17 May 2024

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë


Social background

Wuthering Heights (1847) was published a decade into the Victorian Age when the UK was changing from a mainly agrarian society into an industrial economy. Millions moved into the factory cities to find work. Meanwhile Emily Brontë (1818–1848) grew up in the final days of rural Yorkshire.

Victorian society was conservative and the Brontë sisters published under male pseudonyms due to the Victorian public's patriarchal belief that women were primarily moral influences and homekeepers. The novel also received negative criticism for its supposed immorality. When Charlotte revealed Emily's identity after her death critics were surprised that the novel could have been written by an inexperienced woman in rural surroundings and indeed that the violence and passion of the novel were conceived by a female. There was even a failed attempt to prove that Emily's brother, Branwell, had composed the novel.

Respectable Victorian society was linked to landlordship. Both the Lintons and Earnshaws were landed gentry. Catherine tells Nelly that she couldn't marry Heathcliff since both would be beggars, but she married Linton to help Heathcliff. Property passed from father to son or nearest male relative. On Edgar's death Thrushcross Grange passes to Cathy's husband, Linton and then to his father Heathcliff.

The stormy climate and expanse of the Yorkshire moors is present in the novel of all three Brontë authoresses. It is particularly used by Emily as a background for her novel. The local folklore about ghosts and fairies is also incorporated into her writing. These may have inspired the episodes of Lockwood's spectral dream at the beginning of the novel and his later nightmare about the 490 part sermon.

Illness and death due to the adverse climate were an accepted part of life and Emily's older sisters died young of tuberculosis. Edgar and Linton also die of wasting diseases in her fiction.

The Brontë's father was a clergyman and religion has influenced the novel. Joseph is a hellfire and brimstone character, probably based on an ecclesiastical instructor. These educators appear frequently in the novel as teachers to the young characters like Cathy and Linton. 

Literary tradition

Wuthering Heights is not in the sedate tradition of Victorian literature and belongs more to that of the gothic novel. (Mary Shelley had published Frankenstein (1818) and Valperga (1823) during Emily's childhood.)

At the time of writing the novel of the Romantic movement, inspired by the French Revolution of 1789, with its themes of nature, the individual, irrationality, freedom and mysticism were in vogue in European literature. Walter Scott's Rob Roy (1817), also set in the wild border country with characters from landed gentry, has parallels with Emily Brontë's romance. Both female main characters, Cathy and Diana, are also equally out of place among their coarse families. 

Byron's sexually attractive, passionate, proud and malevolent heroes were taken up by Charlotte Bronte and closely resemble the portrait of Heathcliff described by Emily. 

Religion in Wuthering Heights also extends to a primal experience of the spiritual which was important to the Romantic movement. Heathcliff is a dark-skinned demonic figure, though his ill-treatment at the hands of Hindley and rejection by the Lintons are reminders of how Frankenstein's monster became evil through social repudiation.

17 Apr 2024

Frankenstein by Mary Shellley

Social and economic background

The French Revolution in 1789 was a reference point for the Romantic movement. It marked the shift of economic power from the aristocracy to the middle classes, provoked by the rise in industrialism. Advances in technology also alarmed the working classes who saw their jobs in jeopardy, replaced by machines. With the rise of Napoleon war broke out between the UK and France, ending in 1815. However the economic and social problems of the country were not addressed due to a laissez-faire government policy which favoured deregulation and did not attempt to solve the economic shift from an agricultural to an industrial society. This led to poor wages and conditions for the working class who were forbidden by law to unionise. Eventually the workers turned to violence to protest and the Luddite movement was born.

Literary thinkers, like Shelley's father, grasped the opportunity to argue for a more equal distribution of property. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), demanding equality between the sexes.

As well as technological advances scientific ideas also matured and one of the most significant was Erasmus Darwin’s thinking on biological evolution, which prefigured his grandson Charles' later research. Mary Shelley joined discussions in Byron's house on Erasmus' notions. She was also influenced by Crosse's galvanism, the study of electrical experiments.

