Book reviews

Archive for the ‘Classics Club’ Category

The Wings of the Dove by Henry James

I started The Wings of the Dove by Henry James while Melbourne was in lockdown during 2020 but I wasn’t able to concentrate well enough to get past the first 20 pages. My notes from that first attempt said, “Henry James uses too many words.”

When I tried the book again in May 2021 Melbourne was out of lockdown and I was working in my office in the CBD several days a week, with a more established routine and feeling generally more relaxed. As a result I was able to persevere and while I didn’t love the story or the slow writing style as much as I’ve enjoyed the Henry James’ books which I’ve previously read, on this attempt I at least became interested in the characters and their stories and was able to finish the book.

Milly Theale was an extremely rich, young American orphan when she travelled to London with her companion, Mrs Stringer, who while there, reconnected with a friend from her schooldays, Mrs Louder.

Mrs Louder then introduced Milly to her beautiful, but poor young niece, Kate Croy and the two young women became friends. Milly also met Kate’s secret fiance, Merton Densher, who Milly had briefly met in New York before coming to London.

Mrs Louder wouldn’t allow Kate to marry Densher because he was also poor, but when Kate learned that Milly was dying she came up with a plan for Densher to make up to Milly and marry her, with an eye to marrying him herself once he became a rich widower, her aunt also encouraged him to carry out Kate’s plan.

Densher, who was smitten with Kate, went along with the plan and followed Milly, Kate and their entire entourage to Venice where Milly went to die (or to live, as her doctor encouraged her to do before she died, without ever stating that she would die).

I feel as if I should have disliked Kate, Densher and Mrs Louder for using Milly for their own gain, but they were charming, interesting and although my perception may be wrong, at least somewhat well-intentioned towards Milly. I felt that Kate and Densher actually cared for Milly and wanted her to die happy, even though their passion was for each other.

The writing style is lethargic, with long complicated sentences that required a lot of concentration to read. Characters hinted at things at but rarely made their intentions clear and left others to determine what a raised eyebrow or a slight change in a facial expression might have meant. The book probably deserved more time from me as I think I would have gotten more from it had I read it more slowly and diligently.

While I didn’t love The Wings of the Dove I am keen to watch the 1997 film which starred Helena Bonham Carter as Kate Croy and am hopeful that watching this will clarify if Kate and Densher actually cared for Milly or if their motivation in how they acted towards her was pure greed.

The Wings of the Dove was book twenty eight in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

White Fang by Jack London

I added White Fang by Jack London to my list of Classics Club books without any idea of what the story would be about. If I’d had to guess, I would have said it was a coming of age story about a boy and his dog, which turned out to be so far from the actual plot as to be laughable.

White Fang is the story of a ferocious wild wolfdog (half wolf, half dog) living in the Yukon Territory of Canada. The story began with two men returning a coffined corpse to civilisation using dog sleds, who are being tracked by a pack of starving wolves. Each night the dogs were being picked off one by one by the wolves, until the terrified men were themselves in mortal danger.

The story then moved to follow Kiche, a female dog who had been running with the wolves and was responsible for luring the sled dogs to their deaths. After the wolf pack’s famine was broken when they killed a moose, the pack broke apart and Kiche ran with two male wolves until the older wolf, One-Eye, killed his younger rival. In due course Kiche had a litter of wolfdog pups, of which White Fang was the only survivor. As a puppy White Fang explored his world, made his first kill for food and was learning how to protect himself from danger when he and Kiche stumbled into a camp of Native Americans.

Grey Beaver recognised Kiche as having formerly belonged to his dead brother and claimed her and White Fang for his own. White Fang wanted to return to the wild but Kiche settled in to camp life and eventually the two were separated.

White Fang’s life in the camp was hard as he was tormented by the other dogs and treated brutally by Grey Beaver, so he grew up to be a savage, angry animal who was used by his master as a fighting dog. Grey Beaver eventually sold White Fang to an even worse master, ‘Beauty’ Smith, who pitted White Fang in fights against other dogs, wolves and even a lynx.

