In search of the God, and the Muse

What follows is a blog post I wrote some time ago, but I love James’ story and can’t resist rereading it any chance I get. So for the month of February I’ve decided to post all about The Aspern Papers. I wanted to start with this post because it contains some of the themes James himself wrote about. What is the appeal of having a first edition? Why do we spend hundreds (or more) dollars to purchase one?

The answer I think is struck by James himself: the literary fan will always want to be as close to the source as possible, as near the “god” as can be obtained, she or he will ever want to stare into the eyes the author has stared into.

Why this is true is somewhat of a mystery. Perhaps the reason is simply to possess something of value, to feel member to another person’s success, even perhaps to feel another’s muse rub off on you.

I checked the link I original posted and found that the same first edition of The Aspern Papers is still available. No one has laid claim to it yet. So if you’re interested, take a look!

Henry James looking pensive. Photo source here.

One of my favorite authors is Henry James (when he’s not writing from a woman’s perspective that is). He definitely has a way of setting the scene, of building suspense, and of either gratifying his reader with the perfect conclusion or plummeting his reader into a chasm of disappointment. The latter is exactly what he does to us poor readers in his novella The Aspern Papers.

I remember reading The Aspern Papers for the first time in college. The story completely engrossed me, as I sat surrounded by the dinginess of my dorm room. I was transported to a dilapidated Venice buzzing with expectation and exasperation, a place so hot I imagined the canal water might boil.

The story is about an unnamed literary critic and historian (perhaps James intended us to insert our own names) who goes in search of letters a famous, fictitious author wrote to a lover in his youth. Aspern’s lover, who is now ancient, is named Juliana and she lives with her niece, Tita, in an old gray and pink palace. The palace has a garden attached, which gives the protagonist the perfect excuse to go bother the women, who have decidedly shut themselves away from the world. He secures a room in the palace (only after forking over a large amount of rent money) and then the waiting begins. His hope was to befriend Juliana or make Tita fall in love with him, and then snatch the papers (those letters the deceased Aspern wrote to Juliana) from them or, perhaps in his wildest dreams, be given them. Without spoiling much of the ending, it doesn’t work out well for this nameless fellow.

After my original Dover edition got lost in a series of moves I made after college, I bought James’ complete works on Kindle… I couldn’t help but think that reading this story from a physical book was so much better, though. And that wouldn’t a first edition be all the more appropriate.

A quick look at Abebooks revealed the there is a first edition for sale, with a beautiful blue cloth cover adorned with silvery gilt. According to the bookseller’s description the volume was published in England in 1888 and is in fairly good condition. You can check it out here. My excitement was high until reading the price tag ($475!!). I’m not surprised. I guess in this case I’m a lot like the unnamed protagonist, despairingly close to the object of my literary desires but forever barred by some insurmountable keeper. My Juliana is money.

Thank you for reading!!


What if Coriolanus had a twitter account?

Coriolanus with fam. By Soma Orlai Petrich (1869)

Well he didn’t…so I made him one. Follow him here…because you know he has no friends…except for his mom. Of course he took some inspiration from one of his contemporaries, a man equally as hot headed, a speaker of his mind (even when the world around him is shushing), a truly so-so politician who also never dawned the rags of humility but (surprisingly…or not…) won a seat in government.

Both men established their reputations in different industries (war and real estate development, respectively) and then ventured half hardheartedly into the murky swamps of a political career. Not really interested in the common folk, though both men have at various points pretended to be, winning over the populace has always proven to be a stumbling block to higher approval ratings. It can’t be denied that both men have the dexterous ability to polarize. They aren’t unifies by any means but can’t seem to be able to release their pride.

And, as a final nail in the coffin for both, each has colluded with the enemy! (“no there was no collusion…ever” one has been quoted as saying). Both men did this for personal gain, Coriolanus as revenge for banishment, the other to win an election (or…for money…or because he is not so smart…). Speaking of revenge, both are very vengeful, allowing perceived injustices to their persons to influence public action.

There are some marked difference about these two men, however. Coriolanus has a very deep reverence for the women in his life. He’s a classic mama’s boy and does his wife the favor of ignoring her (see my posts about that here and here.) The other can only be described as a dog who will some day get his. But, like Coriolanus, has much dexterity when it comes to ignoring his wife.

Coriolanus is also not at all boastful and doesn’t like or seek praise. He is, however, very fickle, and teeth clenching-ly unyielding. The other seems to live off approval, ignores criticism or tries to debunk it, and loves to sing his own praise whenever possible. He also finds it hard to remain steadfast in anything, consistency not being his strongest point.

