The play never stops: “Being Mr Wickham”

“When play stops, old age begins.”

~Lord Byron

Of course, an apologia for any great literary rogue should begin with a quote from Lord Byron. And this one does.

“The Darcys of this world can afford to have morals…”

~Being Mr Wickham

darcy wet shirtHas it really been two-and-a-half decades since the immortal BBC Andrew Davies adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, with the wet-shirtsleeved Colin Firth almost single-handedly starting a Jane Austen craze? (I exaggerate a bit—though not much—as something was definitely in the water–besides Mr Darcy–in the mid-‘90s, and Pride was contemporaneous with Emma Thompson’s brilliant adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.)


wickham - youngJust as there is, for me, only one definitive adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, it’s difficult to see the antagonist played by anyone other than Adrian Lukis. Though charming, especially before we know the story through Darcy’s eyes, Wickham becomes increasingly a figure of distaste…but he is George Wickham. Yet, swept up as we were in the sizzling tension between Darcy and Lizzy, it’s easy to overlook or underestimate the skill it takes to hold the screen as the rival. (A coworker of mine–not an avid reader of Austen–recalled reading Pride and Prejudice and seeing the miniseries at school. He was still–years later–in such a fit of anger about Wickham that I think he’d have called him out to a duel then and there if Wickham had been around…that’s some skill!)

“He read so much of Fordyce’s sermons that his brain had become addled…”

~Being Mr Wickham

Now Wickham has his moment to give us another perspective, decades after his elopement with Lydia. The one-man show is staged in the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds and was streamed live by the Original Theatre Company. Cowritten by Lukis and Catherine Curzon, Being Mr Wickham has a simple concept: on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday, a famous rogue reminisces about his life and gets to tell his side of the story. And it’s filled with wit and intelligence and humor, from seductions (“one thing led to another, as these things invariably do…”) to dodging the life of a curate, to action on the Battle of Waterloo. Asides about Lord Wellington and, of course, Lord Byron. His imitations of Darcy are great fun; his description of being with the Bingleys described as “forever supping on sugar and cream”; his dismissing the idea that his own children–so unlike himself–might be another man’s by arguing that “they’re both so good-looking”; his aversion to men “so desperate to be respectable they forget the importance of being interesting.” Mostly, we’re held captive by Lukis himself. He draws us in—I was almost going to say, the way Iago makes us co-conspirators, but really, Mr Wickham isn’t that bad, by a long shot. (Or am I just softening to him a bit…?)

“A man who cracks under pressure is no good, in battle or in life.”

~Being Mr Wickham

234619525_160552486202152_667435281410218138_nI watched this on my phone, holding my sleeping two-month-old niece, so I encountered the challenge of having to repeatedly suppress laughter so as not to disturb her. Adrian Lukis has great comic timing and expression, and the script is witty and well-paced. (On the phone, however, the auto-generated captions were on, and I couldn’t figure out how to turn the darn things off, so I had additional laughter to suppress in seeing his allusion to Scylla and Charybdis turned into “caribou this”—or more appropriately, the mention of a “bawdy house” turned into “booty house.”)

It was a delightful way to spend an hour. (SPOILER AHEAD) As one who—much as I love stories about murder and drama and tension—can’t really resist a rogue or a bromance, I couldn’t help but interiorly cheer to think that Darcy had succumbed to Wickham’s ridiculous charm at last and renewed the friendship after each couple had had children of their own. (Thus begins a new generation, with the promise of new tensions and scrapes along the lines of the old Darcy/Wickham story.) And, as Wickham himself suggests, where would our stories be, without the rogue?

Would Austen herself had gone so easy on Wickham, years later? I’m not sure. But I doubt whether she’d have complete success in resisting Lukis’ charm for long.

Remembering Roger Rees, and his Nicholas Nickleby

“Is this a theatre?” whispered Smike, in amazement; “I thought it was a blaze of light and finery.”

“Why, so it is,” replied Nicholas, hardly less surprised; “but not by day, Smike—not by day.”