White Fang was on the brink of losing his life in a fight against a bulldog when a young man happened across the dog fight and saved White Fang from death, calling out Beauty Smith and the crowd for their beastly behaviour. White Fang then became Weedon Scott’s dog, learning to trust and love him. Eventually White Fang left the Yukon to live in Weedon Scott’s family home in California where he learned to live peacefully with other dogs, animals and people.

Up until the young man happened across the dog fight, there was little morality in the story. White Fang’s world was harsh and only the strongest and most brutal animals survived. Animals who weren’t eating other animals were being eaten themselves. The author made it clear that the wolves and wolfdogs had no sense of right or wrong, and that particularly in the wild, their only purpose was to eat and survive.

White Fang recognised humans in the story as ‘Gods’ but even then he noted that the Gods’ powers varied, sometimes as a result of their race. He also recognised that there were ‘Laws’, but only because the Gods would hurt him if he didn’t obey these Laws.

As already mentioned, when I started to read White Fang I had expected a very different book and when I realised this was the animal’s own story, I expected White Fang to think and speak and moralise like a human would, but other than feeling certain emotions which were generally angry and unhappy, White Fang retained a wildness throughout his reasoning that was fascinating.

I was also surprised that although I found much of the human and animal behaviour to be abhorrent, from the cruelty shown to White Fang by Grey Beaver and the other dogs to the graphic descriptions of the dog fights, I never felt sickened or as if the events were being sensationalised for the reader’s titillation, instead I felt engaged by the story and enjoyed this unusual look at a world and environment which I know nothing about.

I did have major reservations about the plotline of Weedon Scott bringing a vicious wolfdog who often bit people and killed other animals into his home, and especially of him trusting White Fang with his own small children. I’ve been bitten by dogs twice, once in a public space by a stranger’s pit bull terrier, which are a banned dog breed in Australia and another time in a residential street by a part dog, part dingo which had escaped it’s owner’s yard. On both occasions I hadn’t even been aware of the dog’s presence until after I was bitten. To be brutally honest, if I had owned White Fang, I would put the animal down rather than have risk my child’s safety.

I struggled to find a cover picture for this book that suited the ferociousness of White Fang as most of the covers showed wolfdogs that looked as if they would be happy to be hugged when White Fang’s temperament was the exact opposite.

White Fang was book twenty six in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023. The Call of the Wild is on my list too and I will probably read this next.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

I’m going to re-read Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf one day as I don’t think I ‘got’ the story during this first read.

I liked the first few sentences and was hopeful that Virginia Woolf and I would get along, but then came a long sentence which included six commas, two semicolons and two question marks. For the next thirty pages I was too distracted and intimidated by the author’s perfect use of punctuation to attend to the actual story. On reflection, I probably should have put the book aside and returned to it at a later date.

The story revolved around an English woman, Mrs Clarissa Dalloway and at various times followed her, several members of her family and various friends, as well as a couple who she did not know and never met over the course of a day. It began with Clarissa, whose hair had recently turned white after an illness which also affected her heart (her illness is said to have been the Spanish flu as the story was set in the early 1920s), going out to buy flowers for a party she was giving that night. Clarissa believed her life’s work was to host parties where people connected.

Clarissa was visited in the morning by an old friend, Peter Walsh, who had wanted to marry her when they were young. After she spurned him in favour of Richard Dalloway, Peter went to India and at the start of the book had only just returned to England to investigate how the woman he wanted to marry could divorce her present husband. Another character later commented that Peter was always in trouble one way or another with women.

The Dalloway’s beautiful but passive daughter Elizabeth had a friendship with her tutor which Clarissa resented, and in turn Miss Kilmore, an angry, poverty struck middle-aged woman disliked Clarissa because of her comfortable, easy life, which was facilitated by what Miss Kilmore perceived as Clarissa’s unearned social class and wealth.

