Zhong Kui – Slayer of Vice and Degradation

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It was said that Zhong Kui (鍾馗) was born in the Tang Dynasty, and the folklore described him as the ghost slayer. The story was retold and widespread in the early period of Qing Dynasty. Rumors had that he achieved the highest score in Ancient Chinese imperial examination, but slayed himself out of disappointment and anguish of being jerked by henchmen, aides, and officials for his ugliness in front of the Emperor at the palace court. After his death, he became a messenger of the Netherworld, and a Taoist Deity to this day.

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Before the apparition of Zhong Kui, an enormous bat would be spotted swirling and hovering in the sky, then out of a sudden, the thickset legendary man with glaring eyes was seen patrolling and being flanked by a general of battlefield and an officer of wisdom and maneuver. In this folklore, they were confronted with garden-like spirits who were deprived of their moral virtues and corrupted with vice and evil thoughts. Those included spirit of lust, hard-headed spirit of shamelessness, spirit of roguishness, spirit of parsimony, spirit of gluttony, and so forth.

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To kill the hard-headed spirit of shamelessness to its core – grab the mirror of conscience!

It would be classified as a satirical and humorous piece for general readers, similar to The Journey to the West, aiming at the nepotism, ineffectiveness, bureaucracies, and miasma infiltrating in the palace court. When an incapable official with imbecility was under the auspices of officials of senior ranks without any contributions and sacrifices for the populace of the country, restrained citizens were all on their own to struggle and fight. Apart from that, it also insinuated the fact that people must have the responsibility and best thoughts to govern themselves and families with moral virtues then to think of passing on the fame and wealth to their posterity when governing others and climbing up the ladder.

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P.S. I think this would be interesting to share the story; and it’s welcoming if anyone would like point out some inaccuracies or confusions in this post, if there’re any!

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Jezebel’s Daughter (1880) by Wilkie Collins

“My servant Death, who threatened you in the night; and my servant Life, who raised you up in the morning. What a position! I stand here, a dweller in a populous city – and every creature in it, from highest to lowest, is a creature in my power.”

41-wm1kdjkLIn the Preface of Jezebel’s Daughter, Wilkie Collins puts lots of faith in his general readers to anticipate the second part of The Fallen Leaves, and is hopeful about it to find its way to them in its fullest justice. “I say plainly, that I have never asserted a truer claim to the best and noblest sympathies of Christian readers than in presenting to them, in my last novel, the character of the innocent victim of infamy, rescued and purified from the contamination of the streets.” To be sure, as the cases of infiltration of fallen children and women engendered from illegitimacy in the streets of London, the infamous baby farmers as well as the concept of Christian Socialism are central plots of the novel instead of the backdrop, it might not receive critical acclaim and popular reception widely especially when reviewers tend to put his works on the category of sensation fiction alongside The Woman in White and The Moonstone. Moreover, some study his works in dichotomy with the aftermath of the death of Dickens in 1870 regarding the tension and pace of his works in proportion to the content of didactic purposes instilled within. However, to me, I find the pleasure of reading Wilkie Collins’s novels is so far not in the least diminished in view of his contemporaries. On the other hand, as a modern reader, it absolutely arouses my literary curiosities and interests in delving into the social conditions at the time concerned.

The cover illustration which accompanies this post is the one to be published by Oxford’s World Classics in January 16. The lady appears so enigmatically graceful on the cover! In fact, she looks remarkably like the countenance and manner limned by Wilkie Collins’s words in the novel. She has an indescribable composure which invades the surrounding objects and causing them to recede in shade. She possesses a witchery aura which makes ones feel ill at ease in presence, and pervents them from getting all secrecy restrained to inconspicuously divulging it out unreservedly. “Her dark eyes, never fully opened in my remembrance, looked at me under heavy overhanging upper eyelids. Her enemies saw something sensual in their strange expression.” So much sensuality exerted in her presence that one is not only observantly felt within but also seen on the outside.

“An educated criminal is almost invariably an inveterate egotist. We are all interesting to ourselves – but the more vile we are, the more intensely we are absorbed in ourselves. The very people who have, logically speaking, the most indisputable interest in concealing their crimes, are also the very people who, almost without exception, yield to the temptation of looking at themselves in the pages of a Diary.”

