Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘The Classics Club’

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley is the most surprising book I have read so far during my Classics Club challenge.

The story is set in a future version of London where the entire population’s very existence is controlled by a council of World Controllers.

Religion and ageing don’t exist, neither do families, monogamy, illness, pregnancies or unhappiness, in fact experiencing or coming in contact with any of these would be something for the inhabitants of the World State to be ashamed of. Instead of religion the sign of the ‘T’ (for Henry Ford’s Model-T Ford) is used in the way that a Christian might make the sign of the Cross and ‘Our Ford’ being worshipped as a result of having created the assembly line.

In the World State babies are grown in test tubes and brought up in communal nurseries where they are exposed to social conditioning causing them to unthinkingly love their place in life, regardless of whether they are a cloned left-handed person of limited intellect working on a factory line along with droves of others who were bred for the same purpose, or if they are an Alpha-Plus, bred to be good-looking, clever and successful.

Everyone is young, enjoys complete sexual freedom, and consumerism and entertainment rule. Soma, a drug which promotes happiness, is used liberally. People go to the ‘feelies’ which is like going to the movies but with additional sensations. The mantra is that everyone belongs to everyone else, sexually, emotionally and and in any other way you might think of.

In the World State is vitally important for the inhabitants to be physically attractive to be happy and successful. Physically attractive women are considered to be ‘pneumatic’ and are more popular than those who are not (I’m not sure what pneumatic actually means, but for some reason the word makes me think of Jayne Mansfield).

Between the media (propaganda), education (sleep-conditioning) and the expectations of people’s peers, not much free-thinking went on in the World State but when Bernard Marx, an Alpha-Plus became critical of the use of Soma, sleep-learning and other ways that the people of the World State were controlled, took Lenina Crowne, an extremely pneumatic woman with him on an excursion to a Savage Reservation in America, they saw people who were living in a way more familiar to the reader for the first time. Lenina was so horrified and overwhelmed by the sight of old people, fat people, family units and the thought of monogamy that she dosed herself with Soma to avoid reality.

Bernard, however was intrigued, particularly by Linda, a woman who had previously lived in the World State and her son, John. Linda’s shame at becoming pregnant while on a visit to the Savage Reservation stopped her from returning to London, even though Linda and John had been ostracised by the Savage community after Linda got the women in the community offside by having sex with most of ‘their’ men. In Linda’s defence, she didn’t realise her behaviour in the Savage Reservation would offend or hurt anyone because back in the World State, everyone belonged to everyone.

Bernard took Linda and John back to the World State with him where Linda, who was fat and horribly old (she was 44) was thought by the people there to be so grotesque they almost considered her to be a monster. John, on the other hand, who had read the complete works of William Shakespeare at the Savage Reservation, found the World State to be a terrible place which did not live up to his values in any way. When Linda died, the people of the World State couldn’t understand John’s sorrow at losing his mother.

When John introduced a writer in the World State to Romeo and Juliet, the writer loved the words and appreciated the beauty of the sentence structures and Shakespeare’s words, but could not understand the passion that Romeo or Juliet felt for each other or why their families put up obstacles to prevent the lovers’ physical relationship from developing.

John and Lenina appeared to fall in love but as John was unable to tolerate Lenina’s free sexual values and Lenina could not understand her feelings towards John, their relationship was unable to develop either emotionally or physically.

I didn’t feel particularly drawn to any of the characters but found this version of the future to be funny, sad and thought-provoking. I expect I will continue to think about this book for some time to come (and I’m sure it will spring to mind when I’m next doing training at work and am hit with a slogan designed to encourage me to work harder, smarter and so on). I intend to re-read Brave New World before long, too.

I’ve already found a copy of Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun and have added this book to my next Classics Club challenge.

Brave New World was book forty-one of my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

I nearly didn’t read The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James because I was angry after feeling ‘suckered’ into reading Mrs Osmond by John Banville without realising in advance that the story was a sequel to The Portrait of a Lady, which at that time I hadn’t read. I also disliked the main characters in Mrs Osmond so much that I swore I would never read ‘Portrait’.

Obviously, my promises mean nothing, because I added The Portrait of a Lady to my Classics Club list anyway.

The ‘lady’ of the book’s title is Isabel Archer, a poor young American woman who was lifted out of her life in Albany, New York to travel to Europe with her rich aunt, Mrs Touchett.

Mrs Touchett first took Isabel to the family home near London, where Isabel charmed her uncle, her cousin Ralph and Ralph’s friend, Lord Warburton. Before long, Isabel had declined Lord Warburton’s offer of marriage along with another offer from an eligible young man she had known in America, telling her disappointed aunt that she preferred her freedom.

Ralph also fell in love with Isabel, but rather than try his luck where no one else had succeeded he convinced his father on his deathbed to leave half of his fortune to Isabel so that she could live a full life, so that Ralph, who suffered from ill health, could take an interest in the results of his experiment to make his cousin a rich woman.