The Gothic Novel

By the second half of the eighteenth century Walpole's gothic novel The Castle of Otranto (1764) had appeared. It deviated from the traditional novelistic theme of fictional realism, pretending to describe the world as it exists. The gothic novel ignored the contemporary Augustan Age neoclassical culture of rationalism and gentility and its rejection of enthusiasm and superstition. 

Yet, the gothic novel was widely read at the time, possibly as a reaction against the culture of restraint and the Protestant ethic. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1811) carried over the gothic tradition into the next century as the novel of experimental science.

20 Mar 2024

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen


Historical context

At the beginning of the nineteenth century the Augustan Age continued its advances in capitalism and industrialism, legitimised by the economic theories of Adam Smith. This boom would also help lead to the rise of the Empire in the same century.

Literary context

The end of the eighteenth century was characterised by a growth in literacy promoted by charity schools, increased opportunities for women and the tradition of circulating libraries. This period also saw a questioning of the Enlightenement movement by gothic novelists and some poets. This led to the triumph of individualism and the Romantic movement.

Jane Austen (1775-1817) harked back to the Age which has already passed. Her novels are the final ones of the Enlightenment and her characters are the landed gentry whose desire was for stability in an era of change. They are portrayed as only interested in issues that concern themselves: social position managed through marriage and inheritance. 

Along with Walter Scott (1771-1832), Austen is an historic anomaly. She summarises the concerns of the Augustan Age, while Scott is spokesman for the new Romantic era. Both chose to exclude the Industrial Revolution, the wars waged in their own times and the social revolution in which the middle class replaced the gentry. Their narratives can be seen as an assertion of traditional values in a turbulent time. 

9 Feb 2024

The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith

Historical Background

When The Vicar of Wakefield was published in 1766 the British Empire was in expansion and the Industrial Revolution had begun. However, despite the rising economic activity in British cities, rural areas like that of Goldsmith's childhood remained untouched, as is reflected in his prose and poetry.

The 18th. century applied the tools of the scientific revolution, empirical observation and research, to law, religion, economics and politics. This replaced the traditional faith in divine revelation as the source of knowledge.

Revolutionary ideas opposing the Absolute Monarchy and replacing it with accountability, were led by Locke in the UK the previous century and Rousseau in the 18th. They argued that authority came from the people, not from God. French soldiers returning home from the US war of independence (1775-1783), where they had supported the colonies against the British, brought republican values. Inspired in the Enlightenment these ignited France and led to the revolution of 1789 that abolished the absolute monarchy. 

In economics Adam Smith complained about mercantilism, the prevailing model of economic isolation, instead of trade. He proposed the novel theories of supply and demand, laissez-faire capitalism and minimum market regulation. The aim was that countries produce what they manufactured well and import what they did not. These ideas set a basis for neoliberalism in modern economic thinking.

In art there was a reaction to the previously Baroque and Rococo extravagances. The neoclassical movement looked to the Greco-Roman artistic ideals. This return to simplicity and harmony fitted well with the 18th. century philosophical vision based on rationality. The novel format arose, too, in this century with its insistence on fictional realism, consistent with contemporary scientific objectivity.

The Enlightenment debate also attempted to overcome traditional thinking by integrating the physical and the metaphysical. These were expressed in philosophical terms by British empiricism and French metaphysicians.

Literary background

The Vicar of Wakefield is a prime example of the sentimental novel, a late 18th-century genre, that traced the emotional responses of characters and readers to their situations.

It was a reaction to the previous century's rationalism, in line with novels like Ricardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740), Rousseau's La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761), Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey (1768), and Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). This tradition laid the way for later Gothic and Romantic novels.