 ~Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby

nicholas posterIt begins so innocuously with those quirky, slightly dated-sounding notes (now forever beloved) of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1981 filmed stage production of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. Who knew that this brainchild of Trevor Nunn, in collaboration with John Caird and adapted for the stage by David Edgar, born of necessity rather than superfluity, would be such a life-changing testament to the power of theatre and the power of Dickens, even forty years after its live production? Decades and distances later, it remains the ultimate Dickensian romp, hilarious and heartbreaking. If there is one single piece of recorded material ~ e.g. music, movies, etc ~ that I could take with me to the proverbial desert island, it would be this production.

roger and smike 2
Smike and Nicholas

The legendary, 8 ½ hour stage marvel was conceived not during a time of financial excess for the RSC, but during a time of straitened means; in fact, Leon Rubin’s fascinating The Nicholas Nickleby Story which relates the history of this undertaking, writes that by “August 1979, the RSC was in grave financial trouble.” Roger Rees mentions in an interview much later that the Arts Council was going to be cutting the funding for the RSC “in half.” But, according to Rubin, “Trevor’s philosophy was that the best form of defense is attack, and he believed that what he needed to find was a single piece of work that would provide a challenging acting opportunity for the entire company…He decided on an adaptation of a Dickens novel, that would harness in one work all the RSC’s vast resources and demonstrate what that company could really achieve.” There were forty-three actors in the company at that time, and they were already in the midst of seven Shakespeare plays and thirteen others simultaneously; yet Trevor was looking for that one piece that could display it all. Many of the Inimitable’s works were read and considered; ultimately, Nickleby won the day as “the best vehicle for their particular range of talents.”

The Mantalinis

And Nicholas Nickleby really did have it all: the heartrending emotional center of the novel in Smike (David Threlfall, a performance for the ages); the cross-section of the various social classes and Dickens’ satire of them (several examples brilliantly embodied in the chameleon Suzanne Bertish, and the marvelous Bob Peck, may he rest in peace); the potential for suspenseful drama in everything from Dotheboys Hall (Alun Armstrong, Ian McNeice, Lila Kaye, Suzanne Bertish!) to the Brays; the adorable comicality and pathos of Newman Noggs (Edward Petherbridge, I love you!); the scenery-chewing Crummles and Mantalinis (John McEnery, may you rest in peace my “seraphim,” my “life and soul,” my “essential juice of pine-apple,” you’re a demd genius!) and the most hilarious piece of comic staging in the Crummles’ production of Romeo and Juliet ~ one of the most brilliant divergences from the novel and possibly the single funniest sequence I have seen in my life, on stage or screen. (Alun Armstrong as the drunken Prince…that’s all I’ll say!) And yet, in quintessentially Dickensian fashion, David Edgar manages to echo a touching segment from this farce to the most heartbreakingly poignant effect later in the play ~ an echo which is, again, a perfectly-conceived divergence from the novel. But no spoilers here…

roger collageAnd, of course, Roger, our beloved Nicholas, who had to carry (sometimes literally) the drama.

It was a quixotic feat, this risk of trusting the audience to journey with the company for one of the most unlikely (and, probably, lengthy) of theater experiences imaginable. They pulled out all the stops, as the actors themselves created the sounds of wind and birdsong and, with little help from props, managed to convey every atmosphere from gloomy Yorkshire to the sounds of the sea at Portsmouth, to the chaos and energy of London. The production was split into two parts, the first part of four hours was sometimes performed during the day, and the audience would return in the evening for the final over-four hours after a long interval; sometimes the first part was performed on one day and the second part was performed the following.

e peth
Newman Noggs

The play opens with a stage full of actors performing a dramatic “reading” of an amended version of the novel’s opening ~ which, as Chapter One announces in its title, “Introduces all of the Rest.” We hear of the the older generation of Nicklebys: the brothers who have fared very differently with their inheritances from their father, Godfrey Nickleby. The younger brother, who is the father of the Nicholas Nickleby we come to know and love, becomes financially ruined (while his older brother prospers) and dies a too-early death. Then, as the prologue concludes, the cast suddenly swings into vibrant action as they relate the beginning of sorrow and adventure for the surviving family of the younger brother ~ his widow and her son and daughter, Nicholas and Kate ~ as they leave their idyllic farm in Devonshire for the chaotic journey to London in hopes of finding aid from their uncle, the jaded, Scrooge-like Ralph Nickleby (John Woodvine).