When thinking about how Coriolanus might use his twitter privileges, I was reminded of act II scene 3 when Coriolanus is having trouble coming to terms with the need to humble himself. I was also reminded of act III scene 1 when Coriolanus is dealing with the recension of  a consulship he thinks he’s won. I image Coriolanus fitting his speeches into 140 characters, while Menenius and the other senators comment in a desperate attempt at damage control. So without further adieu here are a few tweets from Coriolanus, as if he were tweeting live during act III scene 1. He’s also shed the restricting conventions of Shakespearean prose and has adopted the grammatical style of his contemporary.

Screen Shot 2018-01-30 at 6.55.47 PM

Thanks for reading!

The silent wife – Part 2

Keeping up with my resolution to post about Shakespeare’s Coriolanus this month, here is part 2 of a series of posts I wrote about Coriolanus’ wife, Virgilia. View part 1 here.

I left off my previous post with this: Virgilia is as much Volumnia’s counterargument as she is Coriolanus’. But what does that all mean….?

Let’s start with Volumnia, Coriolanus’ mom. She is a textbook over-bearing mother and domineering mother-in-law. She’s kinda like Gemma Teller from Sons of Anarchy: in everyone’s business, has her own agenda, cares about her son/ family above all else, wants her son to succeed within a very exclusive and violent group of people, is all about the preservation of the group she belongs to (i.e. Rome in Volumnia’s case or the motor cycle gang in Gemma’s case), and is not afraid of a little bloodshed. Actually she encourages it by applauding her son’s many scars and pushing him out the door whenever the chance of a good battle comes along. One difference between them may be that Volumnia doesn’t end up killing anyone…or being killed…

Virgilia just cannot contend with Volumnia. She barely talks (as I discussed in part 1), she doesn’t like blood (“his bloody brow! O Jupiter, no blood!” [1.3.401]), she’s a homebody, and is often lost for words (ex. when Coriolanus sees her weeping at his return and calls her “gracious silence”). She is also mentioned only once in Plutarch’s Lives and it is merely to say that Coriolanus married her after being pressured to by his mother. I’m sure Gemma Teller would have liked to have that much control over her son’s future spouse. Volumnia did an excellent job at picking someone who would kinda just tag along.

She’s also very different from Coriolanus. Coriolanus is a brute, he says what he thinks (and he’s not that quick witted or crafty), he is an exceptional fighter, mostly because he has that special abandon that makes him almost invincible. That being said, he’s not very skilled in anything else, especially public speaking and humility. Virgilia doesn’t help him perfect his political strategies or bolster him in his career, both as a fighter and wanna-be politician. In fact, it sort of seems like she would rather not have him fight (as is evident in the first scene where she appears as a nervous mess waiting for her husband to return.) She also really seems to care less about his political career, again, not being present in the scene where Volumnia convinces Coriolanus to dawn the rags he’d wear to show his humility and scars before being elected.

Despite this, Virgilia is more than what meets the eye. She’s a realist. She doesn’t want her husband to die in war because that will leave her alone but she’s complete aware of his abilities. This is evident when she tells the tribunes that Coriolanus would “make an end of thy posterity” (i.e. if Coriolanus were here he’d kill you…). And, another point in her favor, is that she sticks to her guns. There was nothing on heaven and earth that was going to budge her from that house in scene 1 act 3 (save Coriolanus himself).

Yet, more importantly, Virgilia, like Volumnia, plays an important role in Coriolanus’ legacy. Volumnia raised Coriolanus. This is made clear in Plutarch’s lives when he states that, “Caius Marcias (i.e. Coriolanus)…being orphaned by his father, was left to be brought up under his widow mother.” Now, since the death of Coriolanus has also made his son an orphan, Virgilia is left to raise her son alone (though undoubtedly with the help of Volumnia). Oh my the cycle continues…but maybe Virgilia’s mild nature is enough to tame young Caius out of being an absolute boar.

But who knows, so instead enjoy these few depictions of Virgilia that have come down to us from the Victorian era (because who better than the Victorians to illustrate a person who spends most of her life in extreme angst and/or mourning).

Virgilia mourning Coriolanus’ banishment (1867) by Thomas Woolner. Photo source here.
Virgilia presents herself before Coriolanus to deter him from sacking Rome (1803) by Gavin Hamilton, engraving by James Caldwell. Photo source here.
Again, poor Virgilia begging Coriolanus not to demolish Rome (1869) by Soma Orlai Petrich. Photo source here.
The ladies (Virgilia and Volumnia) bidding farewell to Coriolanus (1788) by Anne Seymour Damer.