One aspect which Wilkie Collins examines in the novel is the subject of fatal results unleashed by the biased choice of characters concerning a moral value comprised in humanity at the expense of another. This solution is then followed by evil deeds based on the ground of irrationality. It is mentioned in the Preface of Jezebel’s Daughter as Wilkie underlines one aspect of humanity, “[I[n ‘Madame Fontaine’, I have endeavored to work out the interesting moral problem, which takes for its groundwork the strongest of all instincts in a woman, the instinct of maternal love, and traces to its solution the restraining and purifying influence of this one virtue over an otherwise cruel, false, and degraded nature.” The name “Jezebel” derives from a biblical villain in the Old Testament, and Madame Fontaine’s unpopularity accumulating with the rumors and gossips begets this nickname. Madame Fontaine is a South German femme fatale who marries a professor in the University of Wuzburg below her class rank along with the risks of desertion by her relatives. However giving the juxtaposition of good and evil inbred in humankind, Wilkie Collins also gives a preference of “good’ in Madame Fontaine with allusion to Anna Maria Zwanziger (1760 – 1811) and the means of her diary. This also explains a lot of his signature style and techniques in diary entries and epistolary writing in Armadale, and No Name. One reason for it is perhaps to assess the extent of wickedness in characters, especially the fairer sex in society.

Apart from this antithesis and distortion of intrinsic moral virtues, Wilkie Collins also humorously jokes about the consequent and inevitable crimes accomplished with the educated proprieties in society. David Glenney, the narrator of the story, in possession of  “a young head on old shoulders”, acknowledges himself that the reserved character is hereditary in English society therefore he has the resistance to unremitting demand for friendly terms of hugs and praises from his new German friend, Fritz Keller. “Young Mr. Keller never suspected (my English brethren alone will understand) how very near my fist and his head were to becoming personally and violently acquainted. Different nations – different customs. I can smile as I write about it now.” This is also satirically depicted in terms of the dispositions of Franklin Blake in The Moonstone, and Herr Grosse in Poor Miss Finch.

“I have found that the rarest of all human virtues is the virtue of gratitude.”

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Patient of a lunatic asylum

As regards social contexts and conditions concerned in the novel, Wilkie Collins raises his interests and studies about invention and use of poisons (not arsenic or strychnine), madhouse of Bedlam Hospital with its inmates, as well as humane treatment and insanity and the weak advocated by Society of Friends around the eighteenth century. The parts where Jack Straws compares his release from the madhouse equivalent to the circumstances of being surrounded by seeds of the Sun; and the connection to his new bedroom with the word of “Heaven” is just phenomenal! Of course, Jack Straw is another mythical character without a background like Ezra Jennings in The Moonstone, and so interesting to be the protagonist of the story!

“Slow poisoning by reiterated doses, in small quantities, we understand. But slow poisoning by one dose is so entirely beyond our experience, that medical men in general refuse to believe in it.”

11249838_1072551219439015_3594741438796129884_nWilkie Collins also talks about the possibilities and capabilities of educated young women working in offices instead of being seamstresses and governesses, in the philanthropic and resolute character named Mrs. Wagner. As the story is set in 1828, Wilkie Collins mentions the time as orthodox compared to the period when this novel is published (readers of inquisitiveness should read George Gissing’s The Odd Women (1893), a fascinating novel on matrimony and women’s education, and invasion)). Also, one of the interesting scenes Wilkie Collins also depicts in great details is the Deadhouse of Frankfort,  where he has studied on spot before commencing the story – it is a place functioned as a final resting place for the poor, and more importantly, to safeguard against premature burials, when a doctor’s certificates would not be issued in written authorisation after three days with evidence of the decomposition in the corpse.

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To say it all, Jezebel’s Daughter is another fascinating masterpiece of humanity composed by Wilkie Collins and nothing in the least sacrificial in tension and cleverness of plotting and contriving, which are the crucial elements that readers immensely enjoy. The intense rivalry is unprecedentedly driven to the extreme with a “half-witted” loyal young man and a “wicked” maternal siren. It becomes one of my instant favourites of Wilkie Collins’s works and a rescuer amidst my reader’s block, and I hope to acquire the Oxford edition to devour the introduction and explanatory notes. (especially the one about Her Royal Highness – who could She be referred to in the story???)

