The Charge of the Light Brigade

Author: Alfred Tennyson (1809–1892)
Downloaded: wikisource via iBooks


Alfred Tennyson was born in Lincolshire, England. He was appointed by Queen Victoria as Poet Laureate in 1850. He would hold that post until his death, the longest tenure ever. He became Baron Tennyson in 1884.

Tennyson’s most famous works are In memoriam A.H.H. (completed in 1849), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1855) and Idylls of the King (1859–1885).

What is the story about?

The Charge of the Light Brigade celebrates a charge of British light cavalry led by James Brudenell, Lord Cardigan, against Russian forces during the Battle of Balaclava on 25 October 1854 in the Crimean War. The poem was published just one and half months after the actual event.


In the Victorian Era, the poetry that has come to characterise the preceding Romantic Era became displaced by the novel as the dominant form of literature, with Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, the Brönte sisters, George Eliot and Thomas Hardy being the foremost exponent of the new form. Lord Tennyson was one of the major writers who continued to write poetry during the Victorian Era.

Finally …

The Charge of the Light Brigade is an easily digested read. It is regularly quoted and referenced even today.

Et cetera

The lines “Theirs not to reason why / Theirs but to do and die” from The Charge of the Light Brigade is very likely to be familiar even to someone who has not read the poem. Indeed, Lord Tennyson is one of the most quoted writers ever. His other great poem In memoriam AHH has given us “’Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all” and “Nature, red in tooth and claw”.



The Turn of the Screw

Author: Henry James (1843–1916)
Downloaded: Project Gutenberg via iBooks


Henry James the author, playwright and literary critic was born in New York City. His father Henry James Sr was a theologian and philosopher and his friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow exposed the young Henry to their influence. Between 1855 to 1860, Henry Sr lived abroad with his family in various major cities of Europe. The children were taught by private tutors at home.

Henry James had always been interested in literature and his first story was published in 1864. In 1869, he moved to London where he would remain for most of his life, even becoming a British citizen in 1915, one year before his death. His ashes were interred in Cambridge, Massachusetts. On 17 June 1976 a memorial stone for Henry James was unveiled in Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey by his great grand-nephew.

Most of his major works were written after his expatriation, including the novels The American (1876–1877), The Portrait of a Lady (1881) and The Ambassadors (1903). But his most popular works are the more accessible novellas Daisy Miller (1878) and The Turn of the Screw (1889).

Henry James is regarded as one of the leading figures of Literary Realism. This movement is contrasted with the preceding Romanticism: Realism, as the term itself suggests, aimed to represent real life as it is, in all its ordinariness, without embellishment or idealisation. The focus is on the ordinary, not the extraordinary. The movement started in France with Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850) and Gustave Flaubert (1821–1880). Other prominent Realist authors include the Russian Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–1881) and England’s George Elliot (1819–1880).

What is the story about?

A unnamed young lady was hired by a man in London to be a governess to his orphaned nephew Miles and niece Flora. The governess was clearly besotted with his employer. Soon after she started work, she learned that Miles was expelled from school. The reason is never disclosed and the governess believed her employer did not want her to look into it. The governess’ routine was unsettled by the apparitions of her predecessor and her lover, the former valet, both of whom were dead. How they died is never disclosed.

After questioning the housekeeper Mrs Grosse, the governess concluded that the dead servants had improper relationships with each other and with the children. The precise nature of what happened is never disclosed. She believed that the spectres had returned for the children. Her attempt to protect the children was complicated by the children themselves whose behaviour swung from angelic to duplicitous and back again.


The story opened with an unnamed narrator and a group of people exchanging ghost stories on a Christmas Eve. The narrative rein then passed to Douglas who, a few days later, read from a manuscript written by his sister’s governess. Her name is never disclosed. All we know at this stage is that she had given the manuscript to Douglas before she died 20 years ago before but the cause of her death is similarly never disclosed. Later (how much later is not disclosed), Douglas gave the manuscript to the narrator before he (Douglas) passed away himself. The narrator made an exact transcript of it and this forms the rest of the novella. So the conceit is that we are reading the governess’ first person narration as transcribed by the unnamed narrator. Why did Henry James use such a complicated frame?

