Thursday, 21 August 2014

Getting Started with Dickens - Nicholas Nickleby

My memory is that A Tale of Two Cities was the first book I read by Charles Dickens. Of all his novels, A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations are possibly his most read books - so it seems to me.
I've read eleven of Dickens's novels and Nicholas Nickleby has been the easiest plot of all to follow.

According to G.K. Chesterton, the book Nicholas Nickleby marked a crucial turning point for Charles Dickens. This was his fourth book, the previous three being the Sketches by Boz, The Pickwick Papers, and Oliver Twist. Although these three books were successful, they were of a different design but the writing of Nicholas Nickleby 'coincided with his resolution to be a great novelist and his final belief that he could be one.'

Nicholas Nickleby is Dickens’s first romantic novel because it is his first novel with a proper and dignified romantic hero; which means, of course, a somewhat chivalrous young donkey. The hero of Pickwick is an old man. The hero of Oliver Twist is a child...
But Nicholas Nickleby is a proper, formal, and ceremonial hero. He has no psychology; he has not even any particular character; but he is made deliberately a hero—young, poor, brave, unimpeachable, and ultimately triumphant.

The story of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby begins with the account of how Mr. Nicholas Nickleby Snr. loses his fortune, and his will to live, and so dies leaving behind his wife and their two children: Nicholas, nearly nineteen years of age and Kate, a couple of years younger. With no means of support, Mrs Nickleby and her children must travel to London to seek assistance from Mr. Ralph Nickleby, the dead man's older brother, who as it turns out, is a cunning and avaricious man of business who takes an instant dislike to his nephew.
On the pretext of providing young Nicholas with a good opportunity for advancement, Ralph finds him a position with a Yorkshire schoolmaster, a Mr. Wackford Squeers, and promises to provide for Mrs Nickleby and Kate.
Nicholas soon finds Mr. Squeers' boarding school and his treatment of the 'students' intolerable and in a rush of indignation thrashes the school master and leaves the establishment taking with him, Smike, one of the ill-used boarders who had become attached to him because of the kindness Nicholas had shown to him.
Meanwhile, back in London, Ralph had brought Kate into contact with some of his dubious acquaintances in order to gain an advantage with them and her life was made miserable.
Mrs Nickleby, being a silly, undiscerning type of woman, is of no help to her suffering daughter and indulges in dreams of Kate marrying one of her brother-in-law's rich acquaintances.
Nicholas returns to London, confronts Ralph, and removes his mother and sister to safer quarters. After a series of fortuitous events, he finds a good situation with the brothers Cheeryble but his Uncle is more than ever determined to crush him and employs various schemes in order to accomplish this.
In the course of his employment with the generous hearted brothers, Nicholas is asked to perform a delicate task involving a beautiful young girl who is in desperate need and in the course of his duty he discovers that her selfish father has promised her in marriage to an old usurer in return for an allowance which would enable him to live comfortably. Nicholas discovers that his Uncle is behind this scheme.

The story is well-paced and Nicholas plunges from one adventure to another in true romantic fashion. The book is long, 65 chapters, but even so, I'd recommend it as a good entry into the work of Dickens if you haven't read him before. The characters are not treated as fully as those in some of his other novels and there is a buoyancy in the writing that isn't found in his darker novels such as Little Dorrit or Our Mutual Friend. It is an enjoyable read and if you wanted to introduce Dickens to your child it would be a good choice for someone around the age of 15 or 16.

There are numerous online copies as the book is in the public domain. I like this version from the University of Adelaide best.

Librivox has a wonderful recording performed by Mil Nicholson, a professional actress. Her website is here and if you enjoy her reading you can leave her a comment.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Handicrafts - sewing projects for beginners

The child is only truly educated who can use his hands as truly as his head, for to neglect one part of our being injures the whole...
Any work which employs the creative instinct to good purpose and produces a reputable and artistic result (not mere exercises which waste the children's time and material for nothing) finds favour with us.

