Around the World with Charles Darwin

charles darwin voyage of the beagle

The Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin, 1838

In 1831 an intrepid young naturalist set out aboard the H.M.S. Beagle on a voyage of discovery that would change the whole freaking world. Not kidding. The prospect of reading page after page of field notes about a five year long surveying expedition might not sound entertaining. But, hey, this is Darwin we’re talking about. He’s a young man with a brilliant, penetrating mind, setting out on a dangerous (yes, dangerous!) journey. He’s sacrificing personal comfort, safety and the companionship of friends and family for the sake of Knowledge, that glistening goddess. And not just any type of knowledge: Knowledge of the Natural World. What could be more exciting than that? The natural world is our home; a source of sustenance, wonder, bewilderment and catastrophe. We gotta know all about it. We need to learn science FASTER!

Learn! Science! Faster!

Now that we have an appropriate sense of urgency, we can talk about Darwin’s notes on The Voyage of the Beagle.

The Beagle sailed south from England, bumped off the coast of Africa, stopped at Tenerife, slowly scouted down the east coast of South America, slipped round Cape Horn, journeyed up the west coast of South America, stopped at the Galapagos Islands, continued across the Pacific to New Zealand, Australia, Cape Town, went back to the east side of South Africa and carried on to the Azores and finally home to England. The Beagle apparently stopped at every possible island in its path, which is great because island biogeography is the best!

Darwin took copious notes about the geography, botany, zoology and humanity he encountered.  Reading his observations on these topics gives a glimpse into the mind of the man who developed the Theory of Evolution, which is the biggest, most important concept in biology. So, I will break down for you the 3 habits of Charles Darwin’s highly effective mind that I noticed while reading his notes.

1)      Attention to detail. Darwin, like other naturalists, made meticulous observations and kept detailed notes. In one day he would record observations about the weather, the geological features of the land, the plants he saw including number and variety, the animals he encountered including behavior, and detailed descriptions of the people he encountered: their ways of life, attitude towards him, their clothing, houses, food, stories they had about past geological and biological events in the area, their interactions with natives (if they were European) or with Europeans (if they were native) or with other natives. He would collect plant, animal, mineral and fossil specimens and send them to specialists to examine.

2)      Compare, contrast, compile. Darwin constantly compared new information with what he already knew. How does the emu compare to the ostrich? The palm trees of Africa to the palms of South America? Uplifted land in England to uplifted land in Tierra del Fuego?  The finch bills to the finch bills to the finch bills to the FINCH BILLS!

3)      Synthesis. Every once in a while in his notes, Darwin throws in a little nugget that indicates his search for the overarching, guiding principles that unite all the plants and critters. Why are large, flightless birds found in Africa and South America and formerly in New Zealand? What helps one beast survive a drought while other species die off? The more information he gathers, the better he is able to answer these questions, which makes the two proceeding habits so important. His constant searching, observing and comparing lead to a series of more refined questions about the organizing principles of life. Primarily, Darwin wondered about the distribution of plants and animals. As he circumnavigated the globe gathering information about the types of animals and plants that thrive in different places he started to see the connections between form, function and survival.

That may be an egregious oversimplification of the qualities that made Darwin so great, but scientific thinking is actually pretty simple.

Darwin also includes his subjective reaction to scenery and people. He waxes poetic about lush, tropical scenery and complains frequently about the uniformity of the landscape in some areas of South America. He admires the skill of the gauchos and laments the horrible institution of slavery, but frequently refers to indigenous South Americans and Pacific Islanders as savage, uncivilized, superstitious, mean and degraded. Your sensibilities will be offended by his descriptions of the Tierra del Fuegians. He loves Tahiti for its scenery and because the people are kind, which disposition he attributes to the success of the Christian missionaries in that area. He hated New Zealand. That’s right. Charles Darwin thought that New Zealand was boring and ugly. Obviously, he did not set foot on any of the places where Lord of the Rings was filmed. Darwin found the Maori scary and savage. He did not care for their tattoos.

You might like The Voyage of the Beagle if:

  • you’re a daring young naturalist with a passion for the natural world
  • you like reading travel narratives
  • you’re interested in European imperialism
  • you’re interested in the cultures present in South America and various islands just before the Victorian era started.