Another set of characters, Septimus and Lucrezia Smith floated around the story throughout the day. Septimus had been a soldier during World War One and had been experiencing disturbing hallucinations about a friend he had loved who died during the war. During the afternoon Sir William Bradshaw, who had so badly underestimated Septimus’ condition that he seemed incompetent, committed Septimus to a psychiatric institution at which time Septimus suicided by jumping out of a window onto railings below.

Clarissa came to learn of Septimus’ suicide during a conversation with Sir William’s wife that night at her party. Although Clarissa did not know Septimus she empathised with him and felt he had acted truly by suiciding.

Other attendees at Clarissa’s party included the Prime Minister, Peter Walsh and the former wild-child but now sedate Sally Seton, who Clarissa had been in love with when they were girls.

All of these characters, plus a few others who I have not mentioned, had their turn at narrating this story at some point during the day. All of the characters were either generally dissatisfied with their lives, anxious, resentful or in the case of Septimus Smith, desperately troubled. Regardless of their social status or wealth, none of them knew perfect happiness. Even Clarissa, who superficially appeared to have everything she wanted, had given up Sally to become Mrs Dalloway.

Mrs Dalloway revolved around Clarissa, but the story was also about each of the main characters who appeared in it. I will re-read this book in future in order to learn what I missed on my first read.

Mrs Dalloway was book twenty five in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

Dubliners by James Joyce

I was too frightened to read anything by James Joyce after unsuccessfully attempting the first page of Ulysses years ago, but in a fit of bravery I added Dubliners to my Classics Club challenge. The first sentence filled me with hope that I could manage this time as that sentence was short and the intention clear. As I read on I found that I was delighted by the book.

Dubliners is a collection of short stories. While each story alone has only a very slight plot, capturing a character during a particular moment in an ordinary day, together the collection created a full picture of a community. The first stories in the collection are told by children and as the stories continue the age of the main characters age too.

The collection began with The Sisters, which told of a young boy learning of the death of a priest. Although the boy and the priest were friends the boy was careful not to let his family see his emotions on learning of the priest’s death. The boy took his emotional cues from his community, with no one about him showing any surprise or grief at the news.

An Encounter is the story of two schoolboys who wagged school to roam around Dublin. During their day out they met a man who hinted at nasty conversations and actions, although the boys couldn’t be certain that the man was actually trying to take advantage of them. I felt much uneasier than the boys seemed to, although happily for them they soon sensed that the man was a creep and left for home.

A young man fell in love with his friend’s sister in Araby. He planned to go to a bazaar to buy her a present but couldn’t get there before it closed in a reminder that life can be full of disappointments such as this.

Eveline told of a young woman who had the opportunity to leave Ireland with her lover, a sailor, but she changed her mind at the last minute. I was left wondering how things turned out for her and what might have been had she found the courage to leave.

After the Race was the story of a young man who had fallen in with a rich, glamourous, international crowd. The young man’s father was a butcher who would have been proud of his son had he known he was drinking and gambling with the likes of these people on a private yacht, despite the hangover coming his son’s way, or the huge amount of money he lost playing cards.

In Two Gallants, a pair of young men hoped that a young woman who one of them was having an affair with, would assist them to steal from her employer.

I saw the funny side of The Boarding House, which depicts a woman maneuvering a young male boarder in her home to marry her daughter. This was the first story in the collection to be told from a female character’s point of view.

A Little Cloud is the story of a man who realises his dreams were lost. The man had wanted to be a poet but was stuck in a drudgy job and worse, disappointed to learn he had been replaced in his wife’s affections by his baby son.

Counterparts is the story of a man whose drinking was a problem for himself, his career, his finances and for his suffering family.