After Mr Touchett senior’s death, Isabel travelled with Mrs Touchett to Italy, where she was manouevered by Madame Merle, a friend of Mrs Touchett’s, into falling in love with and marrying Mr Osmond, a poor American who had expensive tastes and high standards for everyone other than himself.

By the second half of the story Isabel was unhappily married to Mr Osmond, having realised that he had married her for her money. She took all responsibility for having fallen in love with an illusion.

I found it interesting that Isabel said she wanted freedom for herself yet from the very beginning of this story she was manipulated by others. In some of these instances Isabel knew what was going on and had the power of refusal, such as when Mrs Touchett visited her in America and offered to take Isabel with her to Europe or when she received offers of marriage, but in other instances, such as Ralph asking his father to make his cousin a rich woman or when Madame Merle and Mr Osmond presented Isabel with his most charming self with a view to her marrying him, Isabel’s life was directed by others.

The story moved quite slowly but it held my interest. The settings were glorious and all of the characters, including the minor characters, such as Mr Osborne’s daughter, Pansy and an American journalist friend of Isabel’s became very real to me.

I disliked the ambiguous ending of The Portrait of a Lady. After reading 600 or so pages I felt that I ‘deserved’ to know what happened next although this did leave the way open for John Banville to write Mrs Osborne, which I may well re-read now that I know who his story was about.

The Portrait of a Lady has convinced me to continue reading Henry James’ books.

The Portrait of a Lady was book forty in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

Pamela by Samuel Richardson

Pamela by Samuel Richardson is written in letters and in diary entries. I very quickly became bored with this slowly-told story but accept that it was probably considered to be very entertaining by readers in 1740.

To sum up, pages 1 to 50:

Dear Mother and Father,

I am fifteen years-old, very pretty and everyone loves me.

My lady has died and I was to go to live with Lady Davers to be her maid except that Mr B, my master won’t let me go. Instead, Mr B keeps trying to kiss me but I won’t let him because I’m a good girl.

I pray for Mr B even though he hides in the closet to watch me undress.

Love, Pamela.

Pages 50 to 100:

Dear Diary,

I am writing to you instead of to Mother and Father because Mr B said he would send me home where I would be safe from him but instead he kidnapped me and had me taken to one of his distant estates to be looked after by Mrs Jewkes who is horrible and ugly.

Mr B is not here and I am still a good girl.

Love, Pamela.

Pages 100 to 200:

Dear Diary,

Mrs Jewkes hit me, AND she tricked me out of all of my money so that I can’t escape.

Mr Williams, the clergyman, is going to ask all the most important people in the district if they will intervene on my behalf.

Mr B continues to stay away, and I continue to be a good girl.

Love, Pamela.

At this point, I decided life was too short for me to continue reading Pamela. I skimmed to the end and was horrified (although not terribly surprised) to learn that Mr B had supposedly reformed and that he and Pamela had married.

The following is my idea of what probably happened next:

Dear Mother and Father,

Mr B seems to have lost interest in me.

We have a new maid. She is very young and pretty.

Love, Pamela (Mrs B)

Pamela was book thirty nine in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

I didn’t know what I was in for when I chose Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe for my Classics Club list. I knew it was one of those books that everyone ‘should’ read and that it dealt with slavery in the United States of America prior to the Civil War, but I had some cosy idea that Uncle Tom from the book’s title lived an idyllic life in a lovely cabin of his own as children’s storyteller.

Not so.

Tom did live in a cabin with his wife and children, however the cabin, along with Tom, Tom’s wife and their children were all the property of a Kentucky farmer. Despite the farmer being a ‘good’ man, when he got into financial strife he sold Tom to a slave trader, separating him from his family and the only home he had ever known.

The slaver trader sold Tom to St Clare, a kindly man who after owning Tom two years began the process to free him, but before this happened St Clare died in an accident and Tom was sold again, this time to a sugar plantation owner known for working and beating his slaves to death.

The story of Eliza and her small son Harry, both slaves who were also owned by the same Kentucky farmer who owned Tom was told alongside Tom’s story. Harry was sold in the same transaction as Tom’s sale, but when Eliza learned the news she escaped from the farm with Harry, with the slave trader and a posse of slave catchers in pursuit. Eliza’s flight to Canada with Harry and her husband George, who was also an escaped slave was equally as harrowing as Tom’s story.

Uncle Tom was an extraordinary person, brave and honest and trusting. He put his faith in God and encouraged those around him to do the same.

The religious element of this story frustrated me in the same way it did when I read James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain. Tom believed and was comforted by the idea of putting his trust in God knowing that eventually he would get his reward in Heaven, but I struggled with his living hell.

The white slave traders and owners were a mixed bunch, some were generous and kind to their slaves, others the complete opposite, some queried and argued the ethics of slavery but ultimately, all of these people were still slave owners. In contrast, the Quakers who helped Eliza, George and Harry, along with countless other escaped slaves to Canada while risking their own safety, were the people we should all aspire to be.

