Emma Laybourn's Blog

October 15, 2018

"Note well. Whenever you present the actual truth, it is, somehow, always denounced as a lie; whereas the product of your own imagination, the fiction, is adopted, petted, called sweetly natural."

The words are Charlotte Bronte's, from the final chapter of Shirley (and if you've struggled to make it to the final chapter, you can now read my abridged version free here ). Certainly in Shirley Charlotte Bronte aimed for the "actual truth", drawing many of her characters from the life - most notably her sister Emily, whom she depicted as Shirley herself. Emily died while the book was still being written, and Charlotte may have intended the portrait as a tribute to her sister.

But it is a strange tribute. Not that the character of Shirley is unattractive - on the contrary, she is a independent-minded heiress, beautiful, intelligent and brave: Charlotte even used an incident from Emily's life when she feared she had been bitten by a mad dog and cauterised the wound. Yet it seems that friends of the family failed to recognise Emily from the book.

Shirley represents an idealised Emily - not only is she given riches and health, but perhaps her very nature is changed to fit Charlotte's idea of the person she ought to have been. In the novel, Shirley has the imagination but not the inclination to write (apart from a flowery essay from her schoolroom days, very far from the raw power of Wuthering Heights). No role seems open to her other than that of lady of the manor and, eventually, wife. It seems odd that Charlotte deprived her fictionalised sister of the outlet which in life was so vital to her.

Shirley is little read these days compared to Jane Eyre - partly because it lacks Jane Eyre's high drama, but also because it is a wordy and somewhat indigestible book. Yet it is still an interesting and perceptive one. If you'd like to meet Shirley/Emily for yourself, the abridged version shortens the novel to about 60 % of its original length, making it more readable for modern tastes: you can download it as a free ebook (in epub, mobi or pdf) from my website here.
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Published on October 15, 2018 08:15 • 30 views • Tags: abridged-classics, emily-bronte, victorian-fiction

July 22, 2018

This free anthology can now be downloaded in epub, mobi or pdf from my website English Literature Ebooks .

The oldest reference to sleep in literature is almost certainly in The Epic of Gilgamesh, which was composed four to five thousand years ago:

"While Gilgamesh sat there resting on his haunches, a mist of sleep like soft wool teased from the fleece drifted over him..."
Gilgamesh has been trying to stay awake for six days, but once sleep overcomes him, he does not wake for another week. The description of sleep has a sophistication which suggests that the author(s) had long thought about its nature.

And poets have been thinking about the nature of sleep (or the want of it) ever since. Although The Poetry of Sleep does not go as far back as Gilgamesh, it does span six centuries from Chaucer to the 1900's. Containing 80 poems, it's free to download here .
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Published on July 22, 2018 05:41 • 84 views • Tags: english-poetry, free-anthology, sleep-in-literature

May 6, 2018

I heard me say, Tell her anon,
That myself, (that is you, not I,)
Did kill me, and when I felt me die,
I bid me send my heart, when I was gone:
But I alas could there find none...

Can you make sense of this? Does it fill you with delight rather than dismay?
If so, you may like the newly compiled, free ebook of John Donne's Selected Poetry - downloadable here - of which this is a sample. Actually quite a straightforward sample, compared to some of his work.

If he were alive today, I suspect Donne (who died in 1631) might have been a crossword compiler of Araucaria standard; albeit one whose clues were mostly about sex, death and alchemy. He even wrote a poem called the Anagram (a rather cynical take on how to choose your woman.)

His poems can be like wonderfully intricate knots that tie you up until you've managed to unpick them. In his fierce directness he sometimes seems the most modern of poets. To try him for yourself, get the free ebook in pdf, epub or mobi from my website here.
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Published on May 06, 2018 06:41 • 91 views • Tags: classic-english-poetry, free-poetry-ebooks, metaphysical-poetry

March 8, 2018

Whilst happily abridging Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South (you can get the free ebook at Smashwords or from my literary website here) I was struck by a similarity with George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, which was written over twenty years later. In both books, the protagonist appears in a vision to a sick person, as a longed-for future companion.