From there, we follow the dual adventures of Nicholas (and later, Smike) from Dotheboys Hall in Yorkshire, to the delightful mess of the Crummles theatrical company, and back to London; while Kate battles her own dragons in a town filled with rich, lecherous scoundrels and jealous, knagging Miss Knags. (Though how on earth does she keep a straight face around John McEnery as Mr. Mantalini?)

Ultimately, this joyous Bildungsroman is a love letter to the theatre itself, to friendship and family, and to the ideal of taking a hand in lifting up those who are suffering; the willingness to bring others into our family and our hearts, even if we suspect it will bring heartbreak and loss. A love letter to the ideal that love always triumphs, and that generosity of heart is always worth the cost.

roger rees 1Roger Rees, a convert to Judaism, was born the son of a shop clerk and a police officer on May 5th, 1944, in Aberystwyth, Wales. (Of course he’d be a Welshman, with that gorgeous voice!) He is perhaps best known for his roles in the TV series Cheers or The West Wing. He was an accomplished actor, stage director, and playwright. Roger was nearly 40 when he took on the legendary role of the 19-year old Nicholas, and with an energy that most 19-year-olds might well envy. We believe him at every moment; he captures our hearts with his indomitably brave, yet vulnerable, goodness and sincerity. He makes us laugh, charms us, and breaks our hearts.

When it opened in 1980, Nickleby took some time to find its footing; critics clearly didn’t know what the Dickens to make of it, with all its muffin-tossing antics, its United Metropolitan Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punctual Delivery Company speeches, its random characters. But it finally hit its stride after Bernard Levin’s tide-turning review in The Times, and it’s worth quoting a lengthy passage here:

Some of the critical comment that has greeted the production makes one despair not just of criticism but of the human race…The response has exhibited that most dreadful of all the vices anglaise, the terror of being thought enthusiastic; most of the reviewers have spent their time carefully balancing praise for one detail against regret for another…

There is only one way to behave at the Aldwych; to surrender completely to the truth, which is that not for many years has London’s theatre seen anything so richly joyous, so immoderately rife with pleasure, drama, colour and entertainment, so life-enhancing, yea-saying and fecund, so—in one word which embraces all these and more—so Dickensian…It is a celebration of love and justice that is true to the spirit of Dickens’ belief that those are the fulcrums on which the universe is moved, and the consequence is that we come out not merely delighted but strengthened, not just entertained but uplifted, not only affected but changed.

Nicholas Nickleby won Roger both a Laurence Olivier Award and a Tony; the recorded version won him an Emmy nomination.

prestige rees
Rees as Owens in The Prestige

At every age, Roger surely had one of the most memorable and beautiful faces onscreen. A little aside: the first time I saw him, before I knew his name, was later in his life in the role of the rather mysterious middleman, Owens, in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. I was struck by that face, and, unaccountably, I recognized him. I had seen a photograph ~ yes, only a photograph ~ of a younger Roger as Nickleby some time before, when I had been researching other (mostly far older) stage adaptations of Dickens’ novels. What a revelation when I finally realized that one could see the RSC production still!

roger rees 2On July 10th 2015, I was utterly heartbroken to hear that my beloved Roger had died of cancer. (I read later that he’d been slated to star in an RSC production of Don Quixote which was supposed to happen in 2016, a year after his death…break my heart yet again.) Now, every year on July 10th ~ I am posting this a day early ~ I’ve been recalling Roger Rees’ life and work with gratitude, even though I know only a fraction of both. For this year’s celebration of his memory, I’ve ordered a memoir about Roger, written by his longtime partner of 33 years ~ whom he married in 2011 ~ Rick Elice, and I’m hugely looking forward to it. I am also eager to get to know more of his other works ~ and, of course, to watch 2015-07-11 06.27.48Nicholas Nickleby yet again, which, as of the time of this writing, can still be found on YouTube or on DVD. And I will be eternally grateful to whomever had the foresight to record it for the ages.

