and dramatist and prose writer Margaret Cavendish, duchess of Newcastle, does not. Philip Sidney, famous for his pastoral poems, appeared in a stunningly erudite Oxford edition by William Ringler, Jr. in 1962, now like the Bacon edition a part of OSEO; Katherine Philips, also famous for her pastoral poetry, limps in to the Oxford fold in a 1905 text lightly edited by George Saintsbury, which also includes the minor Caroline poets Patrick Hannay, William Chamberlayne, and Edward Benlowes. Aphra Behn, one of the most prolific writers of the Restoration, hardly figures at all in OSEO, and the Oxford list does not include complete works for Isabella Whitney, Mary Herbert, Amelia Lanyer, or Mary Wroth.

Among those lyric poems and short works by women that are included in OSEO, many return to the silencing of a woman’s voice, the disabling of her love, and the banishment of her person. Typical is Mary Wroth’s “83 Song”, first published in Peter Davidson’s anthology, Poetry and Revolution: An Anthology of British and Irish Verse 1625-1660. Recognising that “the time is come to part” with her “deare”, the woman speaker of the poem gives up not only her own happiness, but his unhappiness. She goes to “woe”, while he goes to “more joy”:

Where still of mirth injoy thy fill,
One is enough to suffer ill:
My heart so well to sorrow us’d,
Can better be by new griefes bruis’d. (ll. 5-8)

The woman lover’s habituation to grief gives her a capacity for further bruising that, not without irony, she embraces as an ethical duty. Hers is a voice constructed for loss and for complaint, so much so that she cannot escape from this loss, and the woes that “charme” her, except by death – as the concluding stanza of the song suggests:

And yett when they their witchcrafts trye,
They only make me wish to dye:
But ere my faith in love they change,
In horrid darknesse will I range. (ll. 17-20)

For Wroth’s loving, jilted woman speaker, identity is constructed out of a wronged fidelity; the two options remaining to her are complaint and oblivion.

Complaint was still a powerful mode for women writers during the Restoration – certainly a mode that modern editors have much privileged in anthologies. A poem by Aphra Behn, “A Paraphrase on Oenone to Paris”, has slipped in to OSEO‘s corpus through its inclusion in John Kerrigan’s wonderful anthology, Motives of Woe: Shakespeare and ‘Female Complaint’: A Critical Anthology.

Aphra_Behn_by_Mary_Beale

In this poem the shepherdess Oenone challenges the Trojan prince Paris, who had won her love while keeping flocks on the slopes of Mount Ida; afterward discovering his true birthright, Paris has abandoned her, and sails for Sparta, there to ravish Menelaus’ queen, Helen, and set in train the events that will lead to the Trojan War. Toward the end of Behn’s long poem of complaint, Oenone reprehends her lover for his faithlessness with an argument that seems to gesture at Behn’s own public reputation:

How much more happy are we Rural Maids,
Who know no other Palaces than Shades?
Who want no Titles to enslave the Croud,
Least they shou’d babble all our Crimes aloud;
No Arts our good to show, our Ills to hide,
Nor know to cover faults of Love with Pride.
I lov’d, and all Loves Dictates did persue,
And never thought it cou’d be Sin with you.
To Gods, and Men, I did my Love proclaim
For one soft hour with thee, my charming Swain,
Wou’d Recompence an Age to come of Shame,
Cou’d it as well but satisfie my Fame.
But oh! those tender hours are fled and lost,
And I no more of Fame, or Thee can boast!
‘Twas thou wert Honour, Glory, all to me:
Till Swains had learn’d the Vice of Perjury,
No yielding Maids were charg’d with Infamy.
‘Tis false and broken Vows make Love a Sin,
Hadst thou been true, We innocent had been. (ll. 265-83)