The two authors never met, but according to Jenny Uglow's excellent biography of Elizabeth Gaskell, they corresponded and admired each other's work. George Eliot would certainly have read North and South, with its description of Bessy Higgins, the working class girl dying of consumption. Bessy has a penchant for the more visionary parts of the Bible, and in chapter 19 tells the book's heroine:

'I ha' dreamt of yo', long afore ever I seed yo'.... looking wi' yo'r clear steadfast eyes out o' th' darkness, wi' yo'r hair blown off from yo'r brow, and going out like rays round yo'r forehead... —and yo' always came to give me strength, which I seemed to gather out o' yo'r deep comforting eyes,—and yo' were drest in shining raiment...'

In this vision of an unknown friend, she prefigures Mordecai in Daniel Deronda. Mordecai is a consumptive and visionary who as his illness progresses yearns
'...for some young ear into which he could pour his mind as a testament... Mordecai's mind wrought so constantly in images, that his coherent trains of thought... often resembled genuine dreams... He habitually thought of the Being answering to his need as one distantly approaching or turning his back toward him, darkly painted against a golden sky.'

When Mordecai meets Daniel Deronda, he feels that his vision is fulfilled: this is the companion who has come to support him. And indeed, Daniel takes up this role, and looks after Mordecai through his last few years of life.

It is otherwise with Bessy. She is younger but far more advanced in illness, her lungs ruined by inhaling cotton, and is too weak to do more than listen to Margaret's talk. Their friendship does not last long. After Bessy dies suddenly, her father says in anguish, 'What wi' hard work first, and sickness at last, hoo led the life of a dog.'

Bessy plays a smaller, and grimmer, part in her book than Mordecai does in his. Yet Bessy's life and death are truer to their time. That's not to say that North and South is a depressing book; on the contrary; it's a humane and sympathetic, if slightly long-winded one (and I hope the abridged version will solve the problem of long-windedness for some readers.) The abridged ebook editions of both North and South and Daniel Deronda are free to download from my website here .
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Published on March 08, 2018 04:12 • 77 views • Tags: abridged-classic-novels, english-literature, victorian-novels

December 17, 2017

Do you know a child who devours books? If you want to fill up their ereader or tablet without breaking the bank, this is my latest list of decent free ebooks available from the Smashwords self-publishing website.

As with my previous lists, I've been looking for properly written, well-plotted books for readers of up to about 11 years. I haven't included any very short stories or picture books, Minecraft stories, or books that are only published in epub format (since I can't read them on my Kindle.)

Click on the book's title to be taken to the book's Smashwords page. There you can download it in a choice of formats.
In no particular order, then:

Esmerelda Smudge and the Magic Pepper Pot by Mandy Martin. A magic pepper pot that grants wishes starts to change Esmerelda's life - and not always for the better! Fun for ages 9 and over.
Also by Mandy Martin: Josie and the Unicorn Josie meets a short, fat unicorn who needs her to save the world, in a lively fantasy adventure for ages 9 up.
Ellie and the Mushroom Thief by Kate Amedeo. Ellie the witch finds an unexpected creature stealing her mushrooms. A gentle tale for readers of 7 and over.
The Little Demon Who Couldn't by Odelia Floris. A clever, well-written tale about Murmur, who disappoints his demon family by not being evil enough; for readers over 9.
Beyond Wisherton by Amanda Hamm. 12 year-old Sevra has an unwelcome supernatural gift, which means her whole family must leave their home. Fantasy for good readers aged 11 and over.
Winter Takes a Holiday by P.J.Leonard. When Anttoni climbs a mountain he gets a shock, in this good-natured, shortish story for ages 8 up.
Piglet Gets a New Job by Joe Corcoran. After a circus piglet gets too big to be fired from a cannon, she has to get a new job. A playful story which needs quite a high reading level - about 9 or so.
Hugh Tube by Richard Clark. Although the hero is a 14 year old with a camera strapped to his head, this snappily told, humorous school story could appeal to ages 10 and over.
Also by Richard Clark: A Dog of my Own is a lively farce involving 11 year old Jonas and a movie-star dog; for ages 10 up.
Gobbles - the Hungry Cat by Maxwell Grantly. Jack's mother warns him, 'Don't overfeed the cat!' But somehow Jack keeps forgetting... A light-hearted short story for ages 8 and over.
The Legends and the Inca Crystals by Lia Ginno. Despite some missing punctuation, this is an involving tale of teleportation, Druids, Inca legends, trolls and more; for readers over 10.
The Prince who Turned into a Toad by Shelley Chappell - a fairy story with a twist. Prince Rupert deserves his toad status, but it's up to his sister to turn him back. For readers over 8.

