Autumn

by Ali Smith

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“All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won.”

“Autumn” is set in the Autumn of 2016 as the United Kingdom is in pieces about to decide on the Brexit vote. The novel is centred on two characters, Elisabeth, a 32 year old university student and tutor, and Daniel, her great friend and mentor who is nearing 100 and in a coma, near death in a nursing home.

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Above: Ali Smith

This book was published in October 2016, following the Brexit vote, and it’s a deeply original and philosophical work, meditating on the fluidity of time, history and art. It constantly flits between past and present, and nothing much actually happens in it, except life which in fact is everything. Much of the drama happens in people’s minds, and some of it is actually quite funny, as is the bureaucracy involved when Elisabeth goes to the post office to renew her passport.

The friendship between Elisabeth and Daniel  is beautiful and very moving. They first meet when Elisabeth is 8 years old, a precocious misfit, and Daniel is already an old man, the queer arty neighbour.

“The lifelong friends, he said, sometimes we wait a lifetime for them.”

Even though the England portrayed appears grim and devoid of hope, the close friendship of these two disparate people is a hopeful thing.

“We have to hope that the people who love us and know us a little bit, in the end have seen us truly. In the end not much else matters.”

The narrative changes back and forth between Elisabeth’s concerns for herself and her country and Daniel’s flashbacks to the past and all he has endured, being a refugee and seeing the horrors of World War II.

In the midst of her post Brexit anxieties, Elisabeth is confronted with the prospect of Daniel’s death. She comes to talk to him every day, regardless of his unconscious state.

“I’m tired of lying governments. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to any more. I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful.”

There are many subtle references to great literature of the past, Shakespeare, Keats and Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, and the importance of ‘reading’ both at a literal and figurative level is highlighted.

“Hello, he said. What are you reading? Elisabeth showed him her empty hands. Does it look like I’m reading anything? she said.

Always be reading something, he said. Even when we’re not physically reading. How else will we read the world? Think of it as a constant.”

Smith writes in a very dense manner, and part of the book is in a stream of consciousness style, but it very quickly starts to make sense. Her language is so inventive as when Daniel talks about words:
“Language is like poppies. It just takes something to churn the earth up around them, and when it does, up come the sleeping words, bright red, fresh, blowing about. Then the seedheads rattle, the seeds fall out. Then there’s even more language waiting come up.”  
 

Parts of this novel filled me with great sadness. It was both funny and very sad, and it was about our crazy world and its borders which are growing ever more exclusive and anti-other.

But it’s also about the power of art and stories. And the seasons go on, despite what humans do. Loved this book. 5 ⭐️

 

Listening to My Soul

 

“I have been a seeker and still am

but I stopped asking the books and the stars.

I started listening to the teaching of my soul.”

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Apologies for being absent on the blog this week. I am going through a lot of changes in my life at the moment.

My partner is in Europe on a cycling tour for five weeks (not the Tour de France, ha ha), so my days are even busier with the children, being totally on my own to look after them. I am also undertaking an online course which runs all year called “Year of You: Creative Rehab”.

Having been a stay at home mum for some years I am trying to work out what I should do next, i.e: what do I really deeply desire to do?

For a year or so I regularly posted on Instagram about books and art, but started to find that very restrictive, as my photography skills aren’t that brilliant, and to me the caption was always more important.  ‘Bookstagram’, as that niche of Instagram is known, after a while just became boring really, everyone congratulating each other’s choice of book, with posts mainly all about beautiful images of books staged with flowers, coffee or on location such as the seaside. Don’t get me wrong, I played the game too for a while and enjoyed it, but as my life got ever busier, I started asking why am I doing this? I realised it wasn’t working for me, so disabled my account.

For the moment, the blog and my on-line course is enough for me. I love writing about books and art still, but I want to try more creative writing too, so I will start doing some on the blog soon.

The on-line course I am doing is very confronting and intense, but in a good way. It asks basic questions that are  quite fundamental like:

What do you want?

What do you need?

What is keeping you suspended over the void of what you no longer are, and what you need to become?

If you knew you would die tonight, what would you regret the most?

These are questions I am on my way to answering this year. I am considering doing a course on visual arts next year. I have read widely about all sorts of artists, and am constantly amazed at how many women artists there have been throughout history, yet  totally underrated or unknown. I would like to highlight some of these in my blog over the coming months.