The “Titles” that Oenone disclaims are those of honour, the courtly ranks and degrees to which women might be raised by their paternity, or by their advantageous marriages; wanting titles, shepherdesses can sport in the shades of innocence, their sexual crimes unremarked and undisplayed. The shame and infamy that now await Oenone spring directly from Paris’ perjury, for the woman’s reputation for immodesty flows from the exposure accomplished by her jilting. To her way of thinking, a crime is no crime until it is published; this is a logic she has learned from men, who cover up their own crimes with “Pride”. But “Titles” may also be those of published books, and the “Arts” Oenone lacks may be just those powers of “Pride” that always enable men to abandon women – in a broad sense, the power to speak falsely. What women do, cries Behn’s Oenone, has been betrayed by what men say; what can a woman write, that will not collude in her own untitling?

Early modern women writers have not been much or widely published. There are many reasons, of course, for this history of omission and scant commission. But so long as we continue to anthologize selections from the works of women writers from this period, and to bundle them in mixed fardels, we collude in a history or pattern of dis-titling, of allowing early modern women poets to complain, but not to speak in their more diverse collected works. This pattern is changing: important new editions of Wroth and Behn have appeared in the last few decades, and – closer to home – the works of the translator and poet Lucy Hutchinson, in a meticulously edited text from David Norbrook and Reid Barbour, have recently joined the Oxford list and the OSEO fold. Other early modern women writers will surely follow. As Women’s History Month comes to an end, it’s high time we put a period to infamy, shame, oblivion, and bruising.

Andrew Zurcher is a Fellow and Director of Studies in English at Queens’ College, Cambridge, and a member of the Oxford Scholarly Editions Online (OSEO) editorial board.

Scholarly editions are the cornerstones of humanities scholarship, and Oxford University Press’s list is unparalleled in breadth and quality. Now available online, Oxford Scholarly Editions Online provides an interlinked collection of these authoritative editions. Discover more by taking a tour of the site.

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Image Credit: Aphra Behn by Mary Beale. Image available on public domain via WikiCommons

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38. The Last Book I Loved: Jitterbug Perfume, The Goldfinch, and The Warmth of Other Suns

We asked our readers: What was the last book that you couldn't put down, that kept you up all night, that you couldn't stop recommending? We were delightfully surprised by the number of replies we received. Here are some of our favorites. We'll be posting more on a regular basis, so check back often. And [...]

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39. Plausible fictions and irrational coherence

By Joseph Harris


One of the most intriguing developments in recent psychology, I feel, has been the recognition of the role played by irrationality in human thought. Recent works by Richard Wiseman, Dan Ariely, Daniel Kahneman, and others have highlighted the irrationality that can inform and shape our judgements, decision-making, and thought more generally. But, as the title of Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational reminds us, our ‘irrationality’ is not necessarily random for all that; in fact, there often appears to be something systematic and internally coherent about the sorts of mistakes that we make. For example, when we’re judging probabilities, we tend to vastly overestimate the likelihood of more dramatic outcomes (such as dying in an aeroplane crash) and underestimate that of less striking ones (such as dying of heart disease). Similarly, we’re very susceptible to whatever information is made ‘available’ to us. As Kahneman suggests, for example, we tend to typecast public figures like politicians as unduly prone to infidelity – not because of any solid statistical evidence, but because journalists’ exposure of such affairs makes the association spring to mind more readily. But our irrationality does not end there. In a further step, we often then compound our mistake by seeking to derive from it explanatory theories and narratives about, say, the aphrodisiac nature of power, and these explanations then help give credence and plausibility to our misguided assumptions.

This interest in the ‘cognitive biases’ of the human mind is nothing new. Long before psychology or behavioural economics developed as formalised disciplines, dramatists and dramatic theoreticians were keen to isolate and either exploit or overcome the predictable irrationality of theatre audiences. The so-called ‘father of French tragedy’, Pierre Corneille (1606-84), was particularly fascinated by the vagaries of audience response and eager to exploit his findings in his plays. Some of Corneille’s most interesting observations lie in the very area which has recently attracted Kahneman and others: our capacity to assess probability. This was a key issue for many seventeenth-century dramatists, not least because of the period’s insistence on aesthetic vraisemblance (‘verisimilitude’ — essentially, the dramatic fiction’s overall plausibility), as the backbone of dramatic illusion.