In Clay, an old nurse visits her former charge, who is now a grown-up man with a family of his own. During a Halloween party game the woman chose an object which symbolised her upcoming death. I was struck in this story by the genuine kindness the family showed to their elderly visitor.

A Painful Case told the story of a man who turned down a woman’s romantic overtures only to learn some years later that his actions had led to her dying a sad and lonely death.

I was grateful for the notes in the edition of Dubliners that I read, because I would not have realised the significance of the politics discussed on Ivy Day in the Committee Room without them.

A Mother follows a another woman who is doing her best for her daughter, this time by attempting to gain her daughter a starring position playing piano in a series of concerts.

Grace tells the story of a man whose friends tried to get him to take religion seriously after he fell down the stairs and injured himself.

The last story, The Dead, is the longest story in the collection. The main character’s wife reveals to her husband at a New Year’s Eve party that she once loved a young man who died. Prior to his wife’s revelation the man had been the life of the party, carving the goose, flattering his aunts and arguing with an antagonistic woman whose opinions were at odds to his own. The Dead is an extraordinarily moving story and was probably my favourite of the collection.

I feel as if I would like to read the short stories in Dubliners again and again. I also feel inspired to write my own version that tells the stories of the people in the community where I grew up. Mine would include stories about the old women who gathered weekly to cackle over afternoon tea at each other’s homes, farmers who worked hard, raised families and brought their daughters up to know they could do anything, eccentric fishermen, lonely local children who looked forward all year to the arrival of playmates in summer, a handful of mad artists, a school teacher who took drugs and fell into a chest freezer, one or two blow-ins who resented anyone whose family had been in the area for generations and in summer, the horde of upper-class holiday makers who sun-bathed together, played golf together and drank together at the golf club without ever noticing a local. No doubt what I would like to do and what I will do will be reminiscent of the main character in A Little Cloud, but who knows? If I ever manage this, I’ll credit James Joyce with inspiring me.

Dubliners was book twenty four in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens is the third book I’ve read by this author. I didn’t like the story or characters as much as Great Expectations, but I enjoyed it better than Hard Times.

The Old Curiosity Shop is a long story but I found it to be a comfortable read because the chapters are short and full of action. My edition also contained so many illustrations by George Cattermole and Phiz that I got through this book much faster than I originally expected to.

The Old Curiosity Shop follows various groups of characters who revolve around Little Nell, an angelically beautiful child who lives with her elderly grandfather in his curiosity shop in London. Nell’s grandfather is a gambling addict who is convinced he will win Nell a fortune, but instead he loses their home to the worst of the bad characters in this book, a vicious and greedy dwarf named Quilp. After becoming homeless Nell and her grandfather leave London on foot to escape Quilp and several other characters who are convinced that Nell’s grandfather still has more money secreted away.

Nell and her grandfathers fell in with various characters as they journeyed around the countryside including a pair of puppeteers who make their living from Punch and Judy shows, a kindly old woman who owned a travelling waxworks show and a kindly schoolmaster. They would have stayed longer with some of the people they met, however Nell’s grandfather’s gambling caused Nell to force their departure, while with another group, their whereabouts were revealed to Quilp and they hurriedly left before he could find them.

Eventually Nell and her grandfather found a safe haven, although by this time Nell’s health had been ruined trying to protect her grandfather and keep him safe. During my research I learned that this story was originally told in installments and in New York, crowds surged the wharves in 1841 to learn if Little Nell had lived or died.

The other characters are a mixture of the best and worst of human nature. Kit, a serving boy who had worked for Nell’s grandfather in London, was amongst the best of characters. He was kind and honourable, a loving, generous son to his widowed mother and a good friend to Nell and her grandfather. The nastier characters included Quilp’s fawning solicitor, Sampson Brass and his sister, Sally, who falsely accused Kit of stealing so Quilp could have his revenge on the boy. Kit was almost transported to Australia for a crime he did not commit, but luckily, other characters were able to expose the truth before this happened.