The novella is frustratingly ambiguous – what the heck is going on?

  • Is it a straight forward ghost story? Or is the governess delusional or even insane and therefore an unreliable narrator?
  • What did Miles do to get expelled? What did the 2 servants do to the children? Why did the children behave like they did?
  • What happened in the end?

Finally …




Author: Gustave Flaubert (1821–1880)
Translator: Lydia Davis
Publisher: Penguin Books (2010 edition)
Bought from: Book Depository


Gustave Flaubert was born in Rouen, France to an upper middle class (or haute bourgeoisie) family. He is one of France’s most renowned authors and his most famous work is his very first novel Madame Bovary (1857). It was first serialised between 1 October 1856 and 15 December 1856. The French government charged Flaubert and his publisher with obscenity after the first instalment but failed to convict them. The novel was published to wide acclaim.

Madame Bovary was included in a list of the 100 greatest novels of all time published by the Observer (2003). In the Top Ten website edited by J. Peder Zane, 125 living American and British authors ranked it number 2 in the Top Ten Books of All Time as of 2013

Madame Bovary is regarded as the formative work of Literary Realism. This movement is contrasted with the preceding Romanticism : Realism, as the term itself suggests, aimed to represent real life as it is, in all its ordinariness, without embellishment or idealisation. The focus is on the ordinary, not the extraordinary. The movement started in France with Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850) and Flaubert. Other prominent Realist authors include the Russian Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–1881), England’s George Elliot (1819–1880) and the American Henry James (1843–1916).

Flaubert is a major influence on his protégé Guy de Maupassant (1850–1893), one of the most celebrated writers of short stories.

What is the story about?

Emma (later Madame Bovary) had her young head turned by the numerous novels (including Walter Scott’s historical romances) that she read during her education in a convent. Little wonder then she soon found that the reality of marriage to a milquetoast health officer in a provincial town unbearably dreary. Which she could assuage only by adultery and profligacy.


Emma is a later day Eve, her books taking the place of the forbidden fruit in the original account. Setting the tone for Realistic literature, Flaubert passes no judgement on her behavior. Her literary cousins include Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Thomas Hardy’s Tess Durbeyfield.

The cover of this Penguin Classics edition show a young lady framed against a window. Windows are a recurrent motif in the novel: it is the frame through which Emma views the world. Soon after her marriage, she and her husband Charles were invited to a party in the château of an aristocrat. When she caught the faces of peasants pressed against the window looking in, the memory of her own past came back: “She saw the farm again, the muddy pond, her father in a smock under the apple trees, and she saw herself again as she used to be, skimming the cream with her finger from the pans of milk in the milk house. But under the dazzling splendors of the present hour, her past life, so distinct before, was vanishing altogether, and she almost doubted that she had ever lived it. She was here; and then surrounding the ball, there was nothing left but darkness, spread out all over the rest. She was at that moment eating a maraschino ice, holding it with her left hand in a silver-gilt shell and half closing her eyes, the spoon between her teeth (p 44–45).”  See also pp 46, 104–105, 111, 232.

How is the book?

Lydia Davis was awarded the 2003 French-American Foundation Translation Prize for her translation of Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way. Her translation of Madame Bovary has been widely praised. Davis wrote an insightful introduction and useful end notes.

The book is a gorgeous deckle-edged Penguin Classics edition.

Finally …

Simple story told in a straightforward style and in a linear narrative.


The Sketch-book of Geoffrey Crayon

Author: Washington Irving (1783–1859)
Downloaded: Project Gutenberg via iBooks


Washington Irving was born in Manhattan, New York into a family of merchants of Scottish–English descent. He was born soon after the end of the American Revolution and was named after George Washington.

He is best known today for two short stories Rip van Winkle (1819) and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820). They have proved enduringly popular and many today will be familiar with the broad outline of the plots even before they have actually read the stories. Both stories have been adapted many times for both big and small screens and, given their brevity, sometimes expanded beyond recognition.

Rip van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow appeared in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., a collection of short stories and essays first published in seven instalments in the US from June 1819 to September 1820. It was published in 2 volumes in England in 1820, with the help of Irving’s friend and mentor the writer Walter Scott. The English edition (which Irving dedicated to Scott) contains 32 pieces compared to 29 in the English edition.