His was a face, a voice, and a luminous talent that one never forgets. And though I won’t give it away, never can one forget the final tableau of this production once one has seen it, with Roger front and center and the chorus of God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen echoing across the stage. It just may change your life.

We will never forget you, Roger. And to quote Dickens’ novel itself, “If our affections be tried, our affections are our consolation and comfort; and memory, however sad, is the best and purest link between this world and a better.” Rest in peace, sweet prince of the stage.

Current Delights and Distractions in Genre Fiction

Well, I have promised the start of a long Dickens reading marathon, beginning with his earliest published serial novel, but I confess that my current novel-in-progress, and a couple in gestation, have led me down the rabbit hole of genre reading. (But I almost always have some Dickens reading or listening in the works anyway, and I have indeed restarted Pickwick, which always “illumines the gloom” of daily life!)


The Gothic…

My own work-in-revision-process is what I’d call a modern-gothic ~ and I’ve been told it’s essentially “a modern gothic romance,” but don’t ask me why I keep resisting the R-word ~ so of course I’ve been reading some congruous works. Most recently, Ruth Ware’s The Death of Mrs. Westaway, which, although not one I’ll necessarily return to for a reread, was a diverting way to spend a few lamplit evenings, with all of the du Maurieresque gothic tropes I enjoy: the unexpected inheritance, the down-and-out young heroine, the creepy estate, the twisted family secrets, the coastal setting. My main source of disappointment was that, for such a lonely heroine, there was not a stronger developing relationship to cling to as it went on. I’m not talking a romantic relationship, or not necessarily. (She needed a real friend…someone, anyone!) And honestly, it’s often the lack of a strong relationship that will keep me from picking up something again, as hopeless a rereader as I am.


The Mystery…

And, of course, I have to return to the mystery genre. (Two of my secondary characters in the current WIP have a backstory that involves a murder investigation, but do I really need that excuse? No way.) I’m hooked on Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, and recently finished  the audiobooks of The Likeness and Faithful Place (Nos. two and three in the series) and have just begun the fourth, Broken Harbor. (This will have to be a separate post of its own…)


YA Fantasy/Alternate History…

But I’ve also been prepping to go down the path of YA fiction in my future writing, whether or not I decide to take that turn in the revision process of my current WIP (in spite of some congruent elements). One way or another, at least 2 of my upcoming projects are absolutely made for a YA audience. So I’ve been getting distracted by the Grishaverse trilogy starting with Shadow and Bone, finishing it about a day and a half after starting, in spite of my writing and class commitments, in anticipation of the Netflix series premiering on April 23rd. It’s a page-turning, bingeworthy read. (And this Darkling…oh my. I do love a good baddie!) Naturally, I have the second and third books now, ready to start.

But really, the fact that all these genres have interest for me in my mad writing ventures, is incidental; it’s honestly nothing more than an excuse to get back to reading my guilty pleasures, especially now that my work schedule is more forgiving.

More soon. Happy reading!

On Rereading Dickens in 2021

There is something comforting in those new beginnings which feel like circling back round to something familiar. (Perhaps the rollout, albeit slow, of the vaccine, combined with the respite from daily/hourly fears of what strange new occurrence will emerge from the White House has something to do with it…? Some hope, perhaps, that a sort of “normalcy” will resume?) In any case, I’ve found that, in the midst of going back to reading Dickens’ biographies (currently, those of Michael Slater and John Forster), and reading/rereading those works of Boz that I’m less familiar with (notably, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, thanks to Dr. Pete Orford’s book on its various solutions and resolutions ~ and what fun to contribute to the solutions with a version of the Bernie’s Mittens meme), makes me long to have a more integrated, concentrated, and systematic approach to rereading Boz in the coming year.