You might not like The Voyage of the Beagle if:

  • travelogues bore you
  • you are a Creationist who feels threatened by critical thinking
  • European Imperialism gives you untreatable heartache


Final Thoughts

Reading Darwin’s field notes felt very homey and comforting to me. They sound a lot like a conversation with my relatives, most of whom are naturalists and evolutionary biologists. Obviously, the best part of the narrative is the visit to the Galapagos Islands, where he encountered the finches and their array of bills and noticed the subtle gradations from one bill shape to another. If you’re interested, you could just check out that chapter.

The Sick, Sad World of Oliver Twist

Oliver Twist

Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens, 1838

I read Oliver Twist as rapidly as I read The Hunger Games. That’s how caught up I was in the plot of Oliver Twist. Dickens creates a web of immoral, malicious schemers around his sweet, innocent protagonist. Oliver is a bright light in a dark, sordid world. I was driven to keep reading by a sense that danger lurked behind every lamppost. I needed to know if Oliver would escape the traps laid for him or be irrevocably lost to a life of crime.

I’ve noticed that morally ambiguous characters with complex, ever-changing personalities are popular in contemporary TV, movies and novels. You won’t find that in Oliver Twist. Oliver is completely good and naïve. Bill Sykes the housebreaker is coarse, self-interested and mean. Each character stays true to a relatively simple set of traits. Which is fine, because this is a plot driven novel and the seedy underbelly of London provides ample space for the characters to interact with each other in complex ways.
The only personage who shows any character development is Nancy, literature’s first tart-with-a-heart. I’m pretty sure about that. Oh, wait. Mary Magdalene? Anyway, Nancy starts to lose her loyalty to her little gang of criminals. Unlike the rest of that gang, she starts to act selflessly. Nancy’s attempts to find a semblance of love and morality in her dark, dysfunctional world are more pitiable even than Oscar’s trials as a beleaguered orphan on the streets of London.

Sykes Kills Nancy

Overall, I loved reading Oliver Twist and I heartily recommend it. I did have two problems with it; one major and one minor. The anti-Semitism in this book hit me like a punch in the gut every 50 pages or so. The character Fagin is depicted as a greedy, cowardly, deceitful, hook-nosed Jew worthy of the utmost scorn. Dickens rarely uses Fagin’s name, but refers to him instead as “the Jew.” Dickens describes Fagin as more of an animal than a man.

“The mud lay thick upon the stones, and a black mist hung over the streets; the rain fell sluggishly down, and everything felt cold and clammy to the touch. It seemed just the night when it befitted such a being as the Jew to be abroad. As he glided stealthily along, creeping beneath the shelter of the walls and doorways, the hideous old man seemed like some loathsome reptile, engendered in the slime and darkness through which he moved: crawling forth, by night, in search of some rich offal for a meal.”

Doesn’t that just turn your stomach? Worthy of the pages of Mein Kampf. When I came to passages like this, I felt like a terrible person for enjoying other parts of this book.

My other, much less disturbing complaint about Oliver Twist is classism. The implicit reason that Oscar is able to stay good and pure throughout his trials and in spite of his exposure to corrupted people like Sykes and Fagin is the genteel blood secretly coursing through his veins. How silly of Dickens to think that a well-born mother can save a child from perdition when the mother died in childbirth and cannot influence the child. Oh well, if there’s one thing the British gentility are good at, it’s thinking well of themselves.

You might like Oliver Twist if:

  • You like your novels to have plot, tension and a sense of urgency.
  • You don’t mind well-worded if long-winded descriptions of setting and characters interspersed with your urgent, tense plot movement.

You might not like Oliver Twist if:

  • You like a lot of character development in your novels.

Final Thoughts: I love Nancy. The fallen woman, forced by poverty into bad company. Her sad, misguided attempts to find affection and worthiness in her dark world will break your heart. In a good way. The way literature should.

The Pickwick Papers: The Lighter Side of Charles Dickens


The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens, 1836

Dear readers, I must confess that I am far behind on my blogging. Seven books behind, to be exact. It can be quite difficult to find the time to take photos for each post, especially in winter when daylight is limited. I have a number of posts written in advance that are just waiting for pictures. I truly thought that I had written a post for The Pickwick Papers. . .but I can’t find it. It’s been a while since I read the book. So, here are my thoughts on The Pickwick Papers, as I remember them.

