Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘The Classics Club’

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.

https://theclassicsclubblog.wordpress.com/

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

Far From the Madding Crowd was my first experience of reading Thomas Hardy. I’m so cross with myself for never reading anything by this author before, but now I know how good his stories are, I’m looking forward to reading his other works.

Far From the Madding Crowd was first published in 1874 but I found this beautifully written, romantic story to be timeless.

The story began with a farmer, Gabriel Oak, falling in love with a milkmaid, Bathsheba Everdene. Bathsheba was beautiful, strong-willed and clever, but unfortunately, not in love with Gabriel. He asked her to marry him and she refused him.

Well, what I mean is that I shouldn’t mind being a bride at a wedding, if I could be one without having a husband.”

At the time of his proposal Gabriel was a young farmer with prospects but after an unfortunate accident caused an over-diligent sheepdog, he lost his farm and had to go on the tramp looking for work, feeling thankful that Bathsheba had not married him and so been ruined too.

Around the same time Bathsheba’s fortunes took a turn for the better, when her uncle died and left her a farm. To the surprise of the farm’s employees she decided to run the farm herself and hired the devoted Gabriel to tend her sheep.

In a fit of mischief, Bathsheba wrote a Valentine’s card to a neighbour, Farmer Boldwood, who was a man who had never noticed a woman before in his life. He didn’t see the joke and fell in obsessively in love with Bathsheba.

When a handsome and dashing soldier arrived in the district and flirted with her, Bathsheba married Sergeant Troy in a moment of weakness, disappointing both Gabriel and Boldwood, and setting in train a series of events which affect the whole community.

“All romances end at marriage.”

Hardy’s writing is very descriptive, yet there is no fluff or falling down rabbit holes. The characters are strong, the plot is interesting and entertaining and the humour is wonderful. I constantly found myself laughing as I read this story. Bathsheba’s employees on the farm are a continual source of amusement, from one character’s tendency to suffer from a ‘multiplying eye’ after drinking too much, to the gossipy, rambling conversations between Joseph Poorgrass, Cainy Ball and other delightfully named characters.

The setting is idyllic, even though farm life is portrayed accurately in that sometimes things go wrong and a farmer is ruined financially. Between the weather, sheep doing what they are not supposed to do and plain old bad luck, the life of a farmer is clearly not for everyone.

The story also includes tragedies and lessons to be learned by most of the characters, including Bathsheba.

“Dazzled by brass and scarlet – O, Bathsheba – this is a woman’s folly indeed!”

The saddest story in this book is that of Fanny Robin, who, as a serving girl, followed her heart to a bad end. No doubt her tragedy has served as a warning to this book’s readers over the years.

I was very impressed that Hardy allowed his heroine to be strong and brave and to live her life as she saw fit, particularly when at the time he was writing this would have been most unusual. I also liked that he allowed Bathsheba and the other characters to make mistakes and that there were consequences, sometimes tragic, when they did so.

“When a strong woman recklessly throws her strength away she is worse than a weak woman who has never had any strength to throw away.”

Far From the Madding Crowd was book sixteen in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

https://theclassicsclubblog.wordpress.com/

The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley

When my fellow bloggers, FictionFan and Sandra from A Corner of Cornwall and I recently chose The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley for a Classics Club spin which didn’t come up, we decided to read the book anyway and publish our reviews on the same day (links to FictionFan and Sandra’s blogs below). I’m really looking forward to comparing our reactions to this book!

The Go-Between was my first experience of L.P. Hartley’s writing. I got a thrill when I read and recognised the first line, which I hadn’t realised came from this novel.

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

The story begins with an elderly man looking through his boyhood treasures, prompting him to remember the events of a particular summer during his childhood. Leo had suppressed the memories stemming from an incident occurring on his thirteenth birthday his whole life, affecting his emotional development and ability to pursue relationships. After Leo found and read the diary he kept during that fateful year, his returning memories became the story.

In 1900 Leo was at school, recording his school’s daily events in his diary. After gaining popularity amongst his schoolmates by injuring two bullies with a curse, Leo was invited to spend the summer holiday with Marcus, a schoolfriend at Brandham Hall in Norfolk.

The Maudsley family were richer and moved in a higher circle of society than Leo was used to, but he quickly became the particular pet of Marcus’ older sister Marian. When Marcus fell ill, Leo became a messenger for Marian, delivering letters between her and a local farmer, Ted Burgess, who were having a secret affair.

Leo also delivered messages to Marian from another houseguest, Lord Trimingham, who also loved Marian and wanted to marry her. Leo idolised Lord Trimingham and was delighted when asked to call him ‘Hugh’.

Leo idolised both Ted and Hugh, who represented different things to him. Hugh was a disfigured war hero, the Archer from Leo’s Zodiac diary, while Ted, a strong, manly farmer was the Water-Carrier. Leo saw Marian as the Virgin, a focus of attention, affection and the recipient of other zodiac symbol’s gallantry.