The Vicar of Wakefield is similar to Tristram Shandy in its satire of the clichés of the sentimental novel which mixed tearful scenes and morality and where a pure heart is portrayed in characters' feelings about the beauties of nature and empathy with the sorrows of others. Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility (1811) would later develop this satire with its sharp criticism of sentimentalism.

3 Jan 2024

Tristram Shandy by Lawrence Sterne

1. Literary background

Narrative presentation:

In Don Quixote (1605 & 1615) the knight lives out his own fiction by re-enacting fictions of chivalric romances. Following Cervantes' lead, Tristram, another fictional character, writes his own fictional autobiography in Tristram Shandy (1759-1767). Both books are metafictions: fictions about fiction. This is Sterne's 18th. century comment on reality, which is not something solid, but a construct of perceptions, narratives, fictions. The lesson for readers is that this applies, not only to Tristram's thoughts, but to their own thinking.

Applying the novel's traditional approach of characters over plot Richardson presented his narrative in realistic fashion by showing the momentary thoughts, feelings and gestures of his characters, who are more important than the plot. 

Fielding's realism, on the other hand, followed the aristotelian design of plot over characters by focusing on the verisimilitude of his storyline and relying for credibility on probability.

Sterne found a way of bringing together both plot and characters by presenting Tristram as biographer of his autobiography, thus joining his character's perception from inside and outside.

However, what sets Sterne's narrative apart is that it parodies the new approach of the novel: formal realism. Tristram Shandy is a novel satirising the novel's pretended realism, just as Cervantes satired Don Quixote's knightly identity as a fantasy.

The hero

Tristram is the focus of Sterne's ironical characterisation. Trist(ram) is his name and defines his sad character. His novelistic identity is fused with his naming, yet his personal identity is a puzzle. 


The passing of time in the novel depends, not on the clock, but on the narrator's stream-of-consciousness. This links Sterne's novel to Richardson's timing, which was expressed in the present tense in his characters' epistles. However, Tristram is also recounting his personal 'life and opinions' which allows him to adapt to a longer timeline, similar to Defoe's autobiography in Robinson Crusoe. Sterne also emulates Fielding's chronology, correlating his fiction with such family dates as those of Uncle Toby's battles in Flanders. Nevertheless, Tristram Shandy goes even further and presents a correspondence between literature and reality by offering the reader an hour's reading matter for every hour in his fictional life. This, of course, reduces the fictional realism of the novel to an absurdity since Tristram will employ more than an hour to pen an hour of his experiences: the more he writes the more the reader's time recedes.


Fielding organised his narrative sequences into scenes which counterpoint each other ironically. This occasionally appears overmanipulative on the author's part. Sterne, on the contrary, can manipulate all he wants without losing authenticity because his narrator is inside his own head and so unconcerned with external chronology. A chaotic narration is accepted by the reader since it is the reflection of the narrator's mental disorder.


Richardson's Clarissa has ideal goodness as a central theme. Sterne presents Uncle Toby in the same manner, as the embodiment of goodness. Fielding, of course, criticised Richardson's ideal as Shamela and Sterne, too, introduces an opposite to goodness: the villainous Widow Wadman.


Tristram Shandy owes much to Don Quixote's main characters who are dualistic representations of realism in Sancho and idealism in Don Quixote himself. Tristram's story also incarnates ideas and sensory input, but in one person. Sterne, following Cervantes, suggests that truth is neither completely external, as science would have it, nor only introspective, as humanism perceives it, but that reality is a collection of different narratives.

Richardson was distinguished from Fielding by their differing emphasis on the individual and the social. This double realism in the novel is later exemplified in French literature by Balzac's sociological emphasis on the exterior and Proust's psychological analysis Yet both are considered realists. Sterne synthesises both approaches since he explores both the inner and outer worlds from inside Tristram's head. 

2. Philosophical background

The dualistic approaches to knowledge go back to the realism and idealism of platonic ideals and aristotelian pragmatism.

However, the Enlightenment emphasised this distinction further in Descartes' dualistic vision of inner and outer: "I think therefore I am." The philosophical problem led, logically, to the question of how the inner I could know the exterior world.