Pierre_Corneille_2

Corneille takes a similar observation to Kahneman and turns it into a sort of aesthetic principle. As Corneille notes, tragedians (like modern journalists) typically focus on the crimes and misdemeanours of the notable and powerful. Corneille’s explanation for this is simple: only famous people’s misfortunes and deaths are typically ‘illustrious’ or ‘extraordinary’ enough to have been recorded by history, and thus to have the external historical backing that otherwise implausible events require. Spectators, he claims, are quick to mistrust tragic narratives they do not already know – not so much because the tragic events are themselves implausible (although they may well be), but because it is implausible that such implausible events occurred without having already been brought to their knowledge. (In contrast, comic plots can be entirely invented because they focus on private, domestic events that escape the public radar.) So although Corneille’s spectators display a very patchy grasp of history, they cling tenaciously to what they do know — thus embodying what Kahneman calls ‘our excessive confidence in what we believe we know, and our apparent inability to acknowledge the full extent of our ignorance and the uncertainty of the world we live in’.

Does this mean that Corneille’s spectators deduce — as Kahneman suggests we do of politicians’ affairs — that such murderous deeds are more prevalent amongst kings and queens? Corneille certainly claims that ancient Greek tragedy played an important role in republican propaganda, fostering its audiences’ belief that kings were fated to lives of brutality. But Corneille uses a rather different logic when explaining the responses of his own contemporaries, those dutiful subjects of Louis XIV. Corneille, we remember, insists that our prior familiarity with historical narratives can win ‘belief’ for otherwise improbable tragic plots; the details of history have already won our belief, however implausible we recognise them to be. In other words, we tend to regard each tragic hero’s downfall as a discrete, one-off historical phenomenon – one chosen for the stage, indeed, precisely because of its uniqueness – rather than as something reflecting a more general propensity towards untimely or brutal ends amongst the upper classes.

Yet Corneille also implies that, despite recognising this uniqueness, we also crave to see a wider resonance and relevance in each tragic narrative. While watching a tragic hero’s downfall, he claims, we deduce that if even kings can be brought down by passions then lowly commoners like ourselves are at even greater risk of a misfortune proportionate to our station.

It seems, then, that however weak our own passions, and however little we stand to lose by being brought down by them, we commoners are actually far more susceptible to misfortune than the regal figures that appear so appealing to tragic dramatists. Strangely, then, Corneille takes a similar starting point to Kahneman, and shows a similar concern for cognitive biases, but ends up at a conclusion completely contrary to Kahneman’s – reminding us, in case we needed reminding, that there may be various different ways of being coherently irrational.

Joseph Harris is Senior Lecturer in French at Royal Holloway, University of London. He has published widely on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French literature (especially drama), and is the author of Hidden Agendas: Cross-Dressing in Seventeenth-Century France (Narr, 2005) and Inventing the Spectator: Subjectivity and the Theatrical Experience in Early Modern France (OUP, 2014). He is interested in how early modern French theatre engages with such issues as gender, psychology, laughter, and spectatorship, and he is currently writing a monograph on death in the works of Pierre Corneille. He can be followed on Twitter at @duckmaus.

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Image credit: Pierre Corneille, Anonymous artist, 17th century. Palace of Versailles. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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40. The Bickering Sisters

There once were two lovely young girls, sisters in fact, who lived in a spacious abode that seemed, too often, to close in around them. They were two of four daughters, not the golden-brown edge ones, but the soft, fair-haired, middlest sisters, mixed and squeezed together so much that they couldn’t get along. In fact, they bickered constantly.

Kou-Kou_by_Georgios_Iakovidis

They bickered near, they bickered far

They argued things trivial, humdrum, and bizarre.

