Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Books 35 & 36 of 2015: A Modest Proposal by Jonathan & A Strange Eventful History by Michael Holroyd

The size difference between this week's two books could not be more different. On the one hand there's the Little Black Classics A Modest Proposal which clocks in around 60 pages; and A Strange Eventful History which is a massive 620!

A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift is book 8 in Penguin's Little Black Classics collection. This features the title essay 'A Modest Proposal', along with a couple of other satirical essays.

Book cover
I found this to be a quick and interesting little read. I read it all in one day and on the whole I enjoyed it. That said, I did find it a little tricky to read in places, purely because of the style of the writing. When I read Gulliver's Travels I was slightly surprised by the fact that the language was so easily understandable; in some of the essays in this book, that wasn't the case.

My favourite bit of the book was probably 'A Modest Proposal' itself. It was probably the easiest of the essays to follow. It's a satirical essay suggesting that in order to solve the problem of hunger in the population, the richest people should eat the one-year-old babies of the poor. Strangely, Swift does actually make a fairly compelling argument for eating babies.

Second to that I like 'A Meditation Upon a Broomstick' best. It's a parody of a writer named Boyle who would write essays on everyday things and link them to man's relationship to God. I didn't really get the humour in it at first but as it went on I enjoyed it more.

The one that I really struggled with was 'An Examination of Certain Abuses, Corruptions, and Enormities, in the City of Dublin'. I just found it a difficult read and it wasn't as entertaining as 'A Modest Proposal'.

Despite my mixed feelings towards the essays in this book, I suspect that I will visit Jonathan Swift's essays again in the future. I'm really glad that I chose this Little Black Classic; I mostly picked it because I recognised Jonathan Swift's name and have enjoyed most of what I've read by him.

My next book was for Week 19 of my Reading Challenge: A book based on a true story. I should maybe have gone for a more fictionalised book than A Strange Eventful History by Michael Holroyd, but this one was on my shelf and had kept on getting passed over in favour of other books, so this was a good excuse as any to crack it out.

This book looks at the lives of two of the acting greats from the Victorian era; Ellen Terry and Henry Irving. I picked it up in Oban's Oxfam when we went up there for my birthday a couple of years ago, purely because I saw Sir Henry Irving's name. Irving's real name was John Henry Brodribb; my Nan's maiden name was Brodribb, and I'm distantly related to him (via his brother). It's enough of a link to make me pick up the book, but wasn't enough to make me actually read it.

On the whole it was an interesting book, but there was an awful lot of information to cover. The sort of relationship that Irving and Terry had makes it easy to see why Holroyd chose to tackle the subject of them together, but I think that it could almost have been two or even three books. It literally goes right back to the birth of each actor and then follows them through their lives, including their work together, up to their deaths and a little afterward to look at their families.

To be honest, I found the bits about Sir Henry Irving most interesting. I suppose this was because of that personal link for me. Perhaps if I was more interested in Victorian theatre, or Ellen Terry, or productions of Shakespeare plays, then I might have been more into the other aspects of the book, but the stand out bits for me were about Irving.

There was a lot in the book which I think could have been done away with, or perhaps covered in another book. There was loads of information about the Terry and Irving children; what they did (or didn't do), their business ventures, acting attempts, successes and failures. On the one hand it was somewhat interesting, but on the other, I wanted to read a book about Terry and Irving not about their kids. There was loads on Donald Craig after Ellen Terry died, just reading about him annoyed me and I didn't see the relevance because by that time Ellen Terry wasn't even in the book any more.

The main thing that surprised me was the sheer number of illegitimate children. Ellen Terry wouldn't have been out of place as a modern actress today, but that really surprised me considering the era they were living. The same goes for her daughter who had relationships with other women; it just wasn't something I was expecting.

I'm glad that I've read this book and I think it's one that I might refer back to in the future. Next time I think I'll dip in and out of it, just picking up on the bits that appeal to me and skipping over the rest.

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