Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Best Books of the Year - 1818

1818 was one of the greatest literary years of the 19th century. It saw the publication of two Jane Austen novels, Persuasion and, sadly, Northanger Abbey (sad, of course, because it was only published as a result of Austen's death). Walter Scott published The Heart of Midlothian, one of his best books. Mary Shelley published Frankenstein, a novel so rich in ideas that I forgive its infelicities. Finally, Thomas Love Peacock wrote Nightmare Abbey, which is not what it sounds like.

Meanwhile, Byron, Keats, and P. Shelley were all in peak form. Byron published the Venetian adultery comedy Beppo, not a favorite of mine but enjoyable for its light touch. Keats published the long, mythical Endymion, very far from a favorite. For P. Shelley, it was a highly productive year, but for most of us only one poem will really matter: "Ozymandias."

It's funny how central Percy Shelley is here. Besides his wife's book, Byron and Keats and Peacock were close friends, and Shelley is even the central character of Nightmare Abbey, a tiny little novel-like thing that should be read more:

"When Scythrop [that's Shelley] grew up, he was sent, as usual, to a public school, where a little learning was painfully beaten into him, and from thence to the university, where it was carefully taken out of him; and he was sent home like a well-threshed ear of corn, with nothing in his head: having finished his education to the high satisfaction of the master and fellows of his college, who had, in testimony of their approbation, presented him with a silver fish-slice, on which his name figured at the head of a laudatory inscription in some semi-barbarous dialect of Anglo-Saxonized Latin." (Ch. 1)

So that's five novels with some life today. Two (Persuasion and Frankenstein) are among the best of the century. Two, by coincidence, are Gothic parodies with "Abbey" in the title; one of these is sadly neglected. And major work by three great poets. This did not happen most years. Note that if magazines back then published "Best Books of the Year" lists, the only one I'm sure would make the lists is Walter Scott's.

This has all been awfully British. What else was going on? In America and pre-Romantic France I will go ahead and say, confidently, nothing. In the German principalities, there was quite a lot, although Goethe and E. T. A. Hoffmann seem to be between books this year. Either one may have been, and probably was, publishing in journals. Giacomo Leopardi was writing his Cantos and essays at this time, I am sure, but I have never sorted out his confusing chronology.

Still, there aren't that many years in the 19th century which contain five still-read novels from all of Europe, so I don't fell too bad about ending my researches here.

Nevertheless, I put an engraving of Francisco Goya's 1818 The Giant up top, just to make the year a little less British.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. So I deleted a comment, which I rarely do. The author filled it with gratuitous links to his writing on Peter Handke. You got the wrong website, pal.

    If you would like to come back and tell me who I missed in 1818, I would actually appreciate it. Is Grillparzer actually worth reading? Maybe that's not who you meant. There are definitely not too many names to mention.

  3. I'm going to add Nightmare Abbey to my list for this year, that's a great suggestion, thank you.

  4. Nightmare Abbey is good fun. And very short.

  5. I love the works by Jane Austen. I have read all of her books, including Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. Although Pride and Prejudice is my favorite book by Jane Austen, Persuasion is a close second and Northanger Abbey third.

  6. Amy, thanks for visiting. I haven't read quite everything by Austen - not all of the juvenilia. You make me realize how little Austen stuff is actually on Wuthering Expectations. Perhaps some re-reading is due.

  7. Don't get me wrong, I love Emma, but Persuasion I hate. The jilted suitor, is the one who ends up having to be forgiven by that jilting, plain, most unlikeable protagonist, Anne:

    He had not forgiven Anne Elliot. She had used him ill, deserted and disappointed him; and worse, she had shewn a feebleness of character in doing so, which his own decided, confident temper could not endure. She had given him up to oblige others. It had been the effect of over-persuasion. It had been weakness and timidity.

    He could not forgive her, but he could not be unfeeling. Though condemning her for the past, and considering it with high and unjust resentment, though perfectly careless of her, and though becoming attached to another, still he could not see her suffer, without the desire of giving her relief. It was a remainder of former sentiment; it was an impulse of pure, though unacknowledged friendship; it was a proof of his own warm and amiable heart.

    Anne tells him:
    "I have been thinking over the past, and trying impartially to judge of the right and wrong, I mean with regard to myself; and I must believe that I was right, much as I suffered from it, that I was perfectly right in being guided by the friend whom you will love better than you do now. To me, she was in the place of a parent. Do not mistake me, however. I am not saying that she did not err in her advice. It was, perhaps, one of those cases in which advice is good or bad only as the event decides; and for myself, I certainly never should, in any circumstance of tolerable similarity, give such advice. But I mean, that I was right in submitting to her, and that if I had done otherwise, I should have suffered more in continuing the engagement than I did even in giving it up, because I should have suffered in my conscience. I have now, as far as such a sentiment is allowable in human nature, nothing to reproach myself with; and if I mistake not, a strong sense of duty is no bad part of a woman's portion."

    He looked at her, looked at Lady Russell, and looking again at her, replied, as if in cool deliberation--

    "Not yet. But there are hopes of her being forgiven in time. I trust to being in charity with her soon. But I too have been thinking over the past, and a question has suggested itself, whether there may not have been one person more my enemy even than that lady? My own self. Tell me if, when I returned to England in the year eight, with a few thousand pounds, and was posted into the Laconia, if I had then written to you, would you have answered my letter? Would you, in short, have renewed the engagement then?"

    "Would I!" was all her answer; but the accent was decisive enough.

    "Good God!" he cried, "you would! It is not that I did not think of it, or desire it, as what could alone crown all my other success; but I was proud, too proud to ask again. I did not understand you. I shut my eyes, and would not understand you, or do you justice. This is a recollection which ought to make me forgive every one sooner than myself. Six years of separation and suffering might have been spared. It is a sort of pain, too, which is new to me. I have been used to the gratification of believing myself to earn every blessing that I enjoyed. I have valued myself on honourable toils and just rewards. Like other great men under reverses," he added, with a smile. "I must endeavour to subdue my mind to my fortune. I must learn to brook being happier than I deserve."

  8. "[P]lain"! I have only read it once, but I picked up the idea that parts of Persuasion were written in a hurry. That is not really relevant to what you included. Wayne Booth actually makes a pretty strong ethical case against Emma in The Company We Keep.