“I’m sick of your manners,” one would often yell.

“I don’t like your meddling or dubious smell”

The other undaunted, her resentments would list

And sometimes erupt in a tirade of fists

Finally the lady of the manor (the loveliest, fairest maiden in the land) had had quite enough. She threatened, cajoled, and punished the two sisters. In frustration, she assigned them chores in the hopes of building teamwork. The clever mother’s schemes worked…but only for a season. For the enmity between the two sisters had grown as great and thick as their noble father’s ample chest hair.

He, the master of the house, was wise on his own account and took action to solve the embarrassing bickering once and for all. He tied the legs of the two sisters together with red silky ribbon, telling them to write down ten things each admired in the other. Only then would the ribbon be removed and their freedom attained.

He congratulated himself on his shrewdness and saw to the other important tasks of the manor, little knowing that the two cunning sisters conspired against him. Each composed a flowery list detailing their own most praiseworthy virtues, swapped scrolls, and beckoned their father back to their dungeon. So pleased was he that he released the two fair girls immediately with a tender kiss on each brow.

He boasted to his lovely wife in their bedchamber that night and wondered at how she could possibly resist his dashing charm. While choruses singing praise echoed inside his swollen head, the lady heard the familiar bicker, bicker, bicker from the other side of the door. The master and fine lady gave up! Would the two sisters ever be confidants or were they doomed to dwell in the moat of antipathy ever after?

Alas, one fine day, something came into their hands that brought the two together better than any silk ribbon ever could. It was warm, imaginative, and likable to both parties. They loved this thing, pondered it, and discussed it non-stop. Oft in the evenings, side by side they could be found on a blue, fluffy throne doing nothing but soak up the enjoyment of this thing…together. Yes, together.

An amazing light shone over the humble manor – the light of peace.

What was this wonderful thing of harmony, you ask? What could it possibly be? It was a book, then another, and another. It was literature that bound their squabbling hearts and imaginations together.

The lord of the manor, a brilliant novelist in his own mind, felt it important to pay tribute to one of the tomes that brought reconciliation to his home. To celebrate Divergent’s theatrical debut, I give you Virgil’s take on one of the wonderful works that put hatred asunder.

Not coming to a theater near you….

image

Artwork By Georgios Iakovidis (1853-1932)
Imitation Artwork yet unclaimed

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41. Ovid the naturalist

By Jane Alison


Ovid was born on the 20th of March (two thousand and fifty-some years ago): born on the cusp of spring, as frozen streams in the woods of his Sulmo cracked and melted to runnels of water, as coral-hard buds beaded black stalks of shrubs, as tips of green nudged at clods of earth and rose, and rose, and released tumbles of blooms.

The extraordinariness of living-change: this would be the life-breath of Ovid’s great Metamorphoses. In his poem are changes as real as being born, falling in love for the first time, or dying. In it, too, are changes that seem fantastical: a boy becomes a spotted newt; a girl becomes a myrrh. But is it so much more surprising to see a feather sprout from your fingertip than to look between your legs, at twelve, and find a new whorl of hairs? Or feel, growing in your belly, another small body? Many of even the fantastic transformations in Ovid’s poem are equations for natural change, as if to make us see anew. To portray his transmutations, both fantastic and real, Ovid studied closely the natural shifts in forms all around him.

He looked at the effects of warm blood rising within skin, for instance, or sunrays streaming through cloth. Here’s Arachne, caught in a moment of brashness:

A sudden blush filled her face–
she couldn’t control it–but vanished as fast,
just as the sky grows plum when dawn first comes
but with sunrise, soon glows white.

Atalanta, mosaic, 3rd or 4th century. Scala / Art Resource, NY

Atalanta, mosaic, 3rd or 4th century. Scala / Art Resource, NY

Or Atalanta as she runs races to avoid being married:

A flush runs over the girl’s pearly skin,
as when a red awning over a marble hall
suffuses it with the illusion of hue.