Finally, a resource that helped me to write this and other posts regarding Shakespeare is open source Shakespeare. Go here to check out the website. I especially love that they have organized the site to include a cataloguing of all a character’s lines. Here’s Virgilia’s so you can see just how difficult it would be to portray her on stage or maybe to find your favorite line of hers (mine being oh no no no! [2.1.1038]).

Thanks for reading!!

The silent wife – Part 1


In a previous post (here), I stated that I would be writing exclusively about Shakespeare’s Coriolanus during the month of January. Here is my first attempt to deliver on that promise! 🙂 This post will be split into a part 1 and part 2 because it just got too long!

Virgilia is Coriolanus’ wife and, admittedly, she doesn’t really have a big role in the play.

Here is the extent of her lines in the play:

Act 1 Scene II: This scene is where she speaks the most, but all her lines express the worry she has for her husband or her desire to remain at home until his return.

Act 2 Scene I: She has three lines during this scene, which is the scene of her husband’s homecoming. Oddly she goes completely silent when Coriolanus appears. This impels Coriolanus to call her “my gracious silence” (2.1.180) when he sees her crying instead of rejoicing at his return.

Act 4 Scene I and II: Once again she has a mere three lines, even though these scenes encompass Coriolanus’ departure from Rome after being banished and a confrontation with the tribunes for the people whose actions ultimately led to the banishment.

Act 5 Scene III: Again she has a few lines in this scene where Volumnia, Marcius’ son, and Virgilia try to convince Coriolanus not to sack Rome.

So, what gives? Is Virgilia just a secondary, under-developed, character in this tragedy or does she argue a point (albeit almost as quiet as a mouse)?

It seems that Coriolanus describes Virgilia best as “my gracious silence” (2.1.180). For she is his; she is referred to throughout the play almost exclusively as Coriolanus’ wife (vs. by her name). She appears to belong to him in more ways than that, as her lines are overwhelmingly dedicated to worrying over him (as in act 1 scene II), or exclaiming at his return or change of fortune. Gracious is also an accurate representation of who she is, as she graciously allows Coriolanus to make social faux pas after faux pas. He also leaves her to raise their son (Shakespeare claims they had one, Plutarch says they had two) with Volumnia, a domineering mother-in-law. She endures all this emotional turmoil without uttering hardly anything. Consequently, of course, silent seems to be most befitting her as she utters little to nothing throughout all the most intense plot points. Even despite Volumnia’s initial plead for her to “…sing, or express (her)self in a more comfortable sort” (1.3.46-7). Coriolanus’ might also call her “my gracious silence” because he views her as being gracious in her silence or, in other words, he is thankful that she neither honors him with praises (which, being the weirdo he is, he hates) or tries to persuade him to do something his “noble virtue” tells him would be wrong.

Virgilia’s absence and lack of expressiveness is a criticism on Shakespeare if it is not read as intentional. I see this absence as a deliberate with drawl from social and political life.  I believe that she does this for her own preservation, as well as the preservation of her son. Virgilia is as much Volumnia’s counterargument as she is Coriolanus’.

Tune in to see why in my next post! Thanks for reading!



How a free e-book can help you read Shakespeare’s Coriolanus

I remember reading A LOT of Shakespeare in high school and college. I think that many, if not all, of us have cracked open one of Shakespeare’s tomes and wondered why they are so highly esteemed. For me, as a younger reader, I struggled with the archaic language and the inevitable essay that followed. Boromir lends his hand in helping summarize this feeling (thanks Bor, come not between a hobbit and his magical evil ring though…).


It wasn’t until my last year of college that I got a taste of what Shakespeare really was and it changed my perspective about his work.

The college course I took on Shakespeare was titled Shakespeare’s Rome. This course also yielded the beginning of a project I have re-ignited on this blog as the reader’s notebook. Turns out Shakespeare had one and pulled quotes from it at will! In the course, we read Coriolanus, Titus Andronicus, Antony and Cleopatra, as well as a whole host of texts that Shakespeare himself used as inspiration. Not only did it reveal (to the uninitiated) Shakespeare’s great skill at rehashing the popular works of his time, it provided an academic study of his sources, in language that was often much easier to understand. It also exemplified a belief characteristic of Shakespeare’s time: that reading ancient texts and more contemporary literature made a student a better person, and that a higher level of moral consciousness could be achieved through this act.

