Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Reading Challenge Week 39 - A Victorian Novel

Ah, the Victorian Period. Dear old Queen Victoria reigned for 64 years, and this happened to be the time when novel writing came into its own as a highly successful medium. Writers like Charles Dickens, William Thakeray, the Bront√ęs and George Elliot were taking The Novel to new heights during the good queen's lengthy time in office.

So it is interesting, to say the least, that the two reviews we present to you for this week's Reading Challenge are not Victorian novels. One is a novel that was probably "conceived" during the Victorian period, but missed it by that much. The other is a book from the Victorian period that isn't a novel. We had a big enough target, but we didn't quite hit it. Oh, well.

On the plus side, we have another wonderful guest review from a placement student in our Cairns branch!

Elizabeth Smyth read Such is Life, by Tom Collins (aka Joseph Furphy).

‘Unemployed at last!’ What a great first line. In these few words, readers know what to expect from this novel – memoir, and insight into the mind of a person relieved of menial work in order to dwell on more important matters.

This line, of course, was an utterance of the fictional character Tom Collins, whose diary was supposedly revealed in this book. The true author Joseph Furphy (like Collins) was a bullock drover in the Victorian era, and so this work represents an authentic insight into Australian outback life of that time.

A word of warning though: this book will not suit everyone. Despite readily transporting readers into the daily routine of a bullock drover, complete with humorous incidents and long periods of solitude, the commentary on pre-Federation cultures requires acute attention and deep contemplation. You cannot, for example, check messages on your phone mid-chapter.

With this novel, Furphy boldly defies English class structure by highlighting the idiocy of a suggestion that ‘a party of resourceful bushmen stand helpless in the presence of flood or fire, till marshalled by some hero of the croquet lawn’. He goes on to explain that ‘it is in no way necessary that the manual worker should be rude and illiterate’, and later, that no one is safe from ‘a pauper’s grave’.

Delightful too for contemporary readers are Furphy’s replacement of swear words with inoffensive terms, for example, ‘(complex expletive)’. Which, of course, we replace in our minds to suit the ‘easy profanity, unconscious obscenity, and august slang of the back country’.

There have been many editions of Such is Life since its first publication in 1903, and an annotated version published in 1999 sits on the shelf of the JCU Library at 820A FUR 1C SUC/HAL. As JCU has a Furphy scholar on campus: Roger Osborne, you may also like to read Roger’s paper in the Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, ‘Making Archives Talk’: Towards an electronic edition of Joseph Furphy’s Such is Life.

Sharon Bryan read The Jungle Book, by Rudyard Kipling.

In spite of the fact that I have read a lot of books in my time, I'm actually not very well read. There are many books that I always meant to get around to reading, but never actually did. The Jungle Book, for example, sat on my shelf at home for literally decades, waiting for me to get around to reading it. I haven't even seen any of the movies - I know some of the songs from the Disney film, and I did watch Tail Spin, but that's as far as it goes.

I just wasn't really interested, and hadn't given the book much thought - which is why I didn't even know it wasn't a novel about a feral child when I chose it for this week's challenge. It's actually a collection of stories or fables, and only some of them involve Mowgli, Baloo and the gang so familiar from Disney. But this is the book I read for my "Victorian novel", so this is the book I'm reviewing.

I found the book as a whole to be a bit uneven. To have the first three chapters given over to tales about a particular character, and then have that character disappear without a trace for the rest of the book, seemed odd. It was like Kipling started writing a book about Mowgli, but didn't have enough material so padded it out with filler chapters. The fact that the filler was a ripping read was something of a compensation. And I have to admit that I preferred the stories that weren't part of the Mowgli series. Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, for example, was a corker of a story - and I think I just might adopt Rikki's family motto "Run and Find Out" as one of my own.

I understand The Second Jungle Book is a similar mix of stories about Mowgli and stories that don't feature his world at all. I wonder if Kipling ever wanted to remix them to put all the Mowgli stories in on book and all the mon-Mowgli stories in another. I wonder if such a thing would improve the cohesiveness of the tales, or lose some of the rambling charm...

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