Several mythical girls in Ovid’s poem turn into springs. How render this? Byblis cries uncontrollably once her brother has refused her love:

Just as drops weep from the trunk of a pine tree
or oily bitumen oozes from soil
or ice loosens to liquid under the sun
when a warm breeze gently breathes from the west,
so Byblis slowly resolved into tears, slowly
she slipped into stream.

Cyane is overcome, too, when she can’t save a girl who’s been stolen:

In her silent mind grew
an inconsolable wound. Overwhelmed by tears,
she dissolved into waters whose mystic spirit
she’d recently been. You could see limbs go tender,
her bones begin bending, her nails growing soft.
Her slimmest parts were the first to turn liquid,
her ultramarine hair, legs, fingers, and feet
(for the slip from slender limbs to cool water
is slight). Then her shoulders, back, hips, and breasts
all melted and vanished in rivulets.
At last instead of living blood clear water flowed
through her loosened veins, with nothing left to hold.

And how might new forms come to be? Ovid considered coral:

But a sprig of seaweed–still wet with living pith–
touches Medusa’s head, feels her force, and hardens,
stiffness seeping into the strand’s fronds and pods.
The sea-nymphs test the wonder on several sprigs
and are so delighted when it happens again
they throw pods into the sea, sowing seeds for more.
And even now this is the nature of coral.
At the touch of air it petrifies: a supple
sprig when submarine in air turns into stone.

For a new flower to be born and be a yearly testament to Venus’ grief when her lover, Adonis, is gored to death, Ovid thought of peculiarly animate earth:

Venus sprinkled
scented nectar on Adonis’ blood. With each drop
the blood began to swell, as when bubbles rise
in volcanic mud. No more than an hour had passed
when a flower the color of blood sprang up,
the hue of a pomegranate hiding ruby seeds
inside its leathery rind.

And in the story of Myrrha, Ovid elides psychological, naturalistic, and fantastic transformations. Myrrha has seduced her father and, pregnant, fled into the wilds. When her child is about to be born, she cannot bear to live inside her own skin, so she prays:

“If alive I offend the living
and dead I offend the dead, throw me from both zones:
change me. Deny me both life and death.”
Some spirit was open to her words, some god
willing to grant her last prayer. For soil spread
over her shins as she spoke, and her toenails split
into rootlets that sank down to anchor her trunk.
Her bones grew dense, marrow thickened to pith,
her blood paled to sap, arms became branches
and fingers twigs; her skin dried and toughened to bark.
Now the growing wood closed on her swollen womb
and breast and was just encasing her throat–
but she couldn’t bear to wait anymore and bent
to the creeping wood, buried her face in the bark.
Her feelings have slipped away with her form
but still Myrrha weeps, warm drops trickling from the tree.
Yet there’s grace in these tears: the myrrh wept by the bark
keeps the girl’s name, which will never be left unsaid.
Then the baby that was so darkly conceived grew
inside its mother’s bark until it sought a way
out; on the trunk, a belly knob, swollen.
The pressure aches, but Myrrha’s pain has no words,
no Lucina to cry as she strains to give birth.
As if truly in labor the tree bends and moans
and moans more, the bark wet with sliding tears.
Then kind Lucina comes and strokes the groaning
limbs, whispering words to help the child slip free.
The bark slowly cracks, the trunk splits, and out slides
the live burden: a baby boy wails.

A panoply of metamorphoses, fantastical and real, shifting from life to loss to life again. And the baby just born is Adonis, who, though adored by Venus, will die, and his blood will sink into the earth–but then bubble up as an anemone, and it will be springtime, again, and again.

Jane Alison is author of Change Me: Stories of Sexual Transformation from Ovid. Her previous works on Ovid include her first novel, The Love-Artist (2001) and a song-cycle entitled XENIA (with composer Thomas Sleeper, 2010). Her other books include a memoir, The Sisters Antipodes (2009), and two novels, Natives and Exotics (2005) and The Marriage of the Sea (2003). She is currently Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Virginia. She is speaking at the Viriginia Book Festival today at 4:00 p.m.