Eva St Clare, the young daughter of Tom’s ‘kind’ owner didn’t ‘see’ people’s colour and was enormously fond of Uncle Tom, but unfortunately her character reminded me of Charles Dickens’ Little Nell, in that both were sickeningly good and far too saintly to be true. Eva’s values might have been held up to readers as an ideal, but I suspect more of Uncle Tom’s Cabin‘s first readers felt about slavery the same way Ophelia, St Clare’s sister did. Ophelia abhorred slavery but still couldn’t bear to be touched by a black person. In Ophelia’s favour was that she recognised and acknowledged her bias.

The black characters were stereotyped as being childlike and simple, the story was mawkishly sentimental and not a single page went by without a religious reference, but for all of that, I still cried several times while reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Cleverly, the author didn’t shy away from shocking readers with unpleasant truths, but she told the story without dwelling on facts or providing details too unpleasant for her audience to face.

I couldn’t help but think how brave Harriet Beecher Stowe was to have written this novel when speaking out against slavery and showing it to be evil must have exposed her to the anger of slave owners and their supporters.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was book thirty eight in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

Thirty years ago a woman I worked with recommended The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot to me, saying it was her favourite book. I only read a few pages before deciding the story wasn’t for me and have felt guilty ever since for disappointing her by not trying harder. Thirty years later I added the book to my Classics Club list, thinking that it was about time I had a proper crack at the story.

Second time around was better. Much better. I won’t go so far as to say that The Mill on the Floss is now my favourite too, but I did enjoy the story very much and am looking forward to reading Middlemarch.

My only complaint was that I seemed to be reading the book for weeks. Well, that and the sad ending.

The story follows the lives of siblings Tom and Maggie Tulliver, from their early childhood living in their family’s mill on the river Floss in the early 1800s. Who else has read this then checked the internet to learn if the Floss was a real river? I did. It’s not.

Maggie was a clever, naughty child who idolised her older brother. Tom lorded it over her throughout their childhood, using emotional blackmail to get her to give him the bigger share of whatever they were eating or enjoying, and he always put the blame onto Maggie instead of taking responsibility for his own actions when they got into trouble, but to Tom’s credit he was also the kind of brother who wouldn’t let anyone else bully or take advantage of his sister.

Their father wanted Tom to become a lawyer so arranged for him to be educated by an Oxford man, at whose school Maggie met Tom’s fellow student, Philip Wakem. Tom despised Philip because he was a hunchback, but Philip, who was Tom’s superior intellectually, became very fond of clever, kind-hearted Maggie and the two became friends.

Unfortunately, Mr Tulliver was addicted to ‘going to law’ and after losing a case where he went up against Philip’s father he went bankrupt, became ill and lost ownership of the mill. The Tulliver family were allowed to stay on and work the mill although Mr Tulliver’s mind never fully recovered after the shock of losing everything. Mr Tulliver and Tom hated and despised Mr Wakem and Philip from that day on.

Tom left school immediately and took on the responsibility of repaying the family’s debts, but life thereafter was hard for both him and Maggie. Tom worked all hours of the day, while Maggie went into service as a governess. After their father’s death Tom became the head of the family after which he continued to impose his will on Maggie, shutting down her friendship with Philip and refusing to see the good in her.

After their father went bankrupt, Maggie gave up everything that mattered to her to help her family and to gain Tom’s approval, but nothing she did was ever enough for him.

Maggie was an extraordinary character and I would think it impossible to read this story without feeling sympathy for her. Her father recognised her intellect but no one else did except for Philip Wakem. None of her family brother appreciated Maggie’s enormous heart except for her dear cousin Lucy. More troubling though, none of Maggie’s family, friends and admirers realised how difficult her circumstances were and as a result, they all made life harder for her than it should have been.

Terrible things happened to the Tulliver family throughout the story and it ended in tragedy, but there were also funny moments. My favourite was when Tom, dressed up as a pirate and trying to scare his younger sister dropped a sword through his foot. Maggie didn’t laugh, but I did, and thought to myself that it served him right.

I couldn’t help but laugh when another character who was considered to have married badly “crowned her mistakes by having an eighth baby,” and as for Mrs Tulliver’s family, their silliness combined with their unwarranted high opinion of themselves was always going to make for amusing reading.

I know I complained earlier about the sad ending, but in fairness, I don’t know how else Maggie’s story could have ended.

As with most books that are considered classics, The Mill on the Floss deserves careful reading. I struggled to concentrate while reading this due to a heavy workload and in hindsight, probably should have saved the story for when I was on holidays and could dedicate more time and attention to the experience.

The Mill on the Floss was book thirty six in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton

When The Classics Club announced a Club Dare for February, Love is in the Air!, I couldn’t go past Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers.

I’ve only ever read one other book by Wharton, Ethan Frome, but I don’t think it’s too soon to say that I love Edith Wharton’s writing.

After finishing Ethan Frome I did something I hadn’t done since childhood, which was to turn straight back to the first page of the story to read the story again. It turned out that I loved it just as much on my second read and I’ve read the book several more times since then.

Since Edith Wharton has written other novels, I added them to my list but have put off reading them for fear of being disappointed that I wouldn’t like love them as much Ethan Frome.