The Pickwick Papers launched Dickens’ career. Everybody in immediately-pre-Victorian England just loved them. However, he went on to write many novels that earned more critical acclaim. So, I probably could have skipped Pickwick and satisfied myself with the 5 other Dicken’s novels on my list, right? Wrong! The Pickwick Papers is an influential novel. Victorian authors read it and referenced it. My heart swells with gratification when I read a reference to an earlier novel and I totally get the reference. Conversely, I get enraged when I don’t know the reference. Look at my reading list! I should know every literary  reference. All of them!

Anyway, I am reading Vanity Fair now. Thackeray has been lambasted for his copious obscure references. In one chapter he briefly alludes to a character from The Pickwick Papers. Instead of being confused and annoyed, I found the reference sweet and touching, because I, like Thackeray, have affection for that character. Also, the sisters in Little Women read The Pickwick Papers and it it’s good enough for Jo March, it’s good enough for me.

I’ve written a lot already and you’re probably still wondering what The Pickwick Papers is about. Samuel Pickwick is a jolly, but distinguished (by his own estimation) old gentleman who leads a gentlemen’s club called “The Pickwick Club.’  He leads a small group of gentlemen around the country on academic expeditions. Knowledge is the stated purpose of their expeditions, but they mostly seem to ride about in carriages, drinking and getting into trouble.

Eventually, Mr. Pickwick hires a cockney manservant, Samuel Weller, who is one of my favorite characters I’ve encountered during this project. He has a quaint way of expressing himself, but is quite down to earth. So, he’s both pragmatic and hilarious. Mr. Pickwick and Sam Weller have a very Bertie and Jeeves relationship. Pickwick gets into trouble; Sam Weller gets him out of it.

The book is a bit too long, but I really enjoyed it overall. It’s quite lighthearted and entertaining for Dickens who later moved on to more serious subjects than the follies and foibles of self-important English gentlemen.

Here’s a quote for you to appreciate:

‘The gout, Sir,’ replied Mr. Weller, ‘the gout is a complaint as arises from too much ease and comfort. If ever you’re attacked with the gout, sir, jist you marry a widder as has got a good loud woice, with a decent notion of usin’ it, and you’ll never have the gout agin. It’s a capital prescription, sir. I takes it reg’lar, and I can warrant it to drive away any illness as is caused by too much jollity.’ Having imparted this valuable secret, Mr. Weller drained his glass once more, produced a laboured wink, sighed deeply, and slowly retired.


You might like The Pickwick Papers if:

  • you like P. G. Wodehouse.
  • you like the British trope of the valet who is wiser than his “betters.”


You might not like The Pickwick Papers if:

  • you’re not an Anglophile.
  • you don’t have the attention span for Victorian Literature.

Final Thoughts:

It’s rare and refreshing for a British author to treat a servant character with respect and admiration. Dickens himself in other books can be uncomfortably condescending. I  l liked it. That’s all.


White Men Shoot Bear, Indians, Mexicans

Lady Crockett

Lady Crockett

A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, David Crockett, 1834 and The Big Bear of Arkansas, T. B. Thorpe, 1836

Today, I bring you two stories of ego-maniacal white men exploiting the riches of North America!  The Big Bear of Arkansas is a short story in which a man entertains his fellow steamboat riders with a tale of hunting bear in Arkansas. The Narrative of the Life of David Crockett is an autobiography written by Crockett to increase his popularity heading into a presidential campaign. Why did I choose to review these two items of literature together? Because  I figured you only need to hear me rant about wanton, excessive bear slaughter once on this blog.

The Big Bear of Arkansas is a “big fish” story, but about a bear. This short story features a man bragging about the bounteous game and fertile soil of Arkansas. He then describes in detail his hunting of a semi-mystical bear. That’s all there is to it. It has a proto-Mark Twain vibe. The story also contains one of the most sickeningly racist metaphors I have ever heard. I won’t repeat it here, because it’s disgusting.

A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett was also disturbingly racist, which I’ll address in a moment. Crockett talks about his wild upbringing in Tennessee. He was the son of a dirt poor farmer, who hired young David out to neighboring farmers and traveling salesmen to help pay off his debts. Crockett describes his misadventures and hardscrabble lifestyle with colorful, folksy colloquialisms—really the only worthwhile element in this narrative.