The Mad Watchman’s Song

The moon was shining, cold and bright,
In the Frankfort Deadhouse, on New Year’s night
And I was the watchman, left alone,
While the rest to feast and dance were gone;
I envied their lot, and cursed my own—
Poor me!

Backwards and forwards, with silent tread,
I walked on my watch by the doors of the dead.
And I said, It’s hard, on this New Year,
While the rest are dancing to leave me here,
Alone with death and cold and fear—
Poor me!

Any company’s better than none, I said:
If I can’t have the living, I’d like the dead.
In one terrific moment more,
The corpse-bell rang at each cell door,
The moonlight shivered on the floor—
Poor me!

The curtains gaped; there stood a ghost,
On every threshold, as white as frost,
You called us, they shrieked, and we gathered soon;
Dance with your guests by the New Year’s moon!
I danced till I dropped in a deadly swoon—
Poor me!

And since that night I’ve lost my wits,
And I shake with ceaseless ague-fits:
For the ghosts they turned me cold as stone,
On that New Year’s night when the white moon shone,
And I walked on my watch, all, all alone—
Poor me!

And, oh, when I lie in my coffin-bed,
Heap thick the earth above my head!
Or I shall come back, and dance once more,
With frantic feet on the Deadhouse floor,
And a ghost for a partner at every door—
Poor me!

The Victorian Fairy Tale Book

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This is an enchanting book covering seventeen fairy tales published in the nineteenth century with beautiful black-and-white illustrations inserted within. I will discuss each story one by one in my future posts, and hopefully those will be interesting as well as inspiring (not at all intended to be so educational) for you to read!

  • The King of the Golden River by John Ruskin (illustrated by Richard Doyle)
  • The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Robert Browning (George Cruikshank)
  • The Rose and the Ring by William Makepeace Thackeray (illustrated by the author)
  • The Magic Fish-Bone by Charles Dickens (John Gilbert)
  • Melilot by Henry Morley (Charles H. Bennett)
  • The Fairies by William Allingham (Arthur Hughes)
  • The Little Lam Prince and his Travelling-Cloak by Dinah Maria Mulock Craik (John McL. Ralston)
  • Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti (Dante Gabriel Rossetti)
  • The Necklace of Princess Fiorimonde by Mary De Morgan (Walter Crane)
  • The Golden Key by George MacDonald (Arthur Hughes)
  • The Stolen Child by William Butler Yeats
  • The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde (Walter Crane)
  • The Brown Owl by Ford Madox Ford (Ford Madox Brown)
  • Rocking-Horse Land by Laurence Housman (illustrated by the author)
  • The Reluctant Dragon by Kenneth Grahame (Maxfield Parroish)
  • The Deliverers of Their Country by E. Nesbit (H. R. Millar)
  • From Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens by J. M. Barrie (Arthur Rackham)

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (1938) by Winifred Watson

miss-pettigrew2I finally have the determination to pick this book up from the library! So many chances I had missed it! So this is my first read published by Persephone Books. It mainly introduces forgotten books from the twentieth century most by women writers, which are “neither too literary nor too commercial”, but are “guaranteed to be readable”. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day sets in London, recounting an unmistakably folly of an underprivileged woman named Miss Pettigrew, who is a spinster in her forties, living in straitened circumstances and without money to pay the rent. One day she’s been referred with an address and knocks on the door of Miss LaFosse’s for a post of governess. Here she delightfully leaves her mediocre and humdrum life, puts on thrills (to disperse cants) and nervousness (when situations flout her religious values inculcated by her family) to be a middle-aged Cinderella, deluged with unpredictable and unforgettable events starting from 9:15 a.m to 3:47 a.m the next day.

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All characters are likable, I especially like the commercial secrets about cosmetics, perfumes and surgeries divulged by Miss Dubarry to Pettigrew, which emphasizes the trusted friendships between women, as it appears to be a rarity those days amidst gossips and matchmaking. It flits from talking about love, choosing a hubby, to plights of being a governess, which Pettigrew states that its duties amounts to a nursemaid’s work, who is only a hireling in none of the ways being treated as an individual, and considered dumbfounded at all times.