This reminded me of the fear I had after Honey-Bunny was born which was that if I had more babies, I might not love them as much as her. Another mother set me straight without laughing at me, which was very good of her, by explaining that my heart would expand, rather than being sliced into smaller and smaller and potentially unequal portions for each subsequent child.

As it turned out my heart expanded to fit The Buccaneers without me losing any of my regard for Ethan Frome. Both stories are like children in that they are very different to each other, but equally interesting, enjoyable and loveable. I can tell you right now that I’m not going to wait years and years again before reading another of Wharton’s books. I already know that I’m going to love them all.

The first thing that struck me about The Buccaneers is that it was an extraordinarily feminine story. The main characters were all female and were mostly at the mercy of their fathers and husbands’ social standings and finances, and most importantly, the decisions these men made. I don’t know if Wharton wrote with readers of a particular sex in mind, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that she wrote The Buccaneers expressly for female readers.

More trivially than The Buccaneers being a story about female characters, I called this a feminine novel because of the descriptive nature of the story. The descriptions set every single scene.

The story began during 1870 at the Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga, New York. While the men were off at the races, their women sat on the verandah drinking lemonade, listlessly waiting for their husbands and fathers to return.

While waiting, Mrs St George evaluated the desirability of her daughters in comparison with the other girls of their age at the hotel, based on the beauty of their faces, hair, figure, their hair and their clothing. Although I’m a product of a different time and place, Mrs St George’s appraisals were interesting and apt. I would also have to say that 160 years later, not much has changed. Women still compare themselves physically to others and are valued according to their physical beauty by both men and women. I don’t think this will ever change.

I liked the descriptions, though. I liked reading about the women’s clothes, how they did their hair and what their faces looked like. However, I also liked reading about how they behaved, how the dealt with the limitations put on them by society, how they pushed those boundaries, and most of all, how these women felt about their lives.

The characters included Virginia St George, a blue-eyed blonde beauty without much personality and her more interesting younger sister Nan. Their mother, Mrs St George, did not want her daughters to associate with another girl living at the hotel, Conchita as her mother was rumoured to be a divorcee but when Colonel St George ordered his wife and daughters to befriend the Clossons so he could secure a business deal, Virginia and Nan were delighted to make friends with Conchita.

When Mrs St George secured an English governess to take charge of Nan, the story became Nan and Miss Testvalley’s, although the reader was kept up to date with what Virginia, Conchita and another of their American friends, Lizzie, were up to at all times.

Despite Virginia’s beauty, Nan’s enchanting and child-like style and their father’s wealth, the girls were unable to break into New York society so on Miss Testvalley’s advice, their parents took them to London for a season. There, the girls were successfully launched into the aristocracy on the back of their friend Conchita having snaffled Lord Richard Marable, whose parents had telegraphed Miss Testvalley, who had previously worked for them, to ask if Conchita was black when they learned their son was marrying the Brazilian-born heiress.

It wasn’t long before Virginia married Lord Seadown, Richard’s older brother and the family’s heir. His parents, Lord and Lady Brightlingsea (pronounced Brittlesea, don’t you know), were pleased by the money Virginia brought to the alliance, her beauty and that she had prevented their son from marrying an older, unsuitable woman with whom he had been having an affair, although they were not at all pleased that their daughter-in-law was an American. Knowing nothing about America, the English characters assumed Americans to be an uncivilised, barbaric people and their comments, although amusing to the reader, were hurtful to the American people in the story, all of whom swallowed their pride and took every insult as it came, rather than challenge the ignorance of the socially superior English aristocracy.

Nan, who had enjoyed Miss Testvalley’s company and reaped the benefits of having been educated by someone who taught her to love art and good writing and to think for herself, became the greatest success of all when she married Ushant, the Duke of Tintagel, despite the pair being completely intellectually unsuited to each other. Ushant, (since I don’t know what to call a Duke I’ll stick with his first name) would have been happier if he had been a clock-maker who was free to follow his own heart, went on to domineer Nan on the advice of his own mother, who had been just as unhappy as Nan was when her own husband had been alive.

The reasons for Nan falling in love, or at least for marrying Ushant were completely understandable. She fell in love with Tintagel itself, a famous ruin on the cliffs of Cornwall which was said to have been King Arthur’s castle.

Not surprisingly, Nan eventually fell in love with another man who ‘got’ her and shared her love of beauty, causing difficulties for all involved.

The women, be they the American ‘buccaneers’ or the English aristocracy, put up with a lot from men. Mrs St George was proud of her husband’s handsome face, charm and swagger and felt sorry for women whose husbands were not as wonderful as hers, but she also had to ignore the Colonel’s constant dalliances with other women and the up and down nature of his finances, which depended on his success or otherwise playing poker or from making stock exchange deals with characters who she didn’t care to associate with.

Conchita, who had made an early marriage with Lord Richard, should have sought advice from Miss Testvalley before marrying, as her husband turned out to be an unfaithful no-hoper who came to a bad end, leaving her begging her friends for money while having a succession of affairs with whoever came along.