As a young man, Crockett joined Andrew Jackson’s militia to fight the Creek Indians. If his callous description of the slaughter of Creek warriors doesn’t turn your stomach, this excerpt will:

We now shot them like dogs; and then set the house on fire, and burned it up with the forty-six warriors in it. I recollect seeing a boy who was shot down near the house. His arm and thigh was broken, and he was so near the burning house that the grease was stewing out of him. In this situation he was still trying to crawl along; but not a murmur escaped him, though he was only about twelve years old. So sullen is the Indian, when his dander is up, that he had sooner die than make a noise, or ask for quarters.

[…] We went back to our Indian town on the next day, when many of the carcasses of the Indians were still to be seen. They looked very awful, for the burning had not entirely consumed them, but given them a very terrible appearance, at least what remained of them. It was, somehow or other, found out that the house had a potatoe cellar under it, and an immediate examination was made, for we were all as hungry as wolves. We found a fine chance of potatoes in it, and hunger compelled us to eat them, though I had a little rather not, if I could have helped it, for the oil of the Indians we had burned up on the day before had run down on them, and they looked like they had been stewed with fat meat.

Now, I don’t know if that really happened. But I do know that Davy Crockett chose to include this in his autobiography, so he must have thought this charming detail would win hearts and minds and help him get the presidency.

The rest of the book consists of Crockett bragging about how much smarter he is than his political opponents and how great he is at hunting. He dedicates many pages to describing his bear hunts. He actually boasts that he could shoot so many bear in a day that he had to leave much of the meat to rot.

Crockett’s autobiography consists almost entirely of the egotistical ramblings of an entitled white man.  His argument for why he deserves the presidency boils down to “I am great at slaughtering bear and Indians.” It’s nauseating.

You might like The Big Bear of Arkansas and A Narrative of the Life of David Crocket if:

  • you’re really into hunting.

You might not like The Big Bear of Arkansas and A Narrative of the Life of David Crocket if:

  • you’re disgusted by the worldview of settlers who not only felt entitled to shoot everything they saw whether man or beast, but felt that their skill as slaughterers was ennobling.

Final thoughts:

David Crockett was neither noteworthy nor admirable. He represents some of the worst, most destructive American ideals. Ideals that lead to cruelty and oppression. It’s completely ridiculous that we make a hero out of this guy. There are plenty of forgotten Americans who achieved more and lived more commendable lives. He died at the Alamo and he’s very quotable. That’s all.

Listen, it’s good to question the foundation of American values. If you’re on a mission to indulge your bitter skepticism and growing sense of dissatisfaction with the U.S.A., Crockett’s autobiography will help.  Godspeed.

The First Dark and Stormy Night

Paul Clifford

Paul Clifford, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1830

This crazy book, embodies the best and the worst of early Victorian fiction.

The worst:

  • Absurdly long sentences of mostly gibberish.
  • Excessively detailed descriptions of minor characters.
  • Too many characters.
  • Too long.
  • Random, gratuitous animal cruelty.
  • Antiquated language that rapidly exhausts your attention span.

The best:

  • Biting social commentary aimed at British class structure and the justice system.
  • Pithy zingers.
  • Hilarious, sad drunks.
  • This book starts with “It was a dark and stormy night.” Yes! It originated that phrase!
  • The plot! Paul Clifford is so well plotted; it will blow your mind.

I understand why no one reads Bulwer-Lytton anymore. He was friends with Charles Dickens and almost equally popular during his own lifetime. However, his writing style is even harder to wade through than Dickens’. Even though the innumerable majority of humans cannot name a single Bulwer-Lytton title, his mark on the collective consciousness lingers in the form of three widely known phrases penned by the author:

  • “It was a dark and stormy night”
  • “The pen is mightier than the sword”
  • “In pursuit of the almighty dollar”

Impressive, huh? I had no idea those three aphorisms—ok, only two are aphorisms—were written by the same person. The latter two aren’t simply catchy phrases. They’re meaty concepts that we like to chew on with our mind teeth. They eloquently express ideas that are still useful and relevant today. Paul Clifford is full of ideas like these. While reading this book, I had the same “Damn! Social injustice!” reaction that I have to 95% of contemporary news articles.