For other free ebook suggestions, please scroll back through this blog... and if you'd like some stories specifically for Christmas, I've updated my Christmas book list here.

Happy reading!
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Published on December 17, 2017 02:22 • 311 views • Tags: free-kids-ebooks, middle-grade, self-published-books

October 15, 2017

Why? - because although his works are in the public domain, you have to rummage through various volumes to find all his greatest poems. So if you'd like an ebook of Keats's most famous poetry (and some less famous), one has just gone up on my website here ; it's free to download as a pdf, epub or mobi file.

While compiling the selection, I was struck by the intensity of the fantasy-worlds in which Keats immerses his readers. Whether he's writing about an idealised land of Greek myth (Endymion), the fall of the Gods (Hyperion), or a snake disguised as a woman in Lamia, he foreshadows many fantasy novels. And not just novels - Endymion could easily form the basis of a video game, with its quests, adventures in the underworld, and flights on an eagle, to way nothing of an encounter with an ancient shipwrecked sailor under a spell. As for Lamia, it would make a decent horror film.

Did Keats use fantasy as escapism? He saw it as an essential role of the poet. But when in The Fall of Hyperion he stepped into his own fantasy, he made one of his own characters rebuke him: "Thou art a dreaming thing; a fever of thyself... only the dreamer venoms all his days." Keats was constantly, if unwillingly, pulled back to reality. Yet the fantastic scenes in his poetry offer a parallel universe to our own; one which, like the best fantasy, illuminates and enriches our own world rather than merely giving us a hiding place from it.
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Published on October 15, 2017 09:46 • 184 views • Tags: keats, romantic-poets

September 1, 2017

Whilst abridging Thackeray's Vanity Fair (the resulting ebook is downloadable free from my website here,) it seemed to me that its heroine (or anti-heroine) Becky Sharp displayed a number of pyschopathic traits. So I took the Levenson Self-report Psychopathy Test on her behalf. This is a series of 26 statements that you rate your agreement or disagreement with; I tried to judge Becky's likely responses based on her behaviour in Vanity Fair.

Result? - She came out in the top 7% of people for primary psychopathy: ie, emotionally shallow, insincere and manipulative behaviour. For secondary psychopathy, or antisocial behaviour, however, it was quite the opposite - she was in the lowest 20%.

In the book, Becky is very socially aware: always conscious of her effects on others, and ruthlessly charming in order to further her own ends. Although she can be briefly touched by the goodwill of other people, this does not stop her using them. For instance, on meeting her old friend Amelia after a long estrangement, "she returned Emmy's caresses and kind speeches with something very like gratitude, and an emotion which, if it was not lasting, for a moment was almost genuine." Yet at the same instant she is beginning to calculate how to turn the situation to her advantage. In general she acts emotion more often than she feels it.

I'm not the first to comment on Becky's psychopathic tendencies. Amongst others, David Wheldon has noted in a perceptive analysis that "there are strong hints of what we would now term a psychopathic personality disorder; in fact the signs of such a disorder are so clear that it seems possible that Thackeray modelled Becky's character on someone he knew." The term psychopath was not coined until long after Thackeray's death; nonetheless, he evidently understood the condition very well.

