Emily Brontë and her sisters Charlotte and Anne grew up on the West-Yorkshire moors, a landscape which went on to influence their novels and provide a suitable backdrop for their dark, turbulent tales of wild, uncontrollable passion. The Yorkshire moors are a barren and difficult habitat, where it is hard to survive due to the harsh terrain and bad weather, that possess a stark, dramatic beauty. Emily Brontë was an heir to the Romantic and Gothic traditions which favored ruined old buildings and untamed and uncultivated landscapes as a reflection of the tempestuous emotions of the characters. Her only novel, Wuthering Heights, is a prime example of this.
Early nineteenth-century England was a country rigidly divided by social class. Whether or not you were “common” (from a low social status or with poor breeding) or genteel (from a high social class or with good breeding) defined how society at large saw you. Those born without wealth or a title envied those who were and did whatever they could to improve their lives through business, education, marriage, or by good luck. No matter how hard a person strived to make a fortune and get ahead, they would never be quite accepted by the upper-crust, who dismissed the socially mobile nouveau-riche as common and immoral. Often the snobbery of the aristocracy was a front to hide their own shortcomings. The themes of social advancement, morality, and the hollowness of wealth and status are themes which come into play in the novels of Austen, Dickens, and Thackeray.
William Makepeace Thackeray took the title Vanity Fair from a scene in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Vanity Fair is a never-ending fair in a fair in a town called Vanity, which represents mankind’s foolish attachment to worldly things. Bunyan uses the word “vanity” in its biblical/theological sense, meaning things of the world which are trivial and worthless compared to things of the soul. The connotation of the word “vanity” which most people would be familiar with today is an obsession with appearance. Thackeray uses this reference to Bunyan to make the implication that England is a “Vanity Fair,” a place that is preoccupied with worldly gain and superficial appearances.
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is one of the most famous and influential romance novels ever written and established a number of the tropes found in later books and films. The formula we recognize from a number of romantic comedies (a spirited and outspoken heroine who is “not like the other girls,” an aloof hero who eventually warms up to her, and a misunderstanding which leads to dislike and then to love) find their origins in Austen’s work.
A common theme in my reviews is my ability to be unfashionably late when it comes to culture and media. Today’s case in point: Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. My history with these books goes back a decade to when I was twelve. The middle school I went to would give each of the students a book at the end of each school year to read during summer vacation; the summer between sixth and seventh grade the book was The Lightning Thief, the first book in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. I started reading it but never finished for some reason probably because my twelve-year-old self was uninterested because the protagonist was a boy and there was no romance or pretty dresses. Flash forward ten years: In recent months, one of the people I follow on Pinterest has been pinning a lot of Percy Jackson related content which grabbed my attention and piqued my interest in the series. I then found an audiobook of The Lightning Thief on YouTube and had it on while I was doing work.
Sarah Vowell is an American historian and author known for her snarky and irreverent writing style and unconventional way of handling non-fiction prose. My father is an admirer of her and her work and that is how I am aware of it. When I decided to write my term paper on the Marquis de Lafayette and the beginnings of America’s relationship with France, I was reminded of this book and chose to use it as one of my sources. Vowell’s writing is unique among history books in that they have a much less formal and pedantic tone than is typically associated with the genre. Her books read more like Jack Kerouac's On The Road than the history texts students are made to read in school. The structure of Lafayette in the Somewhat United States is based around Vowell’s trips to sites associated with her subjects and she often goes into descriptions of the people and places she encounters on her excursions. As someone with a penchant for history related vacations, I find this format enjoyable.