I know you’re not going to read Paul Clifford, because virtually no one does. I, however, read everything, so you don’t have to. I will summarize the plot for you, because you need to know.

On a dark and stormy night a woman lies dying in an English tavern. She confesses the secret of her young son’s paternity to one man, Dummy Dunnaker. The old innkeeper takes pity on the boy and raises him like a son. She names him Paul Clifford.

The innkeeper pays to have Paul educated, hoping that he won’t fall in with the sordid types who frequent the tavern. Young Paul reads the biography of Dick Turpin, a legendary highwayman, but he is too moral to decide on a life of crime.

Nevertheless, Paul begins spending time in the company of “Long Ned” Pepper, a dapper young criminal. One day Paul and Ned go to the theater. Paul sees an entrancingly beautiful girl sitting with her uncle. After the play, Ned picks the uncle’s pocket and whispers “run” to Paul. Shocked, Paul does not run away and he gets blamed for the crime.

Note: Ned Pepper is also a character in True Grit. Coincidence? I think not.

Unfortunately, the uncle turns out to be William Brandon, a famously ruthless lawyer. Brandon is peeved about the loss of his watch, and sentences Paul to a stay in prison.

Another Note: Paul Clifford preceded Oliver Twist by seven years. Both feature an innocent boy who is blamed for someone else’s pickpocketing. This event is a turning point in both novels.

What does young Paul learn in prison? Well, he learns how to be a criminal. Eventually, he and an experienced thief manage to escape their confines and Paul starts his career as a “gentleman highwayman.” He is so elegant, so intelligent, that he soon becomes the leader of an illustrious band of thieves that scour the English countryside stopping carriages and robbing the nobility of their jewels.

Paul leads a double life as Captain Lovett, honorable thief who flirts, but never hurts the ladies, and as Captain Clifford, society man. He reencounters Lucy Brandon, the beautiful young niece of William Brandon. They fall in love. Twice, he professes his love, then runs away, warning her that he is unworthy of her love or her hand.

Paul is desperately in love and bitterly regrets the life that has made him an unsuitable match for his sweet, innocent lover. Distracted, his hold on his fellow thieves begins to slip. An old friend betrays the location of his secret hideout. Long Ned and another compatriot are captured. Paul risks himself to free them, and ends up in jail.

Long Ned returns to the tavern where Paul was born, to await the conclusion of Paul’s trial. While there, he reveals to Dummy Dunnaker that the legendary Captain Lovett is in fact the same Paul Clifford whose birth Dummy attended.

Meanwhile, ambitious, avaricious William Brandon has been promoted to judge. In this capacity he encounters Dummy Dunnaker, who escapes a pickpocketing charge by selling Brandon some incriminating letters.

The letters are artifacts of a correspondence between Brandon and a beautiful young woman with no fortune. Infatuated, Brandon denies his ambitious instincts and marries her. He becomes a resentful, unaffectionate husband. They have a son. He suspects that her affections are beginning to stray toward his friend. To rid himself of his misalliance, he tells the friend that she is not his wife, but a prostitute and literally sells her to the friend.

The friend only loves her for a minute. Based on Brandon’s misinformation he does not respect her. They quarrel and she ends up on the streets with no way to provide for herself, except by the career Brandon falsely ascribed to her. Angry and bitter, she vows revenge. In the company of thieves, including Dummy Dunnaker, she breaks into Brandon’s home and takes her son. Determined that he will never see his son again, she takes the boy to a shady tavern, where she soon dies. Probably of syphilis.

Brandon spends decades obsessively searching for his lost son, to no avail. Brandon’s other obsession is restoring the name of his once great family. He has amassed political power and great fortune. He wants to bestow it upon his son and heir.

Judge Brandon presides over the trial of Captain Lovett. Lovett does not deny that he has made a living as a thief. Instead he attacks the British justice system. Here are some edited highlights of his impassioned speech:

“Seven years ago I was sent to the house of correction for an offence which I did not commit. I went thither, a boy who had never infringed a single law; I came forth, in a few weeks, a man who was prepared to break all laws! You had first wronged me by a punishment which I did not deserve; you wronged me yet more deeply when I was sentenced to herd with hardened offenders, your legislation made me what I am; and it now destroys me, for being what it made me.

