Category Archives: Classics Club

Classic status re-evaluated

Back in August 2012, I signed up for the Classics Club challenge: 50 books to read within five years. It took me a while to come up with my list of books. I went for a mixture of books I had always meant to read but never got around to and titles that came up frequently on recommended reading lists. I also gave thought to filling in gaps in my previous reading – ones that people always seem to talk about but had never been on my radar.

I’ve changed the list around a few times but what I didn’t do in 2012 and haven’t done since is given any thought to what I mean by the ‘classic’. It wasn’t until I came across an essay by Italio Calvino, the Italian author and journalist, that I started to give this any serious thought. And what I’ve realised is that I have books on my list that really don’t fit – they may be old and popular but that doesn’t make them classic.

Calvino’s essay Why Read the Classics starts with a 14 point definition of the term:

  1. classics are books about which you usually hear people saying “I’m rereading….” never “I’m reading”
  2. classics are books which constitute a treasured experience for this who have read and loved them, but they remain just as rich an experience who reserve the chance to read them when they are in the best condition to enjoy them
  3. classics are books which exercise a particular influence, both when they imprint themselves on our imagination as unforgettable, and when they hid in the layers of memory disguised as the individual’s or the collective consciousness
  4. a classic is a book which which each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading
  5. a classic is a book which even when e reading it for the first time gives the sense of something we have read before
  6. a classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers
  7. classics are books which come to us bearing the aura of previous interpretations and trailing behind them the traces they have left in the culture or cultures through which they have passed
  8. a classic is a work which constantly generates a pulviscular cloud of critical discourse around it, but which always shakes the particles off
  9. classics are books which, the more we think we know them through hearsay, the more original, unexpected, and innovative we find them when we actually read them
  10. a classic is a term given to any book which comes to represent whole universe
  11. ‘your’ classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define ourself in relation or even in opposition to it
  12. a classic is a work that comes before other classics, but those who have read other classics first immediately recognise its place in the genealogy of classic works
  13. a classic is a work which regulates the noise of the present to a background hum which at the same time the classics cannot exist without
  14. a classic is a work which resists as background noise even when a present that is totally incompatible with it holds sway

Some of these resonated more with me than others. Re-reability (points 1, 4 and 6) is a key one for me when I think about those ‘classics’ I’ve enjoyed the most. They are usually ones that have withstood multiple readings – my favourite has to be Middlemarch by George Eliot, with Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening – three books that every time I read afresh I find some new aspct I had missed before.

I don’t quite ‘get’ points 13 and 14 so if any of your brighter sparks can shine a light on those it will be helpful.

Point 11 about a book being a personal response also struck a chord. The best reading I’ve experienced is where I feel the text is not simply going in part of the brain and out of another without any thinking in between. I love books which make me think, make me stop and question whether it accords with my views or with which I disagree o which cause me to challenge preconceptions. A perfect example about engaging so strongly with a novel that it was an emotional journey was Petals of Blood by the African author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. There were times it made me despair  and other times it made me angry at the way in which politicians and leaders in some of the poor countries ignore the needs of their populations while feathering their own nests, and our western governments condone this by giving them yet more grant aid. Watching tt coverage last week of the UK Prime Minister’s visit to India I got very irritated by seeing displays of the country’s air force put on for her benefit. The money used on fuel would more have been better spent on providing clean drinking water in rural villages.But then this is a country where they are proud they have a space program yet not millions of people without a roof over their head. Yes I know this is a soap box moment but it shows that the best novels – the classics if you like – are ones to which as Calvino says “you cannot remain indifferent”. 

Who decides what is a classic and what is not? Sometimes the term is far too quickly applied – it was used for example not long after Harry Potter hit the streets. But it was too early to really apply any critical judgement or to determine if it did stand the test of time. The term was really used just because it was selling fast and had grabbed kids’ imaginations. But popularity alone is not enough to label a text classic – if it was then we’d have Fifty Shades of Grey take that label (heaven forbid).

So it has to be a novel that will stand up to critical re-assessment and evaluation – there has to be quality element and an ability for new layers of meaning to be located (as Calvino indicates in point 8). Feminist and post-colonialism criticism has done a lot in this regard to bring older and forgotten texts back to our attention (The Awakening is a case in point in fact). But sometime I wonder if they are looking for evidence to fit a theory and trying desperately to find something new to say?