Virginia’s husband also continued his affair after their marriage. Interestingly, she was, at least initially, portrayed as being less sensitive that Nan’s was and the reader was not so sympathetic towards her pain, but she must have felt humiliated and sad to have been treated so badly by her husband and in-laws.

Laura Testvalley was one of the only female characters in this story who was able to live her life as she saw fit. Although Laura was poor and had to work to support her family, she was free to choose who she worked for and had actively sought out better paying and more interesting opportunities for herself. At one stage she almost married Sir Hemlsley Thwaite, who was the father of the man Nan loved. Laura was very fond of Sir Hemlsley, they were intellectually suited to each other and her social standing would have been elevated and her finances improved had their marriage gone ahead, but even though Laura’s heart was broken after he broke off their engagement, I was pleased for her as I think she was better off with her freedom.

The only other character who had a similar freedom to Miss Testvalley was Miss March, another American who had been living in England for so long that the English had forgotten that she was American. Miss March was poor but maintained her friendships with English aristocrats and was often invited to the great houses, although she endured a great many of their unconscious insults. I was particularly aggrieved on Miss March’s behalf when she stayed at the home of a man who had jilted her many years ago – after she had ordered her wedding dress – but he barely remembered her name, let alone that they had ever been engaged. I much preferred Miss Testvalley’s life as an independent single woman to Miss March’s way of hanging on to the edges of society.

Towards the end of the story Miss Testvalley reflected on the success of her advice to launch the American girls in England, and wondered if they might not have been happier had they been left to find their own place in American society. Who knows? Maybe they might have been better off, but there wouldn’t have been a story.

The Buccaneers should be read with the understanding that the story was written in the late 1930s, set in 1870 and that it includes racism. Some of this is expressly directed to Conchita but it is also casually included throughout the rest of the story, as is sexism.

The introduction in my copy of The Buccaneers explained that Edith Wharton died before she finished writing this story, which was her last. My understanding is that Books One, Two and Three in my edition was written by Wharton and books Four and Five were finished by Maggie Wadey, the author of the BBC television series of The Buccaneers. I have no complaints about the sections written by Wadey or about how she completed the story, which I understand were based on Wharton’s original synopsis, but I would obviously love to have read the last sections in Edith Wharton’s own words and learn exactly how she intended for things to work out for her characters.

During my research I learned that another writer, Marion Mainwaring, also completed the story, so I intend to find her version of The Buccaneers to see what differences there are between the two. I’m also hopeful of watching the BBC television series soon, and not just so that I can see the dresses worn by the girls for myself!

As much as I loved The Buccaneers I think the entire novel would also have benefitted from another draft by Wharton, even though I would rather have read this story in this form than have the book not exist at all.

The Buccaneers was book thirty five in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

When I made up my Classics Club list I had been working through Margaret Atwood’s books, so in a stroke of genius added The Blind Assassin to my list. Win-win.

The Blind Assassin‘s main characters are sisters Iris and Laura. The present part of the story was narrated by Iris as an old lady as she looked back over her and Laura’s childhood as the daughters of a rich businessman. The happy times ended when their father’s business failed and he encouraged Iris to marry Richard, who was his competitor. Richard isolated Iris from her family, then deliberately ran his father in law’s business into the ground. The tragic death of Laura several years later compounded Iris’ unhappiness.

Before her death Laura had written a novel which was published posthumously. In her old age, Iris was amused that Laura and her book were still revered by her readers.

Large parts of the story followed a historic affair between two lovers, which took place around the time when Iris was newly married to Richard. The man was someone Iris and Laura both knew and which of the woman was having an affair with him was deliberately left unclear. The man was a writer who told his lover pulp-fiction science stories about a blind assassin and his lover on a far-distant planet while they laid together after having had sex in a series of rented rooms.

Margaret Atwood’s writing in this book was as wonderful as anything else I’ve read by her. She mixed commonplace sayings and conversations with unexpected wisdom, used newspaper articles to set the time clearly in the 1930s and 40s, and the story within the story of the blind assassin and his lover became as real to me as Iris and Laura’s story did. Each word, sentence and paragraph taken on their own was perfect although I did feel bogged down around the middle of the story, probably because the story required ongoing concentration and I was already tired before I started reading this over Christmas.

This book itself is a chunkster. It took me weeks to read, which for me is a long time. Although I enjoyed the story, I was glad to finally finish it and can honestly say that I don’t miss the characters or their lives, although I had questions about why they behaved as they did, or in other cases, didn’t do what I thought they should do.

For anyone who hasn’t read this book but intends to, the next section of my review is made up of my questions which contain spoilers. Stop reading now if this is you.

Why didn’t Iris continue to write? Such a good writer must have had more stories in her. If privacy was a concern, she could have used a pseudonym.

Why didn’t Iris fight harder to spend time her daughter or grand-daughter? I understand that during the 1940s her lost reputation was enough to lose custody of her daughter but she was still had some power. At one point in the novel she showed that she was Winnifred’s equal in courage and clout. By that time Richard was dead so Iris could have told the world that Richard wasn’t Aimee’s father and reclaimed her child.