Let those whom the law protects consider it a protector: when did it ever protect me? When did it ever protect the poor man? The government of a State, the institutions of law, profess to provide for all those who ‘obey.’ Mark! a man hungers,—do you feed him? He is naked,—do you clothe him? If not, you break your covenant, you drive him back to the first law of nature, and you hang him, not because he is guilty, but because you have left him naked and starving”

In the middle of Paul’s testimony Dummy Dunnaker drunkenly stumbles into the courtroom, insisting that he must deliver a message to Brandon. Brandon learns that Captain Lovett is his long lost son!

Stricken, Brandon must proceed with the trial. Before he makes his decision Paul reveals that Brandon himself was the person who sentenced him to prison seven years ago, thus starting his career in crime.

Brandon, guilty of unwittingly throwing his own son into a life of crime, must now be the one to sentence him. He pronounces Paul guilty, thus destroying his life’s work and cherished ambition of bestowing riches and honor upon his offspring.

So good. That plot is so good, I can’t even handle it.

Final thoughts: I have a lot of respect for this author. I mean, dang. Also, this made me think about how gross it is for cousins to marry each other. You get used to reading about that in classic literature. Somehow, the fact that I didn’t originally know that the lovers were cousins, made it much more shocking. I was like “No! Your fathers are brothers! That’s gross. Stop. Don’t get married and procreate, please.” Seriously, I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but if you have a child and your sibling has a child, don’t let those two babies mate. Please.

The Mummy: A Steampunk Adventure Story

The Mummy Jane C LoudonThe Mummy, Jane C. Loudon, 1828

I need to borrow a line from one of my favorite poets A. E. Housman. “It is in truth inequity on high” that Jules Verne is considered the father of steampunk, when Jane C. Loudon published The Mummy the same year that Verne was born. The Mummy out steampunks Verne’s entire oeuvre, and no one has even heard of it, not even fervent steampunk enthusiasts.

This book has it all. It’s a neo-Victorian, futuristic, sci-fi, political thriller, romance. A mummy steals a dirigible. A MUMMY STEALS A DIRIGIBLE. That plot element alone gives Loudon all the steampunk and sci-fi cred one can have. But if you need more proof that she’s the mother of the genre, know that steam driven technologies abound in The Mummy, including mechanisms that harness clouds to water crops and odd communication devices.

Like a lot of science fiction, this book is really silly. It takes place in the 22nd Century. Loudon’s ideas of the political climate in the future are hilarious. To summarize: the people revolt against the aristocracy and establish universal education. Once they are educated they feel like they shouldn’t have to do manual labor. With no laborers, there is no food. England is plunged into anarchy and, to escape the turmoil, the people seek out the former aristocrats and beg them to take back their ancestral homes and roles, because with no one to work for, no one will do any work. . . . So they establish a matrilineal monarchy. Now that the lower classes are educated, education is no longer fashionable. So, Loudon’s servant characters speak in unbearably pretentious monologues while the bluebloods speak plain English. Which is pretty funny the first time, but becomes wearisome.

The Mummy Jane C Loudon

The characters have amazing romantic names, including Edmund, Edric, Roderick, Elvira and Rosabella. Elvira and Rosabella engage in political intrigues; both are in line to become Queen. Roderick is the king of Ireland and the world’s most powerful imperial monarch. How hilariously Anglo-centric is that? Edric is essentially Victor Frankenstein. Obsessed with reanimating a corpse, he travels to Egypt in an airship with a galvanic battery and reanimates the pharaoh Cheops. Just like good old Victor, Edric’s success causes him to faint, and the mummy runs off. The mummy steals the airship and somehow sails it to England, where he becomes deeply involved in the dispute over the succession. I have no idea why a reanimated Egyptian pharaoh would spend his time on British political intrigues. Interestingly, everyone is afraid of the mummy, because he’s scary looking, but he’s actually a wise, benevolent character.

The book is far too long and has too many characters, but overall it’s a fun romp. I enjoyed it.

Other than prejudice against women, I can’t imagine why The Mummy is not recognized today as a pioneering work of science fiction and the beginning of the steampunk genre.

You might like The Mummy if:

· you like science fiction.