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42. The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry

Zevin's novel is a delight! A. J. Fikry is a bitter man, and it bleeds into his chosen profession of bookselling. Then you watch this sad man transform into a bookseller of passion as love impacts his life. It's funny and quietly powerful, and it will move you to tears. Books mentioned in this post [...]

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43. Shotgun Lovesongs

In this love ballad to the Midwest, author Nickolas Butler gives us a glimpse inside small-town Wisconsin. The novel follows a circle of friends — a farmer, a rock star, a businessman, a mother, and a rodeo cowboy — as they each come to grips with the choices and events that have set the course [...]

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44. Of Walking in Rain

Of Walking in Rain is the latest literary output from the one-man stone Oregon publishing empire that is Matt Love. His devotion to and celebration of all things Beaver State is often infectious (and perhaps ought to be classified as a contagion). His newest work, a stylistic torrent, is a paean to Oregon's "most famous [...]

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45. The River Why

What can you say? This book is loved by so many readers for a reason. It does what all great fiction does: it gets in your bones and rattles the cage a bit. It also displays some of the most beautiful writing I've encountered about the art of fly fishing, giving even A River Runs [...]

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46. The Mythomaniacs by Jules Bass | Dedicated Review

The Mythomaniacs is well-suited to middle-school readers but is also sure to enchant younger readers as a read-along story. It is also a great stepping-off point for introducing readers to some of the great classics: such as Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven, Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem Jabberwocky and the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

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47. Review – & Sons by David Gilbert

9780007552795I am a sucker for a great American novel, in particular ones set in college and this kind of fits into both those categories but with a twist. This was originally described to me as Wonderboys meets The Art of Fielding which isn’t necessarily true. Instead imagine a novel like Wonderboys or The Art of Fielding and then imagine what happens to the author and his family forty years later.

A.N. Dyer is the author of Ampersand, a seminal work of American literature set in a college in the 1950s. It was the defining book of his career and is still held in reverence forty years later. A.N. Dyer, Andrew, is now an old man. He has three sons, two with his wife and one from an affair that ended his marriage. Following the death of his oldest and closest friend Andrew, sensing his own imminent mortality, tries to repair his damaged relationship with his sons.

Gilbert treads a fine line throughout the book between satire and metafiction dipping in and out of each almost perfectly. He deftly blurs the lines between fact and fiction in his fictitious world. The way his dissects the publishing industry is wickedly brilliant but the core of the novel is the relationship between fathers and sons and the battles fought over legacy and individualism. The story is narrated by Philipp Topping, the son of Andrew’s recently deceased best friend, who I wouldn’t go as far to say is an unreliable narrator but he definitely has his own biases. The story does take a slightly odd turn but Gilbert keeps everything on the road.

A clever story of fathers and sons and a tragic exploration of the great American novel and it’s aftermath.

Buy the book here…

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48. Selected fables about wolves and fishermen

Jean de La Fontaine’s verse fables turned traditional folktales into some of the greatest, and best-loved, poetic works in the French language. His versions of stories such as ‘The Wolf in Shepherd’s Clothing’ and ‘The Lion and the Fly’ are witty and sophisticated, satirizing human nature in miniature dramas in which the outcome is unpredictable. The behaviour of both animals and humans is usually centred on deception and cooperation (or the lack of it), as they cheat and fight each other, arguing about life and death, in an astonishing variety of narrative styles. To get a flavour of the fables, here are two taken from Selected Fables by Jean de La Fontaine, translated by Christopher Betts.