Leo was unaware of the nature of the messages he delivered for Marian and Ted, but when their affair was exposed he took the blame for the subsequent fall-out, despite the terrible shock he suffered on being exposed to the scandal.

The manipulation of Leo by selfish adults, leading to the loss of his self-esteem and innocence was tragic. Leo seemed to be to be a typical child, sometimes puffed up with his own importance and at other times ridiculously naïve and The Go-Between brought back uncomfortable memories of being twelve or thirteen years old myself, no longer a child, yet not quite a teenager and a long way from being an adult. I remember wanting to know more about subjects which mystified Leo and being unable to understand why adults behaved as they did. I also remember feeling confused, self-conscious and awkward much of the time.

Although this is story takes place during summer, an English summer is so different to an Australian summer that the time of year was as ‘other’ to me as the setting in Norfolk and the historic time of when this book was set, 1900. Times have changed, as the adult Leo noted during the sections of the story told in the present time. We have different ideas now about love affairs and we also have phones and other devices which lovers can use to contact each other directly, so ‘go-betweens’ are no longer required. People falling in love with the wrong person and selfish, manipulative behaviour will never disappear, though.

The writing in The Go-Between is beautiful. Every event is meaningful and is in the story for a reason. The individual words give the sense of having been particularly chosen for their inclusion. The plot is thrilling, even though the style of the story-telling is gentle.

I believe The Go-Between is a story that will remain with me for some time and one that I will re-read in future. I’m also looking forward to watching the movie of the book starring Julie Christie.

Please read Sandra and FictionFan’s reviews to see what they thought of The Go-Between.

https://acornerofcornwall.com/

https://fictionfanblog.wordpress.com/

The Go-Between was book fifteen in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

https://theclassicsclubblog.wordpress.com/

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

I included Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood in my Classics Club book list as a bit of a cheat since I’m working my way through her books anyway, but thought I might as well tick another book off my list.

Alias Grace is unlike any of the stories I’ve already read by this author. Several have been dystopian, while another two were so real I suspect they were based on the author’s own life experiences. Alias Grace is a fictional account of an actual woman who was convicted of two murders in Canada in 1843. The known facts of the case were used by the author to anchor her fictional story.

Grace Marks was a servant at a remote farm when she and James McDermott were found guilty of murdering their employer, Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. Grace was only 16 years old at the time of the murders. The pair were caught soon after fleeing to the USA and returned to Canada to face trail for the crimes. McDermott was hanged and Grace was sentenced to life in prison.

When the story began, Grace had been a prisoner for many years. By day, she worked as a servant in the prison Governor’s home, returning each night to the prison. The Governor’s wife and her guests were fascinated by Grace, and were alternately thrilled or horrified by having her in their midst. Grace’s beauty and self-possession added to their intrigue.

A doctor researching criminal behaviour came to Canada specifically to interview Grace. He sat with Grace in the Governor’s home as she sewed and tried unsuccessfully for some time to prompt her to talk about the actual murders, which she told him she had forgotten about. Eventually the doctor asked Grace to tell him about her childhood, which she did, starting with her abusive, drunkard father, her constantly pregnant mother and their battle with poverty and too many children. Grace told him her of her mother’s death on the ship to America from Ireland, how she became a servant and eventually lost touch with her father, younger brothers and sisters as she moved from situation to situation.

The doctor’s own somewhat messy personal life also became part of the story. Newspaper accounts of the crime, letters between the characters and poems were also used to tell the story.

Grace is a fascinating character and this is an intriguing story, which has left me with plenty of things to think about.

Alias Grace was book twelve in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2013.

If we were all on trial for our thoughts, we would all be hanged.

Alias Grace is broken up into chapters named for quilts, such as Ducks and Geese and Pandora’s Box, with pictures of the quilt patterns. I particularly enjoyed making the connection between the contents of each chapter and the name of the quilt patterns.

https://theclassicsclubblog.wordpress.com/

The Classics Club Spin #20

The Classics Club have issued a challenge, Spin #20!

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 31 May 2019. The spin is taking place Monday 22 April 2019.

https://theclassicsclubblog.wordpress.com/2019/04/15/cc-spin-20/

The book that I least wanted, Anton Chekhov’s Major Plays came up last time and it was even less enjoyable than I’d hoped! This time, I’ve tricked them (is my paranoia seeping through?) by only choosing books that I really want to read.

My book spin list is as follows:

  1. Alias Grace – Margaret Atwood
  2. Mansfield Park – Jane Austen
  3. Complete Juvenilia – Jane Austen
  4. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
  5. Tom Jones – Henry Fielding
  6. Tender is the Night – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  7. The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  8. My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin
  9. The Go-Between – L.P. Hartley
  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. Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
  18. The Buccaneers – Edith Warton
  19. The Importance of Being Earnest – Oscar Wilde
  20. Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolfe

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