A genre that has always helped me as a form of bibliotherapy is poetry. One poet that is still immensely relevant today is Rumi, a Persian mystic born in the 13th century. But even though the word mystic might imply “weirdo” these days, his work is strongly grounded in the here and now: it’s direct, powerful and abundant in tolerance and compassion.

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“Christian, Jew, Muslim, shaman, Zoroastrian,

stone, ground, mountain, river,

each has a secret way of being with the mystery,

unique and not to be judged” 

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He had so much to say, on everything from love, to religion, to life and death, and everything in between, and he sounds startlingly modern.

“Forget safety

Live where you fear to live

Destroy your reputation

Be notorious”

~

“Don’t be satisfied with stories,

how things have gone with others,

Unfold your own myth.”

He speaks to us unhindered by time and cultural difference, and his words have an elemental force that remains undiminished across centuries. He certainly speaks to me as I journey through a year of great change.

⭐️

All quotations from “Rumi, Selected Poems” published by Penguin, translated by Coleman Barks and John Moyne.

 

 

 

 

Eleanor of Aquitaine

By Alison Weir

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“Prologue: 18 May 1152

In the Romanesque cathedral of Poitiers, a man and a woman stood before the high altar, exchanging wedding vows. It was a simple ceremony. the young man, aged nineteen, was stocky, with red hair, and restless with pent-up energy, knowing he was doing a daring thing. The woman, eleven years his senior and with long auburn locks, was exceptionally beautiful, very sophisticated and a willing accomplice in this furtive ceremony.

Few would have guessed, from the lack of pomp and splendour, that the marriage of this couple was to change the face of Europe.”

I really enjoyed re-reading this biography, which I pulled off my shelf while taking a break from my TBR.

Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, was born in a court where troubadours flourished and courtly love was all the rage. She was not a meek wallflower by any means. She was first married to Louis VII of France, that union later being conveniently annulled. While married to the French king, she was shocked and appalled by the cold winters of Paris, having come from the warm South, and introduced what were then innovations at court: wooden shutters to keep out draughts, and fireplaces! Her second marriage to Henry, Duke of Anjou and later King of England was one of love, rare for medieval times. Henry was a forceful personality, intelligent and hyperactive, but Eleanor was more than a match for him with her sophistication and learning.

Opinions about her were divided: One chronicler noted that “by reason of her excessive beauty, she destroyed or injured nations”, while another stated that she “surpassed all the queens of the world”. I think it could certainly be argued  that the family of Eleanor and Henry was amongst the most dysfunctional in British history. While originally in love, the couple’s happiness was not lasting, and both spent the later part of their lives undermining each other, with Eleanor eventually backing one of her sons in treason. Her sons are well known to history: Richard the Lionheart and John who said of his mother that she was an “unhappy and shameless woman”.

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Above: Tombs of Eleanor and Henry, Fontevrault Abbey, Anjou, France

Eleanor was an extraordinary if controversial personality, and held considerable influence if not actual power, given the constraints on women of that time. This was a fascinating read, for anyone interested in history and one woman’s role in it. I would give it 4 ⭐️.

 

 

Poetry Thursday: Robert Frost

 

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‘Love at the lips was touch

As sweet as I could bear;

And once that seemed too much;

I lived on air

That crossed me from sweet things,

The flow of – was it musk

From hidden grapevine springs

Downhill at dusk?

I had the swirl and ache

From sprays of honeysuckle

That when they’re gathered shake

Dew on the knuckle.

I craved strong sweets, but those

Seemed strong when I was young;

The petal of the rose

It was that stung.

Now no joy but lacks salt,

That is not dashed with pain

And weariness and fault;

I crave the stain

Of tears, the aftermark

Of almost too much love,

The sweet of bitter bark

And burning clove.

When stiff and sore and scarred

I take away my hand

From leaning on it hard

In grass and sand,

The hurt is not enough:

I long for weight and strength

To feel the earth as rough

To all my length.’

“To Earthward” by Robert Frost

❄️

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Robert Frost was born in 1874 and died in 1963. He had a long life, but it was plagued by grief and loss. His father died of tuberculosis when Frost was only 11, his younger sister had to be committed to a mental hospital, and his wife suffered bouts of depression, and died relatively young of heart disease. Of six children, only two outlived their father.