Why did Laura sacrifice herself for Iris? The sisters in Frozen are the only other sisters I’ve ever known who have done so much for each other. In real life? I can’t think of any one as ‘good’ as Laura.

The Blind Assassin was book thirty four in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

Villette by Charlotte Bronte

As I child, I read Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte over and over and over again. If I had owned a copy of Villette I think I would also have read and re-read this beautiful, beautiful story over the years and loved it just as dearly.

Villette is the story of Lucy Snowe, who for the main part of the story worked as an English teacher in a girl’s school in a fictional city called Villette.

The story began with Lucy staying with her godmother, Mrs Bretton when she was just a child. During Lucy’s visit another child, Polly also stayed with Mrs Bretton while her father was carrying out some business. Polly was desperately homesick for her father and although Lucy did her best to comfort the unhappy child, only Mrs Bretton’s teenage son Graham could tease Polly into forgetting that she was missing her father.

Several years after returning home from her visit to Mrs Bretton Lucy became an orphan. By this time Lucy had lost contact with Mrs Bretton after she had lost most of her income and moved, so without anyone else to apply to for assistance, Lucy took a position as a companion to an elderly invalid. During this time Lucy’s world became very small, confined to the rooms she and her employer lived in.

When Lucy was 23 her employer died and Lucy was cast adrift again. On a whim, she travelled to London then decided to travel via ship to the continent. During the voyage Lucy met Ginevra Fanshawe, a careless young woman who was en-route to a school in Villette and on arriving in Labassecour, which is thought to be based on Belgium, Lucy decided to travel there, too.

After an interview with the school’s owner, Madame Beck, Lucy was engaged as a governess to her children but before long, Lucy was working in the classroom teaching English to Madame Beck’s students.

Eventually Lucy reconnected with Mrs Bretton and her son, who were by now also living in Villette. Graham, or Dr John, as Mrs Bretton’s son was now called, had become a much loved and respected doctor. Lucy felt great affection for Dr John, with his kind and generous nature, but she also saw his faults. When Polly re-entered the story, Dr John fell out of love with Ginevra, the pretty and flirtatious student who had encouraged his affections while otherwise making fun of him, and he fell in love with Polly and she with him.

Lucy, who also loved Dr John, had the greatness of heart to wish them well.

Another teacher at the school, M. Paul, often went out of his way to insult Lucy, behaving particularly badly when she was with Dr John, seemingly out of jealousy. Despite being tempestuous and difficult, M. Paul was also extraordinarily kind and over time he and Lucy became friends. Eventually they realised that they were in love, but as Lucy was a Protestant and M. Paul a Roman Catholic there seemed no way that they could find a way to be together. The story is told from Lucy’s point of view and as a Protestant, Catholicism was an anathema to her.

The theme of religious differences was an important part of Villette and they reminded me of a family story Mum tells about one of my great-aunts who was Church of England. She went about with a lovely Catholic fellow for about ten years before they broke off their relationship because they couldn’t resolve their religious differences. Eventually they both married other people, had families of their own and were happy, but I always felt sad that the great aunt who I remember as a quick-witted, jolly old woman, wasn’t able to marry her first fellow.

Lucy is one of the most quietly resilient heroines I’ve ever come across. When she lost her family, her home and income, she went out and got a job. When she lost her home for the second time and her job, Lucy travelled to Villette and started a whole new life again, and despite her loneliness and isolation and the many other tribulations she faced, she eventually found true friendship and love with someone who she respected and who respected her.

The story is gently told, which suited Lucy’s quiet, passive nature, but oh, that last page! Devastating!

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

The Romance of the Forest by Ann Radcliffe

I read The Romance of the Forest by Ann Radcliffe for The Classics Club’s October dare, Get Your Goth On! but am a little late posting.

I’ve wanted to read something by this author since my childhood because of a scene in Little Women where Jo was reading The Mysteries of Udolpho. As Jo often read and ate apples at the same time, I figured that since I also loved reading, apples and the March family, I would also enjoy reading a story by Ann Radcliffe.

However, reading The Romance of the Forest several weeks after finishing Vanity Fair led to me comparing the two stories with Vanity Fair coming out on top.

I found The Romance of the Forest to be overly melodramatic, with far too many coincidences and an annoying heroine who cried and fainted and became ill even more often than Amelia did in Vanity Fair. In fairness, I expect her histrionics would have appealed to me more if I had read this as a teenager.

The story began with Pierre De la Motte, his wife and his faithful servants leaving their home in Paris in the dead of night in disgrace as a result of something dreadful that La Motte had done, and which remained a mystery until the end of the story. La Motte’s intention was to seek asylum in some obscure place where he couldn’t be found and brought to justice.

When the family became lost during their flight from Paris, La Motte sought assistance from a lonely cottage, but the mysterious occupants were menacing and dangerous and La Motte feared for his life. When the occupants suggested to La Motte that his life would only be spared if he were to leave the district immediately and take with him a beautiful young woman who had been held captive in the cottage, La Motte chose to return to his carriage with the young woman, who was, most unhelpfully, crying and fainting all at the same time.