In the month of January I plan to post exclusively about Coriolanus. Coriolanus has been dubbed Shakespeare’s most political play, which often makes it even more difficult to wade through. I would argue that Coriolanus is very relevant and that he might even have some similarities with our current president (more on that to come!). Coriolanus also gives a perfect example of how reading from Shakespeare’s library grants us increased access to his plays.


The selection I refer to, in regards to dissecting Coriolanus, is Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s lives, a book that Shakespeare read. Plutarch’s lives is, by itself, a brick in the foundation of the western canon and can be read in order to illuminate a variety of different texts or just for the heck of it. Plutarch was an academic with stamina and has blessed modernity with an enlightening view of Roman culture, history, and storytelling. So, being the cheap, resourceful reader that I am (refer to this post here) I headed over to google books to find myself a copy of Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s telling of Coriolanus.

Quite frankly reading the 43 some pages of North’s translation has made Coriolanus much more comprehensible to me. You can get the version I read here and bookmark it for future use. The text that was scanned in order to make the e-book has been written on, but the notes give the e-book format more character (in my opinion) and doesn’t really interfere with the words.

My experiences with Shakespeare’s sources, I believe, beg the question of why I (and all the others who have passed through high school in the U.S.) wasn’t shown these texts as a fledgling in my literary career. North’s translation is not difficult to read, in fact it is much easier to digest than Shakespeare. I think that a curriculum change is in order!


Thanks for reading! And look out for more posts about Coriolanus in the month to come.




Seven places to get your classics fix without breaking the bank


The Bookworm by Carl Spitzweg. Photo source here.

I am a classics fanatic, give me anything published before 1923 and I’ll be happy (though I know, books considered classics have been written past that date). And here’s the important thing about this moment in time, most books published in the U.S before 1923 are in the public domain, i.e. these books can be bought for little to nothing if you are willing to forfeit a physical copy for a digital one. As a budget conscious reader, this has been helpful in granting me immediate access to complete works without having to spend a dime. This might seem like borderline piracy but don’t worry, it’s completely legal and since these authors have already shuffled off this mortal coil they are not loosing any royalties.

Here are a few of my go to places where you can get these digital editions:

1. The Gutenberg Project – Go here before the other options on this list. If you have never heard of these crusaders for learning, they are a dedicated group of volunteers who meticulously comb through works whose copyrights have expired and offer them up for online consumption. They boast 54,000 digitized texts and an easily navigable website all for free. Here is the link.

2. Amazon kindle – I have downloaded the complete works of Jane Austin, the Brontë Sisters, Herman Melville, and Henry James from this source. For all these enriching texts I have shelled out a mere $5. I have also downloaded Plutarch’s lives of the noble Grecians and Romans and part 1 of Dio’s Rome for free. I like this option because I can put the works on the Kindle app on my phone, making note taking and highlighting a manageable task.

3. Google books – As with the other resources listed here, this is another place to download classics and other important works. I recently downloaded Madam Campan’s text detailing her time with Marie Antoinette from this digital storeroom. You can read my post about that here. I also downloaded Wharton’s Ethan Frome. Like with Amazon, I can download these works onto the google play books app on my phone or read them online. Note taking and highlighting are also easily done on this app.

BUT WAIT! What if you are not willing to part with the sacred physical text just to save a buck. Then there are also many places I go to buy classic literature without lining the pockets of the publishing scoundrels.

1. My local used bookstore (and all other used bookstores in my general area and anywhere I travel.) – I am lucky enough to have a used bookstore some 20 miles from my house. Books are fairly priced (about $8-10 a pop) and they offer a store credit program if you bring in books. Most used bookstores have a credit system, take advantage of one near you. I also actively seek out bookstores where ever I visit. For example, I regularly frequent a bookshop in San Luis Obispo, California called Phoenix Books. This bookseller has a substantial collection from all genres. There are some drawbacks to going this route, most used bookstores (but not all) don’t have a catalogue of books and so you are obligated to browse. If you are looking for something specific, you may be disappointed, but you’ll have the opportunity to discover some hidden gem instead.

2. Antique stores – Antique stores are not just good for old china and rocking chairs, some antique stores are quite accomplished in book terms. I once snagged a copy of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities for $1 (ONE DOLLAR), published in the 70s and in fairly good condition. I have also had the privilege of adding to my collection of older books. As with used bookstores, browsing is the only option. The antique stores you look into may not have exactly what you are looking for, but the quest for the perfect read can still be equally as enticing.