He always wanted to be a poet, and his first poem was published when he was only 19. To earn a living he worked in mills, as a teacher and then a farmer in New Hampshire and Massachusetts .

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Above: Frost as a young man.

Although he is usually thought of as a rural poet, writing about life and nature in New England, Frost is much more than that. His simple language and conversational tone, belies the often dark mediations on universal themes of love and loss.

❄️

‘Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

to say that for destruction ice

Is also great

and would suffice.’

“Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost

His poetry is so calming and beautiful, but it must have been a hard won beauty for him personally. Despite the pain, his poetry lives on.

Book & Exhibition Review – 1.Vincent Van Gogh & The Seasons: Exhibition at NGV Melbourne 2. Van Gogh: The Life (Naifeh & Smith)

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Above: Olive grove with  two olive pickers, 1889, Saint-Remy, oil on canvas, Kröller -Müller Museum, Otterlo.

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“Art is to console those who are broken by life” Van Gogh 

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I think it is fair to say that most people have heard of Vincent Van Gogh, even ones that don’t know much about art, and most people have an idea of him as the archetype of the tortured artist genius, which he was, but there is so much more to him than that. Everyone knows of course that he cut off part of his ear, and he definitely had a mental illness, the likelihood being manic depression.

I have been delving into his life and work recently by reading the brilliant biography shown above, and seeing a groundbreaking exhibition of his work.

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L: The garden of the asylum at Saint-Rémy, 1889, Saint-Rémy, oil on canvas, Kröller -Müller Museum,Otterlo.

R: Self Portrait, 1887, Paris, oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris

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“Normality is a paved road. It’s comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow on it.” Vincent Van Gogh, in a letter to his brother, Theo.

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The NGV (National Gallery of Victoria) Melbourne has done a brilliant job at staging “Van Gogh and the Seasons”.  It is a beautifully curated exhibition, the chief curator being Sjraar van Heugten from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, showing in great detail the relationship that Van Gogh had with each of the seasons.

Van Gogh came from a religious Dutch Protestant family, and his father was a minister, but their religion was sober and practical. Poor Vincent was always the odd one among his siblings, preferring to read and be alone in nature. His father frequently accused him of being too serious, too intense and too sensitive; he was always too much of everything really. It was this sensitivity and intensity to both nature and human suffering, that ultimately contributed to the making of his greatest art.

“Today it was a real Spring day, and the fields of young wheat and the lilac hills in the distance are so beautiful, and the almond trees are beginning to blossom everywhere” Van Gogh in a letter to his mother, February 1890.

Vincent tried widely different professions, and was initially apprenticed to an art dealer uncle, which is deeply ironic, as he was able to only sell one or two paintings in his lifetime. This did not suit him, he was a loner and unable to form lasting social connections. Then he worked as a bookstore clerk, which was short-lived. He actually lived in a number of cities during his attempts at making meaning of his life: Amsterdam, The Hague, London, Brussels, and lastly Paris. When working for his uncle failed, he decided to become a preacher. As with everything he did, he threw himself fully into the venture, but it wasn’t to be. Incredibly he was sacked from his position for being too zealous. In everything he did, he was obsessive to the point of destroying his health, both physical and mental. He ultimately found that art was his way to God and the eternal.

Vincent had been very religious in a traditional matter when young, but as his life and art progressed, his relationship with nature became pantheistic. As an artist, I think he was unique in how much and how deeply he read, prior to doing any painting, only taking up painting seriously at the age of 27. He read the Bible, philosophers such as Thomas Carlyle, and writers such as Dickens, George Eliot, Charlotte Brontë and Goethe. He was intensely drawn to the suffering of others, to his own detriment. He also wrote a lot – reams of letters, specially to his brother Theo. In these letters he passionately articulates how much his art meant to him, and how important it was to his literal salvation.

As he took up painting seriously, he only had ten years left to live, but what he did in that time was remarkable. Of the ten years up to his death in 1890, only the last four were spent in France, and it was there that he created nearly all of the paintings for which he is famous. “Wheatfield” below is a great example of his late style, where the painting is thickly encrusted, when you see it up close it’s almost 3-D, and you can feel the heat of summer in the thick impasto yellow.