Moozle had her first lesson on the sewing machine a year ago and is quite confident using it. I get it out for her and she can thread it up and start sewing but I still need to keep my eye on her and help her with some things. My machine is a great little basic Elna my Dad bought us for a wedding gift twenty-six years ago. We didn't have a TV and Dad asked if we'd like one for a wedding gift and I quickly said NO, but I'd love a sewing machine. It hasn't skipped a beat in all that time.
I've taught all seven children to use it & being a machine, I had no trouble convincing the boys to try it out.
I've always set it up on the kitchen table because it's a central place & I can keep my eye on the user. One day I left it for half a minute & when I came back I found my 2 year old son kneeling on the chair with a scrap of fabric underneath the needle of the machine. He was looking very serious, waiting for something to happen. It gave me a fright (not that he could reach the pedal but one of the other littles could have gone under the table and pressed it) so I've always been careful since then to make sure that whoever is sewing always turns off the power any time they leave the table. Moozle is the youngest child but she also always turns it off.

This week I got her to make a storage bag for our plastic bags and here is what she did:

What you need:

A rectangular piece of fabric - we used a piece about 22" x 20" (56cm x 51cm)

2 pieces of elastic - I had some that was too wide so I cut in longwise to make it just under 1/2" wide and cut two pieces about 6" (15cm) long
Large safety pin

What you do:

Sew a border along each of the shorter sides for the elastic to go through. Ours was about 1" in width - you have to be able to get the safety pin through easily.

Fold material in half lengthwise & sew the edges together leaving the two ends open for the elastic to go through.

Attach elastic to the pin and thread a piece through both top & bottom seams and secure ends of elastic by sewing them together with zigzag stitch.


This is the fiddly bit. Tuck the raw edges away from sight and sew the seams closed. Not exactly neat but it's not going to come undone:

Fill with plastic bags - finito.

These little wall hangings were done by my two older girls when they were around ages 9 and 11. One of the boys also did something similar when he was 14 years old. This will probably be Moozle's next project. It combines hand sewing (the picture is worked in backstitch) and the patched border and binding machine sewed. With this basic idea you can do all sorts of variations and the girls experimented with dying the background fabric (we used plain calico/homespun) with tea, Parisian essence & other concoctions.
I'll post instructions when she's done it.


Monday, 18 August 2014

Schindler's Ark by Thomas Keneally

Thomas Keneally is an Australian author who first heard of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist and the unlikely hero of this book, when he was looking at leather briefcases in a shop in the USA in 1980.
The shop belonged to a 'Schindler survivor' and Keneally's book is based on the detailed recollections of the Schindler Jews and other witnesses, including Oskar Schindler himself. 
In his introduction the author states that he has used his craft as a novelist to tell a true story and has tried to avoid all fiction in the telling of it. Although at times it was necessary to reconstruct incomplete conversations, all events are based on eye witness accounts.

An unlikely hero was the term I used to describe Schindler: affluent, fond of good food and wine, a capitalist to the core and a womaniser, he moved in high places and used the strength of a debased and barbarous system to keep over 1200 Jews working in his factories from annihilation in the Nazi death camps.
His rescue work began in 1943 in Nazi occupied Poland with an act of kindness towards a misused young Jewish woman in the service of a brutal SS officer; but he neglected and frequently abandoned his wife who was loyal to him, and who was instrumental in saving the lives of many of his workers.

The rescued Jews 'had their attention taken by the grand, magical, omni-provident Oskar,' and it was hard 'to see behind the Herr Direktor to the quiet wife. But to the dying, Emilie was more visible...One wonders if some of Emilie's kindnesses...may not have been absorbed into the Oskar legend...'

Emilie said of her husband that he had done 'nothing astounding before the war and had been unexceptional since.' The war gave him an opportunity to summon up virtue for a season and Thomas Keneally has told his story well, taking care to distinguish between the real man and the myth, at the same time acknowledging the role Emilie Schindler played.

As they got closer to the gate, they became aware that Herr Schindler was standing in the midst of the SS men...A short, dark SS officer stood beside him. It was the commander...Liepold. Oscar had already discovered - the women would discover it soon - that Liepold, unlike his middle-aged garrison, had not yet lost faith in that opposition called The Final Solution. Yet though he was...the supposed incarnation of was Oskar who stepped forward as the lines of women stopped.                   

The women staggered across the cobbles in their tattered Auschwitz clothes. Their heads were cropped. Some of them were too ill, too hollowed out, to be easily recognised. Yet it was an astounding assembly. It would not surprise anyone to find out later that no such reunion occurred anywhere else in stricken Europe. That there had never been, and would not be, any other Auschwitz rescue like this one.