Although Nell was the central character, her actual character was probably the least interesting or realistic in the whole book. She was portrayed as beautiful, sweet-tempered and selfless but there was no depth to her character. To me she seemed to be a symbol or a flag that the other characters fought for.

I’ve enjoyed the fantastically descriptive names Charles Dickens has given his characters in each of his books which I’ve read. My favourite character (and name) in The Old Curiosity Shop was Richard Swiveller. His name and character matched in that he was sometimes good and sometimes bad although never wicked, good-humoured, rather lazy and looking for an easy fortune rather than one he had to work for. Swiveller generally meant well and behaved well so long as doing so didn’t inconvenience him, although eventually he acted as the hero to help Kit out of his predicament.

The copy I read was second-hand and I wasn’t very far into the book when I saw that the previous reader had underlined certain sections and written notes in the pages. I was horribly disappointed by not being able to read their writing! For example, the section saying that Swiveller was a member of the Lodge of Glorious Apollos was underlined with a comment that I couldn’t read. Why? Was it something to do with the fact that Swiveller would eventually become Kit’s saviour? Was the previous reader studying the book and if so, what were they looking for? I wish I knew.

There is plenty of humour in this story, but I didn’t find myself laughing aloud the way I did when I read Great Expectations.

I suppose a Dickens’ story wouldn’t be one without drama and moral lessons, in this case gambling, which is still a massive problem for society. I appreciated that The Old Curiosity Shop showed that gambling also affects the gambler’s families.

The Old Curiosity Shop was book twenty two in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

I chose to read My Name is Red by Turkish author Orhan Pamuk for my Classics Club challenge as I had not read any novels from this part of the world previously.

I was surprised to find that the story is a murder mystery and found it to be the most unusually-told murder mystery I’ve ever read. For example, the first chapter was told by the corpse, who was lying dead in the bottom of a well.

Each chapter was told by someone or something associated with the story. The narrators included students, associates and family members of the murdered man, while others were narrated by a picture of a horse, a gold coin, the colour red and by death itself. One of the narrators is the actual murderer, although their identity is not revealed until the end of the story.

The story is set in 1591 in Istanbul. The murdered man, Elegant Effendi was a master miniaturist who had been creating a mysterious illustrated book with the assistance of other miniaturists from his studio prior to his death.

Elegant Effendi beautiful daughter, Shekure was thinking of remarrying as her soldier husband had been missing for several years. Shekure’s romance with Black, an administrator who had been in love with her since their childhood also ran through the story.

Black, who was also under suspicion of Elegant Effendi’s murder along with Master Osman, another master miniaturist, sought to find the murderer from clues in the pages of the Sultan’s books. I was shocked to learn that the Sultan’s collection of beautifully illustrated and gilded books were stored in a haphazard stash and seemingly not valued at all by the Sultan except as possessions.

The introduction of the Frankish style of art, which threatened the highly-stylised traditional art style which the miniaturists made their living from was another theme that ran through the story.

I loved the references to the miniaturist’s art and their opinions and feelings about the Frankish art. The various miniaturist’s opinions also related to their interpretation of whether or not the subjects and style of Frankish art was in keeping with their religious views, which did not allow them to create art, only to copy what already existed.

The story also references real books and stories of the time. My Name is Red would make a delightful coffee-table sized book, with pictures. The tragic story of a pair of lovers named Husrev and Shirin was constantly referenced and a very quick search on the internet brought up beautiful gilded illustrations of the pair.

I was unpleasantly surprised by the great many vulgar references in this story. Most of the male characters openly had physical relationships with very young boys and the chapter told from the point of view of a coin was an eye-opener, as I’ve certainly never thought of hiding money in the places that particular coin had been. There are also references to incest, bestiality and other practices which may have been considered normal and right at the time the story is set, but I found these parts of the book to be distasteful and would say and probably spoiled the story for me.