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Wheatfield, 1888, Arles, oil on canvas, P. and N. de Boer Foundation, Amsterdam

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The Green Vineyard, 1888, Arles, oil on canvas, Kröller -Müller Museum,Otterlo.

Similarly, in “The Green Vineyard” above, the vines with huge grapes almost leap out of the picture, and the sky is again thickly layered, like frosting on a cake. In these works, we can see the beginning of modern painting, as exact depiction of reality is no longer important, but the critical thing becomes the vision and feeling of the artist.

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For anyone interested in Van Gogh, the biography by Naifeh and Smith is the definitive work. It reads almost like a novel, with Vincent as the tragic troubled character, and it sheds new light on his romantic life, his mental anguish  and his early death at 37.

Below are a few more examples of Van Gogh’s work . All photos of Van Gogh’s paintings were taken by me on iPhone SE, at the NGV exhibition, “Van Gogh and the Seasons”.

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Farmhouse in Provence, 1888, Arles, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington

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Orchard bordered by cypresses, 1888, Arles, oil on canvas, Kröller -Müller Museum,Otterlo.

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A wheat field, with cypresses, 1889, Saint Rémy, oil on canvas, National Gallery, London

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Further information on this exhibition: https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/exhibition/van-gogh-and-the-seasons/

Further Reading: Van Gogh’s Letters are wide-ranging, and hugely recommended. He writes very well and with great fervour about all sorts of subjects. This Penguin edition is the one I have been reading.

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The last word should go to Vincent, who definitely showed the world by his art, what he had in his heart, and that is what draws so many people to his work to this day:

“What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion. Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.”

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Thursday

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Image: from “The Disasters of War” by Francisco Goya, series of prints, 1810 -1820. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

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“Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.”

From “The Second Coming” by William B Yeats

🌟

No, that wasn’t written yesterday, but in 1921 when Ireland was in the throes of a vicious Civil War.

Yeats stayed a neutral observer through all the upheavals of Irish history during his lifetime, and some of his best poetry reflects this.

One of my great loves is poetry, and I hope to start a weekly post on favourite poets, combined with art images.

I am always struck by the French proverb “Plus ça change, plus chest la même chose”, the translation being  “The more things change, the more they stay the same”

With the world sometimes seeming to be entering a new Dark Age, with senseless atrocities everywhere snuffing out innocent lives, one can easily be tempted to despair.

It’s worth remembering though, that there have been dark times before, and that always through the dark times love has continued to exist, and eventually to prevail.

Another poet that was a great observer of the political landscape that enabled the disasters of the  Spanish Civil War and then World War II to occur, was W H Auden. He lived in Germany for a few years in the early 1930s and saw a catastrophe unfolding. The following poem was written on the eve of the Second World War.

 

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Image: “We Are Making a New World”, by Paul Nash, 1918. (Imperial War Museum, London)

“I sit in one of the dives

On Fifty Second Street

Uncertain and afraid

As the clever hopes expire

Of a low dishonest decade:

Waves of anger and fear

Circulate over the bright

And darkened lands of the earth,

Obsessing our private lives;”

from “September 1, 1939” by W. H. Auden

The poem catalogues the disasters of the past, and prophesises dark times ahead, but it ends with a very simple message:

“We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just”

Exchange their messages.

🌟

Seamus Heaney, another great Irish poet was right on the money when he commented:

“I can’t think of a case where poems changed the world, but what they do is they change people’s understanding of what’s going on in the world.”

Any feedback would be appreciated. Would you like to see more poetry posts? Any favourite poets?

Dracula

by Bram Stoker

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“Alone with the dead! I dare not go out, for I can hear the low howl of the wolf through the broken window.”

” My very feelings changed to repulsion and terror when I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down, with his cloak spreading out  around him like great wings” 

This novel is the prototype for all subsequent vampire fiction, but for me the main interest was its preoccupation with women’s morality or lack of it, their perceived weakness, and their need to have male rescuers to save them from their inherent or potential wayward natures.

I think this book tells us a lot about Bram Stoker, and the 19th century ‘fin de secle’ obsession with sex, its relationship to morality and death, and Victorian male anxiety about the “New Woman”. I lost track of how many times the word “voluptuous” was used, and not in a positive way.