If you want to meet Becky and judge for yourself, but don't fancy reading the full thousand-page book, my abridged version of Vanity Fair is now free to read or download here at Smashwords.. It's also available from my own website, along with other abridged classic novels.
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Published on September 01, 2017 04:05 • 462 views • Tags: becky-sharp, psychopathy-in-literature, vanity-fair

March 18, 2017

No, not all of them - he wrote thousands - but I've put about 90 of John Clare's better known poems together as a free ebook. You can download it in pdf, epub or mobi (for Kindles) here .

I've tried to format the poems so that the lines fall properly on the ebook page. Generally they do; although sadly some e-reading apps don't keep all my careful formatting.

Why bother? There is plenty of free open source poetry available on the internet, but often (as in the case of John Clare) it's piecemeal. I'm not trying to produce scholarly works - for that, it's better to pay for a good edition - but rather to compile a decent, basic selection with a few notes where necessary.

This is the third poetry ebook I've produced (the others being Tennyson, and English Landscape Poetry.) Rather than put them amidst the children's stories at Megamouse Books, I've set up a new website. It's specifically for free classic literature ebooks, abridged novels as well as poetry, and is at englishliteratureebooks.com .

There are four abridged novels on the site, but more will follow. I'm currently abridging Vanity Fair, which could take a while... As for the next poetry ebook - Keats? Coleridge? Any suggestions are welcome.
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Published on March 18, 2017 02:12 • 200 views • Tags: classic-poetry-ebooks, free-ebook-litereature, john-clare

December 31, 2016

For the last two years I've been compiling an ebook anthology of classic English poetry of landscape. I started this for my own amusement, but also because I was growing very frustrated with the poor formatting of poetry in so many ebooks.

Having made my selection of eighty-odd poems (all in the public domain) I carefully formatted it so that the layout would look right, with overflowing lines nicely indented. I then published it on Smashwords... and guess what? all my careful formatting got scrambled. Excellent site though it is, Smashwords' ebook converter obviously isn't cut out for poetry.

So, having withdrawn it again, I've made my own ebooks using Calibre software. And hurrah, it seems to work. English Poetry of Landscape: an Anthology 1370 - 1928 is free to download from my website here.

Happy New Year and happy reading!
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Published on December 31, 2016 08:54 • 361 views • Tags: classic-english-poems, free-poetry-anthology, poetry-ebook

November 10, 2016

Despite my degree in English, long long ago, Tristram Shandy has always been for me one of those shamefully unread books that gets started half a dozen times and then never continued beyond page 9 - until this year when I decided it was finally time to finish it.

And what a delightfully bonkers book I've been missing for the last ** years! Tristram Shandy, a spoof "autobiography" that is actually nothing of the sort, is weird and wonderful, funny and touching - but also, it must be said, exasperating and often downright baffling.

Some of this bafflement was Sterne's intention; but some is a result of an 18th century style and convention that we are no longer used to. For instance, the way of printing dialogue - no paragraph breaks, no inverted commas - meant that at times I struggled to work out who was talking, or whether they were talking at all. The sheer weight of words, some now obsolete, was another problem: I can't be the only person to find brick-like paragraphs off-putting.

These are the issues I've tried to alleviate in my new abridgement of Tristram Shandy. The book's been gently simplified and cut to about two-thirds of its former size, with the aim of helping more readers make it past page 9. And if they're still baffled, I hope it's only in the way the author intended.

Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, Abridged is free to download in pdf, mobi, and epub formats from my website here ; or in all ebook formats from Smashwords. It's also free at iTunes, Nook Books and Kobo Books.

To anyone hoping for another list of free recommended children's ebooks - sorry, life has got in the way lately, but it will happen eventually...
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Published on November 10, 2016 09:03 • 209 views • Tags: abridged-classic-novels, eighteenth-century-literature, laurence-sterne