The Wolf in Shepherd’s Clothing
A wolf had hunted sheep from local fields,
but found the hunt was giving lower yields.
He thought to take a leaf from Reynard’s book:
disguise himself by changing what he wore.
He donned a smock, and took a stick for crook;
the shepherd’s bagpipes too he bore.
The better to accomplish his design,
he would have wished, had he been able,
to place upon his hat this label:
‘My name is Billy and these sheep are mine.’
His alterations now complete,
he held the stick with two front feet;
then pseudo-Billy gently stepped
towards the flock, and while he crept,
upon the grass the real Billy slept.
His dog as well was sound asleep,
his bagpipes too, and almost all the sheep.
The fraudster let them slumber where they lay.
By altering his voice to suit his dress,
he meant to lure the sheep away
and take them to his stronghold in the wood,
which seemed to him essential to success.
It didn’t do him any good.
He couldn’t imitate the shepherd’s speech;
the forest echoed with his wolfish screech.
His secret was at once undone:
his howling woke them, every one,
the lad, his dog, and all his flock.
The wolf was in a sorry plight:
amidst the uproar, hampered by his smock,
he could not run away, nor could he fight.
Some detail always catches rascals out.
He who is a wolf in fact
like a wolf is bound to act:
of that there ’s not the slightest doubt.

The Fisherman and the Little Fish
A little fish will bigger grow
if Heaven lets it live; but even so
to set one free, and wait until it’s fat,
then try again: I see no sense in that;
I doubt that it will let itself be caught.
An angler at the river’s edge one day
had hooked a carp. ‘A tiddler still,’ he thought,
but then reflected, looking at his prey:
‘Well, every little helps to make a meal,
perhaps a banquet; in the creel
is where you’ll go, to start my store.’
As best it could, the fish replied:
‘What kind of meal d’you think that I’ll provide?
I’d make you half a mouthful, not much more.
I’ll grow much bigger if you throw me back;
then catch me later on; I’d fill a sack.
A full-grown carp’s a fish that you can sell;
some greedy businessman will pay you well.
But now, you’d need a hundred fish
the size that I am now, to fill a single dish.
Besides, what sort of dish? Hardly a feast.’
‘No feast? quite so,’ replied the man;
‘it’s something, though, at least.
You prate as well as parsons can,
my little friend; but though you talk a lot
this evening it’s the frying-pan for you.’
A bird in the hand, as they say, is worth two
in the bush; the first one is certain, the others are not.

Jean de La Fontaine (1621-95) followed a career as a poet after early training for the law and the Church. He came under the wing of Louis XIV’s Finance Minister, Nicolas Fouquet, and later enjoyed the patronage of the Duchess of Orléans and Mme de La Sablière. His Fables were widely admired, and he was already regarded in his lifetime as one of the greatest poets of his age. Christopher Betts was Senior Lecturer in the French Department at Warwick University. In 2009 he published an acclaimed translation of Perrault’s The Complete Fairy Tales with OUP.

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49. Tessa Hadley: The Powells.com Interview

Tessa Hadley is a British novelist and short story writer who is highly praised by critics, frequently published in the New Yorker, and regularly compared to Alice Munro and Colm Tóibín. But I am convinced she remains underread in this country. Hadley quietly and brilliantly illuminates seemingly ordinary lives in stories that shine with emotional [...]

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50. An Irish literature reading list from Oxford World’s Classics

By Kirsty Doole


With today being St Patrick’s Day, we’ve taken the opportunity to recommend a few classic works of Irish literature to dip into while you’re enjoying a pint (or two) of Guinness.

386px-Djuna_Barnes_-_JoyceFinnegans Wake by James Joyce

Joyce is one of the most famous figures in Irish literature, and Finnegans Wake is infamous for being one of the most formidable books in existence. It plays fantastic games with language and reinvents the very idea of the novel in the process of telling the story of Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker and his wife Anna Livia, in whom the character of Ireland itself takes form. Around them and their dreams there swirls a vortex of world history, of ambition and failure, pride and shame, rivalry and conflict, gossip and mystery.