Novelists, however, though recognising the differences between interior and exterior have chosen to accept both as 'real' and focus on the problematic relationships between them. Defoe's memoir style is especially suited to displaying the tensions between inner and outer worlds. He uses the Cartesian individualistic view to define both the internal and external worlds more clearly. Later Proust also presented both the Third Republic and his personal introspective analysis.

Locke defined identity through memory of the past, which enables a continuity of self-awareness. Hume continued this theme when he analysed the development of personal identity as causation, the perception of previous cause and later effect which are not related in reality, only through perception. Sterne's Shandy is conscious of his own personality through the comparison of past and present experiences, but in the end is unsure of who he is. 

24 Nov 2023

Tom Jones by Henry Fielding

Literary context

Henry Fielding's (1707-1754) picaresque narrative Tom Jones (1749) draws on the Spanish tradition of Don Quixote (1605). Cervantes invented a manuscript to lend realism to his story and, in the second part of Book 1, he documents Quixote's adventures as a journal, a procedure followed in Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver's Travels. Both of these narratives are also travel stories, as is Tom Jones. (Jones also has a Sancho Panza sidekick in Mr. Patridge.) Cervantes structured Book 1 as a 'history' with the author following the antics of his leading characters. This is how Fielding also presents what he calls his history

Cervantes' narrative points also towards the modern novel through its subplots, low and high styles and self-commentary. However, Don Quixote went deeper than Tom Jones since the author himself became a character in Book 2. This allowed Cervantes to write a fiction about fiction, a satire on realism. Nonetheless, because of its chosen theme Cervantes' masterpiece remains unrealistic and credibility will be the mark of the new art form of the novel. Quixote's distorted perception of reality lies in his belief that romance novels are real and Cervantes is satirising these chivalric tales. The English author, on the other hand, uses the romance theme of true love to power his narrative.

Some Enlightenment French novels also adopted themes from Spanish literature which appear in Tom Jones, too: satire, a panorama of social milieux and coming-of-age stories such as Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane by Alain-René Lesage (1715).

Fielding had been a playwright and was steeped in classical literature. The characters in Tom Jones are presented in the Greco-Roman dramatic tradition, many dominated by humours, such as lechery, avarice or superstition. Fielding was famous for the formula that the novel was ‘the comic epic in prose’. However, the epic as a classical genre was oral and poetic. It dealt with historical or legendary deeds and people working as a collectivity. The novel is none of these things but deals with individuals and their personal stories. Tom Jones is epic in the sense that it presents a panorama of society, unlike Richardson his contemporary who portrayed a small social group. Nevertheless, the novel does introduce characteristics of the epic plot by using mock heroic battles in a comic context and includes many quotes from classical writers.

Fielding's deep classical background led him to maintain that the contemporary literary taste was anarchic. He affirmed that no critic should be officially recognised unless he had understood Aristotle, Horace, and Longinus, in their original. Aristotle prioriterised plot over character but Defoe and Richardson inverted this, making plot dependent on characters. Fielding reverts to an aristotelian priority of plot. He does this through theatrical portrayal in Tom Jones, treating the plot as a history and his characters as actors. Unlike Defoe, Swift and Richardson before him, who carefully constructed a credible story through a first person narrator, Fielding sets himself up as the chorus in a Greek comedy. He is an omniscient narrator who addresses readers constantly, guiding them through the interpretation of his own fiction.

In the neoclassical tradition epic action featured two elements: verisimilitude and the marvellous which are very difficult to integrate. Fielding thought that the novelist should remain within the limits of probability. He emphasised verisimilitude as a reference against the contemporary romance and epic novels, yet avoiding the commonplace as represented in the home section of newspapers, as he explains in Book VIII, chapter 1.