I also found the book to be hard work, in that I needed to concentrate hard in order to make sense of the weighty descriptions. It helped that the chapters are fairly short and the narrators changed with each chapter.

My Name is Red was book twenty one in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

A Passage to India by E.M. Forster

I added A Passage to India by E.M. Forster to my Classics Club list even though I didn’t really enjoy either Howard’s End and Where Angels Fear to Tread. The writing in both books is beautiful and the issues raised are thought-provoking but Forster’s characters irritate me enormously.

A Passage to India follows four main characters, three who are English and one who is Indian, all of whom were living in or visiting India during the 1920s. Miss Adela Quested was visiting India with Mrs Moore to decide if she wanted to marry Mrs Moore’s son Ronny when they visited local caves with Dr Aziz, a local Indian man. While they were exploring the caves Adela had a panic attack and accused Dr Aziz of assaulting her.

In court, Adela realised she had imagined the attack and so the case against Dr Aziz was dismissed, although of course by then his personal reputation had been savaged. Adela’s accusation against Dr Aziz also damaged the relationship between the Indian and British people which had become perilously close to becoming violent. After the court case was over Adela felt unable to marry Ronny, so Mr Fielding took her in until she was able to return to England. Fielding’s kind deed to Adela ruined his friendship with Dr Aziz.

The outing to the caves came about because as newcomers to India, Mrs Moore and Adela wanted to know what they called the ‘real’ India and Indian people. The other women living in British India (or British Raj) preferred to create a replica of their lives in England and viewed Indian people with an extraordinary amount of racism considering that the English were the outsiders in India.

It seemed to me that the Indian people weren’t friends with each other either as they were divided by their religions and castes. It seemed even more impossible that the Indian and British people, represented by Fielding and Dr Aziz could be friends, as they had an even greater divide between them.

Perhaps not surprisingly I felt irritable the entire time I was reading A Passage to India, but this time, as well as feeling annoyed by characters who I didn’t like or respect, the whole idea of the British Empire being in India when they had no business there at all irritated me enormously. While I understand that if the British hadn’t been in India another empire-building, thieving country would have been there plundering India instead, I don’t think that excuses the British.

I found A Passage to India hard-going. None of the characters in this book come out of the story covered in any kind of glory. As well as feeling irritated for all of the reasons I’ve already mentioned, I also struggled with boredom and kept falling asleep while reading this story.

A Passage to India was book nineteen in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

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The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I spun The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald in the Classic Club’s most recent spin and admit to groaning slightly when I saw the result. I first read this book thirty years ago and at that time didn’t like the characters or the plot and couldn’t understand what made the book a classic. Watching and enjoying the over-the-top decadence of Baz Luhrmann’s movie several years ago caused me to add The Great Gatsby to my current list in the hope of appreciating this book better as an older reader.

While I didn’t find the characters to be any more likeable this time around, I have achieved a better appreciation of the book.

The story is told by Nick Carraway, a young man who has to make his way in the world despite having very good social connections. When Nick moved to Long Island after the Great War he reconnected with his cousin Daisy and her husband Tom, who were part of New York’s young, rich and beautiful set.

Although Nick didn’t particularly care for Tom he accompanied him on one occasions to New York, stopping along the way at a garage in an area dominated by a rubbish dump to collect Tom’s mistress Myrtle, who was the wife of the garage owner. When they arrived in New York To and Myrtle hosted a small party in a hotel room which ended when Tom slapped Myrtle and broke her nose.

Nick lived on Long Island next door to Jay Gatsby, a mysterious millionaire known for hosting extravagant open-house parties for people he didn’t know. Nick only met Gatsby after having been invited to one of his parties.

Gatsby, who was obsessed with Nick’s cousin Daisy, used Nick to engineer a meeting between himself and Daisy. Daisy and Gatsby had been in love before the war but at the time Gatsby was penniless and Daisy married Tom while Gatsby was still a soldier overseas. Rekindling their affair made Gatsby think he had achieved the American Dream, although Gatsby doesn’t realise he is in love with what Daisy symbolises for him socially, rather than with her as a person.