· you like steampunk.

· you don’t mind long books.

You might not like The Mummy if:

· you’re a very serious person who likes tight plots and fast action.

Final thoughts: Anyone interested in steampunk or early science fiction should read this book and give Jane C. Loudon her due.

Hope Leslie Deserves to be a Household Name

Hope Leslie

Hope Leslie, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, 1826

You know how in certain movies, when someone is so excited about the money they’ve scored, they feel the need to roll around in it, euphorically tossing bills in the air? I want to do that with the pages of Hope Leslie by Catharine Maria Sedgwick.  That’s how much I love it. You know how when a kitty or a puppy is so cute that petting it is not enough and you feel compelled to rub your face directly on its fur? I want to rub my face on this book.

Why? Because the heroine is flawed. I mean, in my eyes she’s pretty much perfect, but by the moral standards at the time the book was set (1643) or written (1826) she is very flawed. In earlier literature women are either villainous hussies or perfect paragons. Authors demonstrated the merit of their female characters by showing how very rigid their morals are and how very strictly they obey the will of their patriarchs. Well, Elizabeth Bennet is an exception to this rule. She’s a bit defiant. Hope Leslie is way more defiant.

Sedgwick picked “Early Times in Massachusetts” as the setting for Hope Leslie, a time that was incredibly oppressive for everyone, but particularly oppressive of women and Native Americans. Yet, her main characters follow their own moral strictures. Previous heroines obey the law and their fathers against their own moral inclinations. Not Hope Leslie. Like Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther King Jr, she believes that “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. […] Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” (MLK, Letter from Birmingham Jail).

For example, Hope Leslie convinces her tutor to leave off studying for an afternoon in favor of a hike up a large hill. The tutor gets bitten by a venomous snake. Hope wants to suck the poison out, but the tutor refuses the offer, fearing that she’ll be poisoned. Anxious for the survival of her tutor, Hope asks an old Native American woman, Nelema, to help her; a very sensible idea considering that the locals had been dealing with snake bites for centuries, but Brits had no experience with venomous snakes. Thanks, St. Patrick!

Nelema cures the man. As part of the process she does some witch-doctorish dancing and chanting. Word gets out that Nelema is a witch and she is thrown in jail. We all know what happened to witches in this time period. Hope Leslie, not being a complete fool, does not want Nelema to die for her generous action. After all, she saved the man’s life. So what if her culture’s customs seem weird and heathenish? Hope sneaks away, steals the jailor’s keys and frees Nelema, because it’s the right thing to do.

Later, she frees another Indian woman, Magawisca, to save her from being executed for plotting the extermination of the Pilgrims. Magawisca is guilty, but Hope frees her anyway, because many years earlier Magawisca saved the life of Hope’s beloved. Also, the Pilgrim’s wiped out Magawisca’s village and held her captive as a young girl; so Hope feels that her animosity is justified. Check out the progressive, enlightened concepts of feminism and race relations on Catharine Maria Sedgwick! Dang!

It’s really great to read a book from this era that does not espouse the inherent superiority of white men. Of course, the book was immediately forgotten and nobody reads it anymore, because the English canon is for white guys. But I haven’t forgotten you, Sedgwick! Hope Leslie is balm for my feminist spirit. It’s an uplifting and inspiring piece of literature, not because it ignores the evils in society, but because it allows for triumph over those evils.

I want to give it an affectionate cheek rub. I just wanna lovingly nuzzle Hope Leslie.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

Here’s a quote:

Nothing could be more unlike the authentic, “thoroughly educated,” and thoroughly disciplined young ladies of the present day than Hope Leslie—as unlike as a mountain rill to a canal—the one leaping over rocks and precipices, sportive, free, and beautiful, or stealing softly on, in unseen, unpraised loveliness; the other, formed by art, restrained within prescribed and formal limits, and devoted to utility.

You might like Hope Leslie if:

  • you like Anne Shirley, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Jo March and other plucky girls who mature into wonderful women.

You might not like Hope Leslie if:

  • that quote was too old-timey for you.

Final thoughts:

Hey! Shame on generations of literati for not giving Sedgwick her due. Hope Leslie deserves a place alongside Anne Shirley and Jo March as an inspiring, revered heroine of literature.