Among Fielding’s contemporaries were writers who contributed to the newly emerging genre of the novel, including Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson. The circumstantial manner in which Defoe’s and Richardson’s novels imitate reality was essential to the new, empirical approach to the world, invoked by scientists of the Royal Society whose approach to truth was through the amassing, weighing, and measuring of particulars. This approach is particularly apparent in Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver's Travels. However, it was Richardson's bestselling novel Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740), narrated as a series of letters, that prompted Fielding to turn from playwright to novelist. The same novel later inspired Rousseau to write Julie ou la Nouvelle Héloïse (1761), also an epistolary novel depicting romantic love.

Pamela was the story of a young woman who became a great lady and found true happiness by defending her chastity. Fielding admired the novel's success but disapproved of its moralising. He wrote an anonymous parody called Shamela in 1741. The next year the author penned his first novel, Joseph Andrews, which began as another spoof of Pamela, but then found its own narrative voice. 

Fielding, while embracing the empirical approach to some extent, in other respects differed from the style of Defoe and Richardson. As a classicist Fielding remained loyal to the tradition of Plato and Aristotle who taught that reality transcends the singularities of daily life. This highest reality is found in the essential forms of things and in generalized representative types; the artist must show the general through particulars, the universal through the accidental. Thus, Fielding’s characters, though they have a life and integrity of their own, can also be read as symbols of a reality larger than themselves, and his novels can be seen as broad depictions of society and even of human nature.

Political background

Tom Jones (1749) was written following the Stuart attempt to reclaim the British throne in 1745. Mr. Patridge is a Jacobite, a supporter of the deposed Catholic king James II and his claim as the legitimate heir to the throne. There was support for the Jacobite cause of a Stuart Catholic monarchy from 1688 until 1745, when the last battle was won by Protestants. The Test Act 1673 was passed to ensure that non-Protestants could hold no State power. It stated that anyone filling any office, civil, military or religious, must take the oaths of supremacy and allegiance and subscribe to a declaration against transubstantiation. (The first Catholic Prime Minister since Thomas More (executed in 1535) was Boris Johnson.)

The Whigs were members of a political group representing some powerful aristocratic families and the financial interests of the middle classes. They monopolized parliamentary politics for most of the century. Whig policies were strongly anti-Catholic, anti-Jacobite, and anti-French.

The Tories were a political group that supporting the hereditary right of the deposed Stuart king James II, in spite of his Roman Catholic faith. They were mainly High-Church Anglicans, the aristocracy, and the squirearchy (country gentry) such as Western. Although they held little parliamentary power after the Hanoverians ascended the throne in 1714, they were dominant in local politics.

10 Oct 2023

Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift


Literary background

Jonathan Swift (1667–1745) was an Irish clergyman. He visited England briefly and joined The Scriblerus Club along with Alexander Pope. Their aim was to write satires on modern knowledge. This was the Age of the Enlightenement in Europe when reason was king and traditional knowledge through faith and revelation was considered secondary. Swift was a Anglican cleric and satirised the widespread intellectual belief in reason.

Gulliver’s Travels (1726) is a satire on the contemporary travel narratives which was a popular literary genre. Using the traditional picaresque structure they were presented as diaries and first-hand accounts of exploration, similar to Robinson Crusoe. Both novels use the technique of fictional realism where the narrator pretends to tell a true tale, although it is a fiction. Defoe had used this novel technique to tell his moral and economic tale of a self-made man in the guise of a shipwrecked sailor. Swift uses his four shipwreck tales to satirise his contemporary society. Readers were eager to learn about far-off lands, such as those explored by Cook. Swift ridicules these often exaggerated adventures by inventing the outrageous trips of Gulliver to entertain gullible readers and as a cover for his sharp social criticism. (His satire of contemporary adventure voyages is parallel to Cervantes' picaresque parody of chivalric novels in Don Quixote and the 19th. century mocking of romantic heroines by the realist novelist, Flaubert, in Madame Bovary.)