Eventually everything came to a head one extraordinarily hot day when Tom discovered that Daisy had been cheating on him. Gatsby and Daisy raced off to New York in Tom’s coupe, followed by Tom, Nick and Nick’s girlfriend, Jordan in Gatsby’s sedan. When they arrived the couples fought some more, then raced off home again, only for there to be a fatal accident at the garage where Myrtle and her husband lived. The tragedy is compounded by further reprehensible actions.

Jordan cheats at golf.

To me, this sentence sums up the morals of most of the characters in this story. They want to win without putting in the hard work required to deserve their success. They seek out amusement and love but they aren’t interested in earning anyone’s respect. They attend Gatsby’s parties and drink his boot-legged alcohol but they won’t befriend him because despite his wealth he will never be one of them. They grab whatever they want without taking any responsibility for their actions. If this story represents the American Dream, then in my opinion, this group of extraordinarily shallow and selfish people are welcome to it.

Disillusionment is what makes The Great Gatsby a classic. Exposing the shoddy morals of these fabulously wealthy characters is disappointing. I expect people who seemingly have everything to also have good morals, to be kind and giving. While there are plenty of extremely rich philanthropists who are wonderfully generous people in real life, their type are not represented by any character in this book.

The Great Gatsby was book eighteen in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

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Classics Club Spin #23

The Classics Club have issued their latest challenge for another Classics Club Spin!

The idea is for members to select 20 books from their list of 50 classics which they have challenged themselves to read within five years, then read the selected book before 1 June 2020. The spin is taking place later today.

My book list for this spin is as follows:

  1. Mansfield Park – Jane Austen
  2. Complete Juvenilia – Jane Austen
  3. Villette – Charlotte Bronte
  4. Middlemarch – George Eliot
  5. Tender is the Night – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  6. The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  7. A Passage to India – E.M. Forster
  8. My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin
  9. Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
  10. The Iliad – Homer
  11. The Odyssey – Homer
  12. The Portrait of a Lady – Henry James
  13. The Wings of the Dove – Henry James
  14. The Call of the Wild – Jack London
  15. The Romance of the Forest – Ann Radcliffe
  16. Pamela – Samuel Richardson
  17. Uncle Tom’s Cabin – Harriet Beecher Stowe
  18. Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
  19. The Buccaneers – Edith Warton
  20. Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolfe

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

I first read Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte as a teenager at which time I intensely disliked the story and the characters. Thirty-something years later I added the book to my Classics Club list as a re-read to see if I could work out what the rest of the world saw in this book.

While I still think that the characters in Wuthering Heights include the angriest and most miserable bunch of bullies and victims ever found in a novel, I’ve experienced a complete turn-around in my feelings towards this book. I do still think the story of Wuthering Heights is brutal, though.

The story of Heathcliff and Catherine is told by a narrator who rented a house in a remote area from Heathcliff. Although Heathcliff was clearly an angry and vicious man the narrator was intrigued by Heathcliff’s household at Wuthering Heights, which included his beautiful teenage daughter-in-law and an uneducated young man who appeared to be something between a family member and a servant.

When the narrator stayed overnight at Wuthering Heights he had a nightmare about a female ghost. Heathcliff’s reaction to hearing about the narrator’s nightmare was to try to entice the ghost, whom he believed was his beloved Catherine, to return to him.

On returning home the narrator asked his housekeeper, Nelly Dean, to tell him about the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights, which he in turn related to the reader as this story.