The beautiful young woman was Adeline, and for me the main point of The Romance of the Forest was that it is a very dangerous thing to be a pretty young woman.

Adeline and the La Mottes escaped the district, but after their carriage overturned in a lonely forest they were unable to continue their journey, so they sought refuge in the most conveniently located abandoned abbey that they could find.

Although the abbey was falling down in parts it provided them with a roof over their heads while the forest provided them with food, but frighteningly the abbey also contained a skeleton, a blood-rusted dagger and a mysterious manuscript describing the last days of a murdered man.

Although none of the Parisians who were looking for La Motte could find him, La Motte’s son Louis turned up at the abbey and enjoyed a joyful reunion with his parents, in an extraordinary coincidence considering that he hadn’t known which direction they had headed for when they fled Paris.

Soon after his arrival, Louis’ mother asked him to discover where La Motte was disappearing to during the day, as she suspected her husband of having an affair with Adeline. Louis carried out the investigations as his mother requested, but he promptly fell in love with Adeline himself. This wasn’t surprising, because Adeline was beautiful, virtuous, pious and of course she often cried and fainted (all desirable characteristics which men seem to like – in novels, anyway).

When the owner of the abbey, the rich and powerful Marquis de Montalt, turned up, he also fell in love with Adeline and although he was already married, was determined to have her one way or another. Adeline, however, had become fond of a soldier in the Marquis’ employ, Theodore. When the Marquis realised he had a rival he sent Theodore away and using his power over La Motte, arranged to kidnap Adeline with La Motte’s assistance.

The Marquis subsequently rode off with Adeline on his horse and locked her up with his other mistresses (he had quite the harem), but Adeline kept her head and escaped out of a window (notably, this is the only part in the whole story where Adeline didn’t cry, faint or become ill) and after running around the grounds for hours trying to escape the property, was rescued by Theodore who had come looking for her, and having found her, rode off with Adeline on his horse.

Once he realised Adeline was missing the Marquis came after her, and having found them, fought Theodore and had him thrown in jail. The Marquis then decided he no longer wanted Adeline, so he returned her to the abbey.

I can’t remember why, but the Marquis then decided to kill Adeline, but happily she escaped death yet again, this time with the help of La Motte’s servant, Peter. Peter took Adeline to his village, Leloncourt, where she was taken in by a lovely family who turned out to be… No, I can’t tell you because to do so would spoil the surprise, plus you’d never believe it anyway. All I can say is, what a coincidence!

In fairness to Adeline, she wasn’t the only character in this story who cried, in fact they all did. Constantly. They cried for themselves, they cried for each other, then they cried for themselves again. The characters also regularly spouted poetry and made up songs to describe their feelings. Seriously, this set of characters were far more emotionally evolved than anyone I know, even though we have more professional mental health resources available to us than ever before. I’ll admit to crying tears of happiness a few days ago when the little girl in Western Australia who was kidnapped was found to be alive, but I couldn’t tell you the last time I cried before that. I do make up songs, though, annoying ones that I sing to Miss S when we’re doing the dishes. Mine aren’t the type of lyrics to include in a Gothic novel, though and Miss S doesn’t much like my tune, either!

The Romance of the Forest was published in 1791, so it is not surprising that Jane Austen’s heroines often refer to the thrilling experience of reading an Ann Radcliffe’s novel. Ann Radcliffe’s story-telling style is soap-opera style in that it keeps the reader turning every page to find out what might happen next in the story, and if you guessed murder, rape, kidnap, incest, evil uncles you would be correct. All of the storylines were resolved satisfactorily by the end of the book, so long as the reader didn’t question why the plot contained so many coincidences.

I’ll probably give The Mysteries of Udolpho a whirl if it ever comes my way, but can honestly say that my my curiosity about this author has been satisfied.

The Romance of the Forest was book thirty three in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

My re-read of Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray was a delight from start to finish.

Thackeray was a writer who knew what made people tick. The characters in Vanity Fair had hopes and dreams and ambitions, they loved and hated without reason, sometimes they were foolish and at other times wise, some were known for their kind hearts and generosity while others were renowned for their greed and selfish behaviour. They took their revenge on those who slighted them, cheated each other without remorse and every single one of them wanted more than what they had, be it affection, money or a higher position in society.

The subtitle of Vanity Fair is A Novel Without a Hero, but Becky Sharp is the character I most associate with the book which made her the book’s hero for me. When the narrator wasn’t observing and commenting on what Becky was up to the story followed Becky’s fellow characters, including the pretty but sappy Amelia Sedley and her philandering husband George Osborne, faithful Captain William Dobbin, Becky’s handsome but dopey husband Rawdon Crawley or various other minor characters, but regardless of whose story was being told at any particular time I was always wondering what Becky was up to.

Another way to look at the novel’s subtitle is to focus on the word hero, which is defined by Wikipedia as follows:

A hero is a real person or a main fictional character who, in the face of danger, combats adversity through feats of ingenuity, courage, or strength.

By this definition, all of the main characters could be considered to be a hero.