The adventures of Gulliver include political satire. In 1714 the liberal Whig party took over power from the conservative Tories. As a Tory, Swift satirised the opposition between the two parties, particularly in the Lilliput episode.

The satire also covers human nature and its pettiness. The Lilliputians are not only petty politicians, but small-minded human beings with their trivial morality. The second voyage to a land of giants includes satirical passages on English law and political system under the guise of comparison with Brobdingnag.

As a clergyman Swift is critical of the contemporary Enlightenment ideology which attempted to rationalise all aspects of life. Locke promoted theories of natural religion and Descartes based his thinking on doubt instead of on faith. A cult arose, which included Diderot and Voltaire, calling themselves Deists. They believed that people could observe the universe and understand it through reason which included religion, but excluded biblical revelation. However, Swift did not agree with the Enlightenment concept that science and reasoning could replace religion. He argued that the Age of Science needed limits, not devotion. The impractical scientists of Laputa and the reasonable, but impersonal, Houyhnhnms, were satires on scientific beliefs.

The French picaresque satire Candide (1759) is also based on travel and it parodies contemporary adventure stories. Voltaire satirises most of society in the novel, particularly Enlightenment optimism, as did Swift.

In Italy the satirical style was exemplified by Zaccaria Seriman's Viaggi di Enrico Wanton (1749–64). It tells the story of an imaginary voyage similar to those of Swift and Voltaire.

(N.B. Depending on the discussion the sessions normally last more than one hour.)

4 Aug 2023

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Literary context

This short introductory background to the novel is an overview of its historical situation in European literature. The monthly sessions will focus on each novel in itself.

In the middle of the 16th. century there arose a form of fiction that appears to have led to the 18th. century novel. It is exemplified in the anonymous picaresque novella The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes and of His Fortunes and Adversities (1554). What separates the picacaresque novella from preceeding texts is its first person narrator who tells his life as it is, without embroidery. He describes sights, sounds and smells which contemporary readers could relate to. The style is confessional, satirical and realistic. A similar style is followed in Cervantes' El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha (1605). Cervantes followed the convention of travelling from adventure to adventure in chivaric romances and picaresque novellas. Each episode is set to refine Don Quixote's identity as in the famous example of the windmills showing the protagonist's false impression of reality.

The picaresque novel was also a genre used in 18th. century French literature. One of the earliest of these novellas was Lesage’s Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane (1715–1735). Not unlike El Lazarillo it is about the education of a young valet as he changes masters.

It is generally recognised that Daniel Defoe was one of the first writers in English to reject plots based on mythology, history, legend or previous literature, such as Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton had done. That literary tradition had been based on the aristotelian premise that Nature is complete, unchanging and definitive. It was Descartes in Discourse on Method (1637) who introduced the modern assumption that the pursuit of truth is a wholly individual matter, independent of past thought and universals. The 18th. century novel reflects this individualistic outlook using the new format of formal realism, a pretence that the narrative is real. In this sense it was truly novel.

The first novel in English is considered to be Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719). The original title of the book is a succinct summary of its narrative technique of formal realism:

"The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who Lived Eight and Twenty Years, All Alone in an Un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, Near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having Been Cast on Shore by Shipwreck, Wherein All the Men Perished but Himself. With an Account how he was at last as Strangely Deliver’d by Pyrates. Written by Himself."

Defoe composed the place, time, plot and autobiographical aspects of the work to maintain an illusion of realism, understood as particularisation. To achieve this readers are presented information in the story as if they were jurors in a court.

5 Jun 2023

Memories of the Future by Siri Hustveldt

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1 May 2023

25 Dec 2022

30 Oct 2022

The 5th. Child by Doris Lessing

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22 Sept 2022

29 May 2022

29 Apr 2022

 The White Tiger

by Aravind Adiga

1 Mar 2022

 A Manual for Cleaning Ladies

By Lucia Berlin

2 Feb 2022

A Passage to India by E.M. Forster

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