Monday, December 13, 2010

The Best Books of the Year - 1810 - Horrors that Demons might be proud to raise

I have to start my year end roundup a bit earlier than I would like this year. Calendar, vacation, etc.

1810 was a thin year for great literature, quantitatively.  I count two books and a play that I know are worth reading, and scrounged up a couple more possibilities.

The star of the year is Heinrich von Kleist.  The play Prince Friedrich von Homburg, and his book of stories – “The Earthquake in Chile,” “The Marquise of O-,“ and “Michael Kohlhaas” – that’s the year’s bounty.  The play is the one where the characters, including the title’s prince, are constantly fainting.  Is that meant to be funny?  I think so.  Hard to tell, sometimes, with slippery Kleist.  In the stories, it’s the reader who is constantly fainting at the sight of blood, horror, and general moral outrage.  Fantastic stuff.

What else is going on in the world of literature?  Very little that has survived.  In English poetry, you can read Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake or the very young Shelley’s self-published juvenilia and tell me how they are.  I’ll read the one book I know is outstanding, The Borough by George Crabbe, a poetic tour of a country district, surprisingly weird and powerful.  Crabbe seems to have lost his audience.  I have theories, but who wants to hear them.  The Borough has survived because of the “Peter Grimes” canto, the source of the Britten opera:

    Cold nervous Tremblings shook his sturdy Frame,
And strange Disease - he couldn't say the name;
Wild were his Dreams, and oft he rose in fright,
Waked by his view of Horrors in the Night, -
Horrors that would the sternest Minds amaze,
Horrors that Demons might be proud to raise:
And though he felt forsaken, grieved at heart,
To think he lived from all Mankind apart;
Yet, if a Man approach'd, in terrors he would start.

Let’s see.  Madame de Staël’s On Germany, which I have not read.  Goethe’s short play Pandora, which I have read, although I remember nothing about it.  There must be more.  One source for these year-end posts is the handy year-in-literature Wikipedia pages.  Here is 1810 (and a separate page for poetry). What have I missed?  The Mysteries of Ferney Castle by Robert Huish?  Please note the usual Wikipedia limitations – no hint of Kleist, easily the Writer of the Year, on that page.*

There’s one more candidate for Book of the Year, although it’s not quite literature, and it was not actually published until 1863.  Francisco Goya began his Disasters of War etchings, a response to the horrors of the Peninsular War, in 1810.  A relevant example, “Against the Common Good,” is above.  I’ve said this before, but I’m amazed anyone was able to create anything during this period of destruction.  The work of Kleist, Crabbe, Goya – what extraordinary things to come from such a terrible time.

* My Kleist dates comes from the chronological tables in Robertson, J. G., A History of German Literature, Sixth Edition, ed. Dorothy Reich (1970), William Blackwood: Edinburgh, p. 693.


  1. I'm currently reading Jane Porter's The Scottish Chiefs. It's available free on Kindle or through Google books. It's quite good so far (I'm on Ch 5).

  2. Really? How good is quite good? Injustice-that-it's-not-in-print good? Walter Scott good? John Galt good? 'Cause that last one, that is good.

    Summary, from a library catalog entry: "William Wallace encounters secret passageways, disguises, and a quintet of horrible villains as he fights for Scotland at the turn of the fourteenth century."

    So I'm skeptical. But I can be convinced! Pretty easily, actually. I hope you write about it.