Irving and his contemporary James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851) are among the the first American authors whose works were read across the Atlantic as well. They are considered pioneers of the American Literary Romanticism movement.

What is the story about?

Rip van Winkle starts in pre-independence New York. The eponymous character “was one of those happy mortals, of foolish, well–oiled dispositions, who take the world easy, eat white bread or brown, whichever can be got with least thought or trouble, and would rather starve on a penny than work for a pound. If left to himself, he would have whistled life away, in perfect contentment; but his wife kept continually dinning in his ears about his idleness, his carelessness, and the ruin he was bringing on his family. Morning, noon, and night, her tongue was incessantly going, and every thing he said or did was sure to produce a torrent of household eloquence. Rip had but one way of replying to all lectures of the kind, and that, by frequent use, had grown into a habit. He shrugged his shoulders, shook his head, cast up his eyes, but said nothing. This, however, always provoked a fresh volley from his wife, so that he was fain to draw off his forces, and take to the outside of the house — the only side which, in truth, belongs to a henpecked husband.”

One day, he encountered a group of strangely dressed men in the mountains. “By degrees, Rip’s awe and apprehension subsided. He even ventured, when no eye was fixed upon him, to taste the beverage which he found had much of the flavor of excellent Hollands. He was naturally a thirsty soul, and was soon tempted to repeat the draught. One taste provoked another; and he reiterated his visits to the flagon so often, that at length his senses were overpowered, his eyes swam in his head, his head gradually declined, and he fell into a deep sleep.”

When he woke up, he found that it was 20 years later. “It was some time before he could get into the regular track of gossip, or could be made to comprehend the strange events that had taken place during his torpor. How that there had been a revolutionary war — that the country had thrown off the yoke of old England — and that, instead of being a subject to his Majesty George the Third, he was now a free citizen of the United States. Rip, in fact, was no politician; the changes of states and empires made but little impression on him; but there was one species of despotism under which he had long groaned, and that was—petticoat government. Happily, that was at an end; he had got his neck out of the yoke of matrimony, and could go in and out whenever he pleased, without dreading the tyranny of Dame Van Winkle. Whenever her name was mentioned, however, he shook his head, shrugged his shoulders, and cast up his eyes; which might pass either for an expression of resignation to his fate, or joy at his deliverance.”

In The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod Crane must overcome a rival suitor Abraham (Brom Bones) Van Brunt, as well as the spectral Headless Horseman, to win the hands of the young heiress Katrina Van Tassel.

How is the e–book?

There is no introduction or notes.

Finally …

Irving attributed Rip van Winkle (1819) and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow as well as an earlier collection to a fictional Dutch historian named Dietrich Knickbockers. According to the page on the New York Knicks:

The term “Knickerbockers” traces its origin to the Dutch settlers who came to the New World – and especially to what is now New York – in the 1600s. Specifically, it refers to the style of pants the settlers wore…pants that rolled up just below the knee, which became known as “Knickerbockers”, or “knickers”. In 1809, legendary author Washington Irving solidified the knickerbocker name in New York lore when he wrote the satiric A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker. Later known as Knickerbocker’s History of New York, Irving’s book introduced the word “knickerbocker” to signify a New Yorker who could trace his or her ancestry to the original Dutch settlers. With the publication of Irving’s book, the Dutch settler “Knickerbocker” character became synonymous with New York City. The city’s most popular symbol of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was “Father Knickerbocker”, complete with cotton wig, three-cornered hat, buckled shoes, and, of course, knickered pants … the Knickerbocker name had been an integral part of the New York scene for more than a century when the Basketball Association of America granted a charter franchise to the city in the summer of 1946. As can best be determined, the final decision to call the team the “knickerbockers” was made by the club’s founder, the legendary Ned Irish. The late Fred Podesta, the longtime Garden executive who passed away in 1999, once recalled, “The name came out of a hat. We were all sitting in the office one day – Irish, (publicity man) Lester Scott and a few others on the staff. We each put a name in the hat, and when we pulled them out, most of them said Knickerbockers, after Father Knickerbocker, the symbol of New York City. It soon was shortened to Knicks.”