He learned from Nelly Dean that Heathcliff was a homeless child who Mr Earnshaw found and brought home to Wuthering Heights to bring up with his son Hindley and daughter Catherine. Hindley was jealous of Heathcliff, but Catherine and Heathcliff were dear friends from their earliest meeting. After Mr Earnshaw died, Hindley returned to Wuthering Heights with his wife and Heathcliff’s status in the household was lowered. He became an abused, slighted servant to the family, although Catherine continued to love him, recognising how alike she and Heathcliff were, particularly in their wild, passionate temperaments. The Earnshaw household under Hindley’s rule became an unhappy, unpleasant place for everyone, even after the birth of Hindley’s son, Hareton.

As a teenager Catherine developed a friendship with Isabella and Edgar Linton, a neighbouring family from Thrushcross Grange. After staying in their home for some time she learned some manners but at heart remained a willful, spoiled, tempestuous child. Heathcliff was jealous of Catherine’s relationship with the Linton’s and later ran away when he overheard Catherine saying she would marry Edgar, not realising that her intention was to use her improved status to better his own life.

When Hindley’s wife died Catherine married Edgar, who had taken on far more than he could handle with her strong will and terrible tantrums. Heathcliff returned to the district as a rich man several years later and Catherine was delighted but Edgar eventually banned him from their home.

Heathcliff stayed at Wuthering Heights with Hindley and encouraged him to gamble until eventually Heathcliff held the mortgage to Wuthering Heights.

Heathcliff continued to secretly visit Catherine but after another fight between him and Edgar she became terribly ill and died after giving birth to a daughter, also named Catherine.

At this point, Heathcliff declared revenge on everyone and started his reign of misery by eloping with Isabella Linton, who was by then a young and foolishly romantic girl. Heathcliff’s intention was to make Edgar miserable and of course, he succeeded. He didn’t care one way or another about Isabella but she soon realised she had made a terrible mistake and left Heathcliff to bring up their son alone, far from Wuthering Heights. When Isabella died their son, Linton, was about ten or eleven years old. Edgar brought Linton back to Thrushcross Grange to be brought up beside his own daughter Cathy but Heathcliff insisted on taking Linton to Wuthering Heights.

Cathy, Catherine’s daughter might have been the one to soften Heathcliff’s heart, but no. He engineered the marriage his sickly, crotchety son Linton (whom he also hated) to Cathy so she would also be miserable with him and Hareton at Wuthering Heights, along with the added benefit of furthur spiting Edgar. By this time Hareton had grown up to be an oafish farm-hand, seemingly unaware that Wuthering Heights would have been his if not for Heathcliff’s actions.

There are very few characters in this story, but despite this, I initially referred to a family tree so I could work out who everyone was and where they fitted in to the story. The two Catherine’s initially confused me.

Although Mr Earnshaw was a kind man, his children were not like him. Catherine was a spoiled, selfish bully who got her own way using the force of her personality and physical violence. Hindley was jealous, angry and violent and the Earnshaw family deteriorated terribly under his charge. As an adult, Heathcliff continued the pattern of cruel, abusive behaviour which Hindley had shown him. Very few of these characters had any redeeming qualities.

I think I disliked this story as a teenager because I thought it was a romance. Wuthering Heights is not a romance. It’s a story about the cycle of family violence.

I’m completely amazed that Emily Bronte recognised and wrote about this topic at such a young age, even more so as I believe she lived a fairly sheltered life. I’m feeling quite fascinated by the story of her family, too and am keen to learn more about the lives of her and her sisters who also wrote extraordinary books.

I also disliked Kate Bush’s song Wuthering Heights and have been known to call the contemporary dance style from her music videos ‘that roll around on the ground stuff’ but I found myself listening to the song on repeat as I wrote this review. Now I’m planning to learn the red dress dance so I can take part in Melbourne’s Most Wuthering Heights Day Ever (I’ll be amongst those wearing a red dress and singing “Heathcliff, it’s me, I’m Cathy, I’ve come home, I’m so cold, Let me in through your window,” as we dance to Kate Bush’s amazing song about Catherine’s ghost).

Wuthering Heights was book seventeen in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

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