Bernie as Dick Datchery? One of the mysteries of Edwin Drood SOLVED…?

Why do I feel the need to go back and reread everything in this way? I really don’t know. I feel like there is a Wellerism, or something like it, that I should have to hand here as a quippy response/explanation ~ but I really don’t know.

Having read all Dickens’ novels, some many many times over, I realize that my first read for each of them came at such different periods of time, in such a random fashion and in different frames of mind, that I find I keep going back to the same few ~ again and again. Whereas others, only once ~ and a long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away).

I call the former category my “Tier 1” of Dickens novels ~ not necessarily the “best” of his, but the ones that, for whatever reason, I have an itch to keep going back to: A Tale of Two Cities, The Pickwick Papers, and Little Dorrit. (I’ve read or listened to an unabridged audio of A Tale of Two Cities at least twenty times.)

Tier 2 would probably be: Dombey and Son, Our Mutual Friend, and Bleak House.

Tier 3, perhaps: David Copperfield, Nicholas Nickleby, and The Old Curiosity Shop.

Tier 4: Martin Chuzzlewit, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Tier 5 (and, yes, those I seem to go back to least, are some of his most known and most-often read): Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, Hard Times, and Barnaby Rudge.

Being less familiar also with his non-serial-novel works, I am looking forward to reading Pictures from Italy (1846) and American Notes (1842). I’m looking forward to attending a virtual lecture on the former in May, part of the Dickens Fellowship “programme” for 2021. (Yes, in my geekiness I’m a proud card-carrying member of the DF now. But there are so few lectures that a poor working gal can attend due to the time difference and work schedule! In this case, however, there’s enough time and motivation to schedule someone to cover me at work, and in true nerdy style, why not make a vacation day of it?)

But I have an odd fancy, as the new year is underway (and in spite of various other writing/research projects, my novel, work, and various fascinations) to reread all of Dickens’ major works in the order in which he wrote them, while at the same time, slowly, rereading one of my favorite books: Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Dickens.

This method of rereading presents a few choices to be made, as so many works were written with an overlapping timeline ~ Dickens would be working on finishing one piece while beginning another. I’ll probably opt for reading them in the order in which the serialization began. So, Pickwick having been started before Oliver Twist, I’d start with Pickwick, for example; and Barnaby Rudge wouldn’t begin serialization until four years later, though Dickens had been planning, considering, and promising it to publishers quite early on.

Anyhow, I suppose it can’t hurt to give it a go. All I know is, the spirit of the one and only Dickens continues to haunt me (pleasantly, of course), and I feel that this is the year ~ a hopeful year ~ to make it happen.

The Impact of Dickens: An International Conference

It was a joy to drop in this morning on the opening of the Zoom-based international conference on The Impact of Dickens, which will continue today and tomorrow, and to hear the introduction by the delightful Pete Orford, and that of Ian Dickens, the great-great-grandson of the great man.

Before getting ready for work, I was able to view a good portion of the first panel, including Katie Bell‘s presentation on the impact of Dickens on the southern gothic novelist and short story writer, Flannery O’Connor. She pointed out that the dark humor of both Dickens and O’Connor depends on “a delicate balance of comedy, violence and freakery.” I particularly loved not only the references of both O’Connor and Dickens to Cervantes, but the insight that both Dickens and O’Connor share the association of intense pain and violence with that of grace and redemption. Bell also draws attention to the fascination of both authors with characters who have physical–or even moral–impairments, and their proximity (whether because of or in spite of such characteristics) to the intersection of grace and redemption.

The one question I did pose before the first panel commenced was whether the presentations would be available for viewing later, as time off work was impossible during this difficult time in our wildfire-consumed southern Oregon. It sounds as though it may well be available, as it is certainly being recorded, so any who are interested might want to just keep an eye on the facebook page and the Dickens Fellowship website. Here’s hoping…

But for now, I leave the conference with reluctance, to get ready for work. Alas, yes, the work must go on. (Like Mr. Pancks, “What else am I made for?”) Have a happy Thursday, everyone!