3. Amazon book sellers – When all else fails, or you’re looking for something specific, I have had success with Amazon. Look at the more buying options for any classic you might covet and, of course, buy used to save the most money. Chances are you will be supporting a small bookseller in some distant part of the country.

4. The library (WHAT?!) – Of course, the most logical option, a modest temple in which we pay homage to the literary gods, is always at your disposal when it comes to free classics. I love my library, have engaged in meaningful banter with its guardians, and am its qualified cartographer. Most libraries also have an inter-library loan system, meaning that you can checkout books from most libraries in your vicinity. Options are endless.

Hopefully this list of free or modestly priced places to buy books provides a safe harbor from all those bookselling giants that want to sell you a reprint of Homer’s The Odyssey for $35…. And, to top it off, being the Christmas season and all, some of these locations offer great ways to buy meaningful gifts for all those deserving people on your Christmas list without having to serve off brand soda at your holiday function in order to foot the bill. I mean seriously who wouldn’t want to unwrap a gently used version of Spenser’s the Faerie Queene on a wintry Christmas morning?

Thanks for reading!!


The best in 20 words or less

“I minded him how royal ‘twas to pardon/ When it was less expected.” (Coriolanus 5.1.18-9)

Amaze all your friends with the perfect quote, plucked from literature and organized by category, here.

(1869 painting by Soma Orlai Petrich of Coriolanus’ wife, mother, and son begging him not to slaughter the citizens of Rome.)

Worthy words


Angry mob forms to demand bread at Versailles. Photo source here.

Rabblement (noun) 1. A class or category of people conceived of as forming a mob… 2. A disorderly, disorganized, or unruly crowd… (This definition was retrieved from here and are not my words.)

I originally found this word in Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon: “I hope that this book does not turn out to be an elegy for the Western Canon, and the rabblement of lemmings will cease to hurl themselves off cliffs.” (p. 4)

In the context of his sentence, Bloom refers to the academics who work to overthrow the Canon as the rabblement. Bloom demonstrates his propensity for nuance in the use of this word; he represents this group of people with new ideas with a semi-archaic term.

Madame Campan


Madame Campan. Photo source here.

This will be my first post in a long time. I am a school teacher and getting started with the year is always hard! That being said, I have had some time for reading (that’s not from a teacher’s manual). Currently in my hand is The Lost King of France by Deborah Cadbury.

It’s my second read through of this griping realization of the fate of the French monarchy (the first being on a turbulent, anxiety producing plane ride back to the U.S from France.) The book begins with a recounting of Marie-Antoinette’s arrival in France, her marriage and life at Versailles, and then the bloody recklessness of the revolution and the ultimate demise of the royal family. The book’s central purpose is, however, telling a more modern story: science’s power to unravel the mysteries of time. DNA testing was performed on a dried heart, rumored to have belonged to Marie-Antoinette’s son Louis-Charles. I certainly won’t spoil the ending here, but greatly recommend the read!

Another aspect of the book that I greatly enjoyed was Cadbury’s quoting of various primary sources. It made life at Versailles and the revolution truly palpable. In my eternal efforts to come closer to the source, I looked up these works (mostly diaries and correspondence) in google books because, well, who doesn’t like public domain books!

At the moment I am reading through the Memoirs of the private life of Marie-Antoinette, queen of France and Navarre by Madame Henriette Campan, which was published just a year after Campan’s death in 1822. Madame Campan became the femme de chambre to Marie-Antoinette in 1770. This position, in my understanding, was a powerful one, but amounted principally to setting out the queen’s clothes and helping the queen dress. However, Madame Campan was an accomplished woman, she could speak many languages and had experience running in the circles of high society (despite humble beginnings). She remained with Marie-Antoinette until 1792, when the Tuileries Palace in Paris was overtaken by angry, violent mobs and she was extracted from the queen’s presence. Madame Campan was an educated, self-sufficient, resourceful woman who bestowed upon modernity a detailed account of how hard monarchy falls.

She writes,

“The private history of royal personages …are too much disguised by formality, and restricted by ceremony, to afford any insight into their inclinations or personal character. In order to reach these elevated mortals, we must strip them of the lustre which dazzles us, and of the pomp in which they are enveloped.”

In that first sentence alone she does what the people of France and the revolution never  accomplish. She made the royal family, which she greatly respected, human. She goes forwarded with one of the greatest lessons of history: no one is untouchable or immune to suffering.