“The sweetness was turned to adamantine, heartless cruelty, and the purity to voluptuous wantonness.”

“There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal, till I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on the scarlet lips and on the red tongue as it lapped thr white sharp teeth.”

There is fascination with the erotic and desire of it here, but fear of where that desire might take you.

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Stoker was born in Dublin in 1847, the son of a civil servant.  Following study at Trinity College, he married, and later became business manager to Henry Irving, the famous Skakesperian actor and enterpreneur. He wrote Dracula at the age of 50 in 1897, while employed by Irving.

Underneath a conventional life as the epitome of Victorian rectitude, Stoker must have had unfulfilled desires and uneasy thoughts gnawing at him, because he wrote in his diary of a strange dream: ” Young man goes out, sees girls one tries to kiss him not on lips but throat. Old Count interferes – rage and fury diabolical this man belongs to me I want him” This bad dream, with its homo-erotic undertones must have been frightening to a man like Stoker. This was the germ of the novel, and Stoker transforms these lines into part of Jonathan Harker’s experience in Dracula’s castle.

The novel opens with Harker, a young solicitor and engaged to be married, travelling to Transylvania to finalise the purchase of  a London house for a count. The horrors he encounters there almost get him killed, and then almost make him lose his sanity. For me they are the best part of the novel. Dramatic and frightening, they show Harker and Dracula in a deadly fight for supremacy of one, and survival of the other.

” This was the being I was helping to transfer to London, where, perhaps, for centuries to come he might, amongst its teeming millions, satiate his lust for blood… the very thought drove me mad. A terrible desire came upon me to rid the world of such a monster.”

After Harker’s escape from the castle, strange and disturbing events begin to unfold in England: a young girl awakes with bite marks on her neck, a ship is wrecked and its crew mysteriously lost at sea, a lunatic at an asylum starts raving about the arrival of his “Master”.

The rest of the novel becomes a pursuit of Dracula by a group of young men, who are presented as the cream of Victorian manliness, but in reality come across as very irrational and emotional, qualities that are frowned upon in the women. Helping them in their quest is a so-called vampire expert, Professor Van Helsing, who indulges in long diatribes about the vampire’s powers and the peril he embodies.

The entire novel is a mixture of letters, diary entries and newspaper extracts, which makes it at times very dull and long winded. Many parts of it seem scarcely credible, such as Lucy, the young girl having been bitten by Dracula, then being given a transfusion a day over four days by four different men.

After the initial section where Harker is prisoner, we hardly see or hear from Dracula again. It all becomes a race against time, to stop the terror he has unleashed, but to be honest it all gets very turgid and boring. The only interesting character is Minna, at first engaged, then married to Harker, and definitely the brains of the entire outfit. She is very practical, getting the timetables for the trains to Transylvania, whereas the men come across as  emotional and fragile.

“He grew quite hysterical…he stood up and then sat down again, and the tears ran down his cheeks. I felt an infinite pity for him…he laid his head on my shoulder, and cried like a wearied child, while he shook with emotion.” from Minna’s journal

Even Van Helsing, who considers himself the expert, bows down to Minna’s logic:       “Ah, that wonderful Minna! She has man’s brain – a brain that a man should have were he much gifted – and woman’s heart.”

“Our dear Madam Minna is once more our teacher. Her eyes have seen where we were blinded. Now we are on the right track once again, and this time we may succeed.”

There is a thread of fear of women’s sexuality running through the entire book. Lucy and Minna are the two female characters showing the possibilities in women’s character. Lucy is portrayed as very beautiful and dangerously wayward, hence her susceptibility to the Count, whereas Minna has a man’s logic, yet a tender moral heart that keeps her one step ahead of being enthralled to Dracula.

This isn’t a great novel by any means. It is interesting for its exploration of Victorian fears, and says more about Stoker’s obsessions than anything else.  When you compare it for example to Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” with its weighty philosophical themes of the ethics and responsibilities of  science, and the duty owed by a father to his child, it comes up short. It is still a fascinating story though, as can be seen by the influence it has had on the vampire fiction still popular today.  3⭐️

If anyone has read this book, I would love to hear your thoughts.