Fulfilling Little Nell’s Wish During Quarantine

Our state, Oregon, went into full lockdown in the middle of March this year, and has been in the gradual reopening process over the past months. As I’m among those who was never able to work remotely, working as I do with superheroic adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (or, different-abilities!) in a group home setting, I’ve not been able to focus as much time and energy on writing and on research as I’d like. However, I have been delving into a big Dickens readathon ~ or, perhaps more appropriately, re-readathon.

I’ve recently started the renowned Dickens biography by Michael Slater, having wanted to read it for a long time, only halted by my intense attachment to the Peter Ackroyd biography. I’ve also been rereading ~ or relistening to audiobooks of ~ his novels. One of those has been The Old Curiosity Shop, which I hadn’t read in years. I love the atmosphere, although it’s never been among my top favorites; however, during one of my walks with my brother, I was very much struck again by how applicable Dickens is, even to seemingly disconnected parts of life.

My brother, looking at the vista from one of the cemetery trails

One of our favorite places to walk is the picturesque, historic little town of Jacksonville, Oregon, about 30 minutes away from Ashland, and home to a number just shy of 3,000 residents, but with, at least in pre-Covid days, a relatively hopping little tourist economy, between its old-West downtown flavor and historic homes, surrounding woods and trails, the supposedly-haunted Jacksonville Inn, and the renowned Britt Festival in the summer.

The historic Jacksonville Cemetery is a beautiful place for a walk ~ at least, when it isn’t too hot, because it tends to have spots of intense sun, and a few too many inclines for some of us in the heat. We’ve walked there often over the years, but our walk only a couple of weeks into the strict lockdown last March was particularly memorable.

Although I didn’t take pictures to speak of at the time ~ those in this post were primarily taken since ~ I recall in those first weeks of total quarantine, when we could only go out for essential needs, or to walk, for example, that I was inspired by the quiet, social-distanced, but active presence of people at the cemetery…walking, visiting the graves of loved ones, or simply sitting under the shade of trees to read and nap. I don’t recall having seen so many people there before, although there were no gatherings, or anything else that went against the lockdown regulations. If there is one thing that, just perhaps, we might see more of in a time of shutdown and pandemic, is a beautiful sort of connection to the earth, to family, and to those who have gone before us.

I kept thinking of Little Nell’s lament, when beautifying the little churchyard late in the novel, of the many graves that go unvisited, as though forgotten. She finally opens up about her thoughts to the kind schoolmaster:

“I rather grieve–I do rather grieve to think,” said the child, bursting into tears, “that those who die about us, are so soon forgotten.”

“And do you think,” said the schoolmaster, marking the glance she had thrown around, “that an unvisited grave, a withered tree, a faded flower or two, are tokens of forgetfulness or cold neglect? Do you think there are no deeds, far away from here, in which these dead may be best remembered? Nell, Nell, there may be people busy in the world, at this instant, in whose good actions and good thoughts these very graves–neglected as they look to us–are the chief instruments.”

“Tell me no more,” said the child quickly. “Tell me no more. I feel, I know it. How could I be unmindful of it, when I thought of you?”

“There is nothing,” cried her friend, “no, nothing innocent or good, that dies, and is forgotten. Let us hold to that faith, or none. An infant, a prattling child, dying in its cradle, will live again in the better thoughts of those who loved it, and will play its part, through them, in the redeeming actions of the world, though its body be burnt to ashes or drowned in the deepest sea. There is not an angel added to the Host of Heaven but does its blessed work on earth in those that loved it here. Forgotten! oh, if the good deeds of human creatures could be traced to their source, how beautiful would even death appear; for how much charity, mercy, and purified affection, would be seen to have their growth in dusty graves!”

~ Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop, Chapter 54

So, of course, the schoolmaster is right ~ it is our deeds, and our lives, by which we best remember those who have gone before. Who knows what hidden sparks of life, what dreams and moments of even heroic virtue, might have been inspired by one who died long ago? But still, I understand little Nell’s lament, and it is the peculiar sadness of the cemetery: not so much that it is a place to house the dead, but the broader fear that they are forgotten by the living. We know this isn’t so, but we are connected inextricably to the tangible. Fresh flowers left at a grave site; grass freshly mown and earth recently weeded; little pebbles left like secret messages at a headstone.

One might see it as “morbid,” perhaps, to keep part of one’s focus on the memory of the deceased; but I think there are few things that more awaken us to the living world around us, than the memory of those who are still so alive to us in a more profound way, although not physically present to our senses.

Perhaps for many of the visitors, like my brother and me, many were just in the cemetery for a beautiful walk, or somewhere to read with a vista of the surrounding town and hills, and not specifically to visit the grave of a loved one. But one can’t help but remember one’s own loved ones in such a setting, and one’s connection to the earth. Was it just my imagination, or had the quiet cemetery never seemed so full of life, and active memory, as it had during those early days of quarantine? I hope that those goods that have come from this time of universal lockdown are not too soon forgotten.

A Victober for John Henry Newman

“The heart is a secret with its Maker; no one on earth can hope to get at it or to touch it.”

John Henry Newman

Reading challenges have not often been on my to-do list, even though I can see how they could be great opportunities to find inspiration from others doing something similar. It’s entertaining and inspiring to see the different takes and offshoots from each challenge, and perhaps–just perhaps–one will find the Holy Grail: a real gem of a book that you otherwise might never have found.

While doing my own prep for NaNoWriMo this year–or was I just YT surfing?–I stumbled across a Booktuber who mentioned her participation in “Victober” this year. I’d heard the term before but had forgotten about it. It has been going for the past few years, and is hosted by four Booktubers, with the intention of focusing on Victorian literature during the month of October. Each comes up with a particular “challenge” for those participating, as well as a group challenge.

As if I needed any excuse to read more Victorian lit, but…

Okay, it is too much fun to resist. To some degree, I’ll be doing my own thing with the Victober challenge. For one, mine definitely has a theme, and I’m not sure how common this is. For a while now I’ve been wanting to dip back into the life and writings of John Henry Newman, and now seems the perfect time, as a kind of celebration of his upcoming canonization on October 13th. So, although not all of the books I’ve chosen relate to Newman, there is definitely a recurring theme.

St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford

John Henry Newman, Anglican priest and Oxford intellectual who converted to Roman Catholicism in 1845, is one of the towering intellects in the history of the Church and of western literature, and a master of English prose. Newman’s life spanned almost the entirety of the Victorian period. His conversion from Anglicanism was one of the great scandals of his day, as he was such an influential figure among the Anglican faithful who flocked to his sermons, and was among the leaders of the Oxford Movement, which was intended to bring Anglicanism back to her Catholic roots and sacramentality. Interestingly, the more Newman plunged into the readings of the Church Fathers and into history, the more he became convinced that the church of Christ and of truth was to be found in the very Roman Catholicism that he had throughout his life been taught to treat with suspicion or reprehension. The decision to finally “cross the Tiber” came after a long and arduous time of soul-searching, intellectual rigor, and prayer. He knew that by taking this step, his influence would be completely undercut. He would lose friends, and hurt his family. (One of the reasons that I love John Henry Newman so much is his great capacity for friendship, and the value he places on friendship.) Such a conversion would not be seen as so earth-shattering now; but at the time, the bias against “popery” and “Romanism” was so strong in England that it was tantamount to a treasonous act.

“Newman’s Pulpit,” St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford

The richness of Newman’s life and thought has led to a vast number of conversions, and his influence on the understanding of doctrine and also of the importance of the laity in the life of the church are among the reasons he has been called “the Father of the Second Vatican Council.”

In 2016, my mom and I, and two of my siblings, had taken a 20-year-in-the-making trip to England, with the heart of our stay being the 3 nights in Oxford, where we were able to visit St. Mary the Virgin and “Newman’s pulpit” where he preached the great Anglican sermons that were so beloved; and to nearby Littlemore, where he went on a kind of 3-year retreat after the censure of Tract 90, in order to pray and study and reflect on his position in the Anglican church and his leanings toward Rome. Our stop to Littlemore, and to his room and the little chapel where I held his Rosary for a few minutes, were easily the most moving and memorable moments of the whole England trip for me.