Places of interest:

The Jewish Virtual Library - a list of the names included on 'Schindler's list,' which he gave to the SS in order to convince them his 'factory workers' were essential to the war effort.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Ambleside Online Years 3 & 9 - Jacobite Folksongs

In the third term of AO Year 3 Our Island Story covers some Jacobite history. We've been listening to the song below, Ye Jacobites, which was re-written from the original by Robert Burns in 1791.
At first look it seems Robert Burns was anti-Jacobite but I've read a few opinions about whether or not this was the truth. This blog has an interesting perspective.

Here is an audio of the song plus the words written by Burns and the original version.

The Massacre of Glencoe, which occurred in 1692, is covered in Our Island Story. I use the song below (sung by Alastair McDonald) for older children as it also fits in Term 1 of AO Year 9, but have a look at the words here to check its suitability.

Oops, my apologies. Just realised I didn't include it here when I first posted but I can't get it to load now. It's here and it's the one we like best:

Another version is this one but it's not a great video and there are a few misspelled words:

The Jacobite Heritage is a good place to browse if you're interested in anything to do with the Jacobites.

Sunday, 10 August 2014


Using up some bits and pieces of fabric and made these cushions this week.

Below is what I really should have been working on. This is the beginnings of Zana's 21st quilt but I'm having difficulty getting these Dresden Plates right. I used the English paper piecing method because I like doing patchwork by hand - mostly because I can take it anywhere and stitch whenever - but it's harder to make the pieces come together in the middle and sit flat. I gave up in disgust a couple of months ago but I've been on a roll with these cushions so I'm picking the Dresdens up again so my poor daughter can get her present  before she turns 22.

Just adding this one a few days later:

Saturday, 9 August 2014

The Snow Goose: A Story of Dunkirk by Paul Gallico

The Snow Goose is a short poignant story centred around an injured snow goose and a reclusive artist's growing relationship with the young girl who brings the bird to him for care and climaxes with the 'little ship' evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940.
The book was first published a year after the miracle at Dunkirk and became a world-wide best seller.

Philip Rhayader, a lonely twenty-seven year old wildlife artist, bought an abandoned lighthouse on the desolate Essex Coast in 1930 and withdrew from the world. Physical deformity had driven this kind and warm-natured man into seclusion where he poured his sensitive nature into his painting. His only human contact was twice a month when he went to purchase supplies at a small village but he was a friend to all wild creatures and provided   sanctuary and food for them through the winter.
One day, three years after he had come to the lighthouse, a young girl timidly arrived at his door bearing in her arms a large white bird which had been injured by fowlers. Twelve year old Frith had heard that Rhayader was skilled in healing injured things, and her concern for the wild bird had overcome her fear of meeting the strange, ugly man.
The bird was a Canadian snow goose which had been caught in a storm whilst migrating south for the winter and thrown off course and Fritha became a frequent visitor to the lighthouse while La Princesse Perdue, the Lost Princess, was restored to full strength.
One day, about six months later, the bird rose up with a group of others and headed back to the north.
The bird's departure brought Frith's visits to an end and Philip dejectedly returned to his solitary existence.
Four months later, to  Philip's surprise and joy, the snow goose returned, and so too did Frith. Over the years the bird's absences grew shorter until one day it didn't fly off with the other had chosen to stay with Rhayader.

'The spell the bird had girt about her was broken, and Frith was suddenly conscious of the fact that she was frightened, and the things that frightened her were in Rhayader's eyes...'

The year was 1940 and across the Channel a British army was trapped at Dunkirk. The call had gone out to all the English villages on the coast and men were putting out to sea in their small craft determined to be a part of the rescue attempt.
Philip Rhayader was one of them.

'Frith stared at Rhayader. He had changed so. For the first time she saw that he was no longer ugly or mis-sharpen, or grotesque, but very beautiful. Things were turmoilng in her own soul, crying to be said, and she did not know how to say them.'

This haunting little story, with it's backdrop of the English marshlands and its wildlife, is beautifully illustrative of love's power and the role trust plays in gaining love. Outward appearance is often elevated above true character and this superficial way of seeing people can cloud our ability to understand what really matters. A story that brings true beauty and loveliness into focus is refreshing and this one helped open up some important discussion when I read it aloud. Although it's a simple story I think it would be most appreciated by mid to late teens and up.

 Essex Marshes
                            © Copyright J Smith and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence


God's Speed

As Frith farewells Philip she calls to him, 'God-speed, God-speed, Philip!'
This song was based on the story of The Snow Goose.