Amelia loved her husband George with a heroic strength, despite him not being worthy of her faith in him. After George’s death Amelia sacrificed herself to do the best for their son and for her parents, who had been ruined financially and socially by George’s father.

George, despite asking Becky to run away with him just six weeks into his marriage, died heroically on the battlefield at Waterloo.

Captain Dobbin secretly provided financially for Amelia and her son despite his love for her not being returned and he was a brave soldier and a good man, in other words; an unsung hero.

Becky’s husband and partner in crime Rawdon Crawley was also a brave soldier, who found the courage to separate from his wife when he realised she would never put his or their son’s interests before her own.

And then we come to Becky, who always did what she needed to do to survive and better herself. When it came to achieving her goals for herself, Becky was ingenious, courageous and strong, all of the traits the dictionary said made someone a hero. The flip-side of these characteristics was that Becky was also grasping, self-serving and cruel.

The story began with Amelia and Becky finishing and leaving school together. Amelia was pretty, rich and a friend to all, but Becky, as the orphaned daughter of the school’s art teacher and a French dancer was a charity case, and despised for her sly ways and sharp tongue by everyone except Amelia, who always believed the best of everyone.

Initially Becky was only to spend a few weeks with Amelia and her family before becoming a governess for Sir Pitt Crawley and his family, but it didn’t take long for Becky to recognise an opportunity and try to form a connection with Amelia’s older brother, Joseph Sedley. Through no fault of her own, Becky couldn’t quite manage to get Joseph to propose to her.

I was amused when Mr Sedley’s recognised and commented on Becky’s intentions towards Joseph and by Mrs Sedley’s motherly outrage in anyone thinking themselves good enough for her son. I was less amused by Mr Sedley telling his wife that Becky would be more acceptable to him as a daughter-in-law than a black woman, which he thought might happen if Joseph wasn’t caught by Becky, but I also recognise that these opinions were typical of the times when the book was written. For readers who are outraged by racism, there is plenty of it in Vanity Fair. I would also like to point out though, that Thackeray at least included black people in his books. Most other writers of this time didn’t.

After failing to snare Joseph, Becky left the Sedley household under a cloud and travelled to Queen’s Crawley where she became governess to two little girls, and invaluable to the elderly, cantankerous and wealthy Sir Pitt Crawley, despite his wife’s presence.

The only time Becky cried real tears in this entire story was after Lady Crawley died and she had to refuse Sir Pitt’s offer of marriage because she had just secretly married Sit Pitt’s second son Rawdon, who was expected to inherit a fortune from his fabulously rich aunt after her death.

Unfortunately for Becky and Rawdon, Rawdon was disinherited by his aunt when she learned of their secret marriage. Their straightened circumstances led the newly-weds into a life of constantly striving to keep up socially without any financial means.

The story then moved to Brussels with the British Army, where Becky and Rawdon met up with George Osborne and his bride of six weeks, Amelia. George and Amelia had married even though George’s father had financially ruined Amelia’s father and forbidden his son to marry Amelia, even though their parents had planned their wedding in George and Amelia’s childhood. Amelia’s whole heart belonged to her husband, but George’s heart only belonged to the image he saw reflected in his mirror. I found it hard to understand why Amelia loved George, but that’s the thing about love, sometimes who loves who just doesn’t make sense.

The Osborne’s constant companion was Captain William Dobbin, who had been George’s friend and protector since they were in school together.

When George died in the Battle of Waterloo before he and his father were reconciled, Amelia was left penniless to bring up their young son alone and take care of her destitute parents. Amelia’s only true friend was William Dobbin, although she didn’t know it or value him as she should have.

Meanwhile, Becky and Rawdon returned to London to live the high life on credit. As a team they were successful, Becky enticed gullible men into their circle for Rawdon to fleece at cards. In due course Becky rose to the top of London’s society by virtue of her good looks, her wit and her charm, and with the help of an influential admirer.

Eventually though, Becky pushed her luck too far and the whole house of cards fell down.

I loved the narrator’s voice throughout this whole story. He saw everything; was both judgmental and admiring of his characters, who he described as his marionettes. His voice was heard on every page of the story. He was often particularly hard on Becky but if I could argue with him, I’d say that in her defence, she did what she had to do to survive and improve on her situation.

While the story was a re-read for me it has been around thirty-five years since I’ve read Vanity Fair. I was surprised by how much of the story and the characters that I remembered. My definition of a classic is a story that is remembered long after it has been read and think this would have been true of this story the day it was written.

My copy isn’t the edition with the beautiful cover that I’ve used to head this post, but an old copy that I bought at a second-hand bookshop in a small country town on the south coast of NSW many years ago. During my lunch break in my first job I often went across the road to this bookshop to spend my pay packet on books.

I read Vanity Fair as part of a review-along with FictionFan and a number of other bloggers. I’ll post links to their reviews below as they are posted.

FictionFan:

Madamebibliophile:

Jane, Just Reading a Book:

LouLouReads:

Sandra from A Corner of Cornwall:

Vanity Fair was book thirty two in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

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