A little Littlemore collage. (My mom Debra is on the right, touching Newman’s writing desk. Here he wrote “An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.” This desk was also used as a makeshift altar for his first mass as a Roman Catholic. He was received into the Church by Fr. Dominic Barberi.

But, back to Victober. Here is a list of the challenges from the four hosts (click here for a link to the challenge video on the “Books and Things” page–she includes links to the rest of the hosts), along with an addition of my own:

  • Challenge #1: A book written by a female author (with a bonus if the author is unfamiliar to you).
  • Challenge #2: Reread a Victorian book.
  • Challenge #3: Read a Victorian book under 250 pages and/or over 500 pages.
  • Challenge #4: Read an underrated book published in the same year as your favorite Victorian book.
  • General challenge: Read by candlelight, for at least some of a book.
  • My own challenge: Read a book (not necessarily published during the period) about a favorite Victorian figure.

For Challenge #1, I decided to read Charlotte Yonge’s The Heir of Redclyffe, published in 1853, a novel which is not greatly remembered now, but which was very popular in its day. (And yes, I do get the “bonus” because CY is not an author I’ve read before!) Focusing on the spiritual struggle of the main character, Guy Morville, the novel lifts up the virtues of self-sacrifice and piety and was very influential. The connection to Newman here is that Yonge, like Newman, fell under the influence of John Keble; Yonge has been called “the novelist of the Oxford Movement.” (Warning: Don’t read the introduction by Barbara Dennis if you don’t want spoilers! I had to stop reading the introduction almost instantly. I really want to read Dennis’ biography of Yonge at some point, but here Dennis continues the tradition which is a pet peeve of mine: in so many summaries or introductions of Victorian novels, or even on the back covers, the endings are constantly spoiled. And with no “spoiler alert” warnings! This pet peeve deserves a whole separate blog post of its own. Do they think that we either: 1. Already know the ending? or, 2. Don’t care about knowing the ending ahead of time, as though we are merely studying it for a class and not reading it for fun, as a good story that we want to be surprised by? Either way, I find it infuriating.)

For Challenge #2, I’ll cheat a bit, since it won’t be a full re-read. I had started Newman’s An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent–usually just referred to as A Grammar of Assent–some time ago, but with school and work challenges, it fell by the wayside. So, in honor of the month and the theme, I will read/re-read it. It sounds like a daunting one, yes, and it’s certainly above me intellectually, but it is such an important work that I want to tackle it.

I’m combining Challenges #3, #4, and the Group Challenge in one book that is not Newman-related: It is a short novella (hence fulfilling the #3 requirement) and published in 1859, the year of my favorite novel’s publication (Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities), fulfilling the #4 requirement. It is a George Eliot novella called The Lifted Veil, which sounds rather gothic–hence, it will be the perfect book to read at least partially by candlelight! I found a kindle version for free on Amazon.

For my final challenge, I’m also somewhat cheating, as I’m continuing a book rather than starting it during the month of October. It’s the first volume of Meriol Trevor’s biography of John Henry Newman, called The Pillar of the Cloud.

There are so many other books, Newman related and otherwise, that I’d like to read soon, but I’d better keep my Victober choices to those I’ve mentioned, since I also have other books on the immediately-to-be-read list, such as a reread of The Hobbit as the first of our reads for a newly-created local book group focusing on the works of the Inklings. (Of course, Oxford-based as the Inklings are, there is even a tangential connection to Newman there!)

So, in the midst of our other family and work duties, here’s to a month of snatching, when one can, a few cozy hours with a blanket and a hot drink, curled up with a good Victorian read. And just as Newman proposed a toast “to conscience first,” I propose a toast to John Henry himself, for the world would be a far poorer place without his great mind and influence.