“I am a very poor governess. I am a very bad governess. I hate it. I loathe it. It’s been a deadly weight all my life. I can’t manage children. I grow more afraid of them every year. Each post was worse than the last. Every one was cheaper…”

It is a fun read with beautiful cover and illustrations. I haven’t watched the movie yet; it appears lovely too!

Interesting quotes

  • The old dame had guts: smoking cheroots and bending her elbow with the best. (p.38)
  • “…Odd!” said Miss Pettigrew conversationally, “the undermining effect of flowers on a woman’s common sense.” (p. 57)
  • All these years and she had never had the wicked thrill of powdering her nose. Others had experienced that joy. Never she. And all because she lacked courage. All because she had never thought for herself. Power, thundered her father the curate, the road to damnation. Lip-stick, whispered her mother, the first step on the downward path. Rouge, fulminated her father, the harlot’s enticement. Eyebrow pencil, breathed her mother, no lady…! (p.73)
  • “The culmination of all true romance,” said Miss Pettigrew sternly, “is marriage. Unless the thought of marriage enters both partners’ heads, you may be sure there will be no permanent happiness.” (p. 132)
  • “Tears in the eyes,” said Michael, “curls delightfully disarranged, frock just a little to low, mouth pathetically quivering, expression childishly appealing, will have no effect.” (p.150)
  • “Woman, ” he cried in delight, “your acumen is marvelous. I could only think of him singing mushy songs to mushy senoritas in mushy films.” (p. 155)
  • Flirting was a charming game. Men know you expected them to flatter you and gratified your wish, but they expected you also to greet their remarks in like spirit. It was only her stupid inexperience which had made her take everything seriously. (p. 215)

Up at the Villa (1941) by W. Somerset Maugham

You’d raised him to the stars and then you flung him back to the gutter.

Up at the villaUp at the Villa (1941) is admittedly considered to be my first read by Maugham(1872-1965). I borrowed Of Human Bondage before and didn’t start it; this one I thought I could treat it as an introductory writing. The book begins with Mary Panton, widowed but a beautiful goddess regarded by all men, staying at a villa on top of the hill, overlooking Florence and contemplating the loss of her husband and the eight years of matrimony. Just when she thinks, at the age of thirty, she would embroil herself rationally in a loveless marriage to a prestigious, conciliatory and firm governor-to-be of Bengal, things get thickened unexpectedly only because she thinks this time to be domineering herself for one single companionable act to a young man living in penury.

You see, I liked your sending for me when you were in a hell of a mess. And then the way you kept your head, it looked pretty sticky at one moment; you’ve got nerve all right and I liked that too.

As to my reading experience with this book, the quote “you’d raised him to the stars and then you flung him back to the gutter” says very much to the circumstances happened to Mary later on which appear influential to the male characters. To Edgar, Karl, and Rowley, she is an unexceptionable goddess in the flawless facades according to their own perspectives. As the story goes on, each faces the unendurable anguish once recognising Mary’s sullied purity as she inconspicuously unveils own true self before them. However through their revelation and charges towards her with a wielding power comprising their sexual jealousy belonging to men, Mary also gradually releases the shackles and lets her heart look into herself deeply than a looking-glass. Regarding Edgar and Karl, they enslave themselves in desire, pride, indulgence of hardship and memories. “Clear your mind of cant. That’s what Dr. Johnson said, and damned good advice it was” – “Live and Let Live” appears to be a motto of Rowley; he never puts on frills but affections as his type of an idle vagabond, and never does harm, which is in opposition to the other two’s tribulations inflicted on themselves.

You see, my dear, the advantage of me is that I’m a bad hat. A lot of people reproach me for the things I’ve done; I dare say they’re right; I don’t think I’ve done anyone much harm, women have liked me and I have a naturally affectionate disposition; so the rest followed almost automatically; but anyhow I’ve got neither the right nor the inclination to reproach other people for what they’ve done.

All in all, this is a powerful novella, and Maugham’s writing is phenomenal. It sets in Italy but centers on the lives of Britons (one of which being an Empire-builder as well as an Indian civilian), Austrian refugees, and Spaniards, which is kind of special and interesting to know everyone would explore and have something with different views, and this novella is invaluable for keeps. I know, there is a movie adaptation based on this novella, but trust me, read the book first, you won’t be disappointed. I will hopefully plunge into another work by Maugham soon.