A Tale of a Tub and Other Works by Jonathan Swift

This was the first major work written by Jonathan Swift. The author explains in a preface that it is the practice of seamen when they meet a whale to throw out an empty tub to divert it from attacking the ship. Hence the title of the satire, which is intended to divert Hobbes’s Leviathan and the wits of the age from picking holes in the weak sides of religion and government. The author proceeds to tell the story of a father who leaves as a legacy to his three sons Peter, Martin, and Jack a coat apiece, with directions that on no account are the coats to be altered. Peter symbolizes the Roman Church, Martin (from Martin Luther) the Anglican, Jack (from John Calvin) the Dissenters. The sons gradually disobey the injunction. Finally Martin and Jack quarrel with the arrogant Peter, then with each other, and separate.

The Playboy of the Western World and Other Plays by J. M. Synge

In The Playboy of the Western World, the action takes place in a public house, when a stranger enters and is persuaded to tell his story. Impressed, the admiring audience thinks he must be very brave indeed to have killed his father, and in turn the young tramp blossoms into the daring rollicking hero they believe him to be. But then his father, with a bandaged head, turns up seeking his worthless son. Disillusioned and angry at the loss of their hero, the crowd turns the stranger, who tries to prove that he is indeed capable of savage deeds, even attempting unsuccessfully to kill his father again. The play ends with father and son leaving together with the words “Shut yer yelling for if you’re after making a mighty man of me this day by the power of a lie, you’re setting me now to think if it’s a poor thing to be lonesome, it’s worse maybe to go mixing with the fools of earth.”

Dracula by Bram Stoker

One of the greatest horror stories ever written. This is the novel that introduced the character of Count Dracula to the world, spawning a whole host of vampire fictions in its wake. As well as being a pioneering text in horror fiction, it also has much to say about the nature of empire, with Dracula hell-bent on spreading his contagion into the very heart of the British empire. Fun fact: Bram Stoker’s wife, Florence Balcombe, had previously been courted by Oscar Wilde.

The Major Works by W. B. Yeats

W. B. Yeats was born in 1865 and died in 1939. His career crossed the 19th and 20th centuries, from the Romantic early poems of Crossways and the symbolist masterpiece The Wind Among the Reeds to his last poems. Myth and folk-tale influence all of his work, most notably in Cathleen ni Houlihan among others. The importance of the spirit world to his life and work is evident in his critical essays and occult writings, and he also wrote a whole host of political speeches, autobiographical writings, and letters.

The Wild Irish Girl by Sydney Owenson (Lady Morgan)

This is the story of the son of an English lord, Horation, who is banished to his father’s Irish estate as punishment for gambling debts, he adopts the persona of knight errant and goes off in search of adventure. On the wild west coast of Connaught he finds remnants of a romantic Gaelic past a dilapidated castle, a Catholic priest, a deposed king and the king’s lovely and learned daughter, Glorvina. In the process he rediscovered a love for the life and culture of his country. Written after the Act of Union, The Wild Irish Girl (1806) is a passionately nationalistic novel and an essential novel in the discourse of Irish nationalism. The novel was so controversial in Ireland that the author, Lady Morgan, was put under surveillance by Dublin Castle. There is a bust of Lady Morgan in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the plaque mentions that Lady Morgan was “less than four feet tall.”

In a Glass Darkly by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

This dark collection of five stories was said by none other than Henry James to be “the ideal reading… for the hours after midnight”. Indeed, J. Sheridan Le Fanu himself had a reputation for being both reclusive and rarely seen in the daytime. His fascination with the occult led to his stories being truly spine-chilling, drawing on the Gothic tradition and elements of Irish folklore, as well as on the social and political anxieties of his Anglo-Irish contemporaries.

Kirsty Doole is Publicity Manager for Oxford World’s Classics.

For over 100 years Oxford World’s Classics has made available the broadest spectrum of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford’s commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, voluminous notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more. You can follow Oxford World’s Classics on Twitter, Facebook, or here on the OUPblog. Subscribe to only Oxford World’s Classics articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS.

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Image credit: James Joyce. By Djuna Barnes. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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