 

There are of course other definitions of ‘classic”. It’s a question that has occupied some of most esteemed literary minds from T.S Eliot to Mark Twain.  Alan Bennett, English playwright and author, gave a rather tongue in cheek response when he said that his definition of a classic was

… a book everyone is assumed to have read and often thinks they have read themselves

Guardian writer Chris Cox commented in 2009 that

 that there are actually two kinds of “classic novels”: The first are those we know we should have read, but probably have not. These are generally the books that make us burn with shame when they come up in conversation… The second kind, meanwhile, are those books that we’ve read five times, can quote from on any occasion, and annoyingly push on to other people with the words: “You have to read this. It’s a classic.”

This one from Richard J. Smith’s The “I Ching”: A Biography had the benefit of being short  and rather more considered:

First, the work must focus on matters of great importance, identifying fundamental human problems and providing some sort of guidance for dealing with them. Second, it must address these fundamental issues in ‘beautiful, moving, and memorable ways,’ with ‘stimulating and inviting images.’ Third, it must be complex, nuanced, comprehensive, and profound, requiring careful and repeated study in order to yield its deepest secrets and greatest wisdom. One might add that precisely because of these characteristics, a classic has great staying power across both time and space.

What does all this mean for my Classics Club list? I’ve made changes in the past but a more radical re-think is on the cards. I have already removed:

  • A Parisian Affair and other stories  by Guy de Maupassant published in 1880s. I will probably find something else by him as a replacement. Recommendations and suggestions welcomed
  • The Charioteer by Mary Renault.I will read something by her at one point but I don’t see how it fits the criteria of re-readibility and lending itself to new meanings
  • The Invisible Man by H G Wells published in 1897 – maybe it would be a considered one of he best in the genre but it doest seem stack up against the other titles on my list
  • Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim published in 1922. I added this only this year after reading other people’s reviews. But on reflection, as good as they made it seem, it doesn’t feel like a classic.
  • Removed The Way we Live Now  by Anthony Trollope published in 1875 and Dr Thorne  from 1858. I think I have these on the list only because I was part through his series. They will go into my Trollope project instead.

I’ll probably take out one of the two Joseph Conrad’s on the list – I already have read his landmark novel Heart of Darkness so the two left probably are not at the same level. I may add a few more yet but will be very choose – just because  a book is considered a classic doesn’t mean I will enjoy it. Hearing about Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov and its use of satanic figures and fantasy, I know it will not appeal to me. I would be reading it simply to say as Chris Cox indicates that I have ticked a box. And that doesn’t seem to be a good approach.

I’m likely to therefore leave out titles that other readers consider essential classics. But this is my list so I get to choose….. Having said that if you think there are serious gaps, do let me know. And also tell me what your definition of a classic is….

Clearing the review backlog: Three short reviews

Jason at We Need to Talk About Books hit on a great idea with his “books read but not reviewed” posts. Such a great idea that I’ve borrowed it to deal with a backlog of reviews that I never seem to be able to get through. I’ll start with which was the first year of this blog. Luckily I had a few notes scribbled on a document to help me recall the books.

cranfordCranford by Elizabeth Gaskell . This became a much talked about book when it was turned into a highly successful television series in the UK. Broadcast in three series from 2007, it featured some class actors like Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins and Imelda Staunton. The story is set in the early 1840s in the fictional village of Cranford in the county of Cheshire in North West England, and focuses mainly on the town’s single and widowed middle class female inhabitants who are comfortable with their traditional way of life and place great store in propriety and maintaining an appearance of gentility.

There is clearly an opportunity to reflect changes in the world around them but that never came across to me in the first few episodes I watched.  It felt too whimsical amd cosy for my tastes. The book, when  I got around to reading it left me with the same impression (just to be clear I read book one of what is  series in effect). I was missing the depth of social understanding that I’d found in Gaskell’s North and South (reviewed here)

womaninblack

Woman in Black by Susan Hill. The play of this book was one of my best theatre experiences of the late 1980s. It’s still doing the rounds so I won’t give any details away thet will spoil the surprise and shock. It’s far superior to the  later film adaptation starring Daniel Radcliffe by the way. The book upon which both versions were  based was published in 1983. It’s a relatively slim volume written in the style of a traditional Gothic novel about The Woman in Black is a 1983 horror novella by Susan Hill, written in the style of a traditional Gothic novel about a mysterious spectre that haunts a small English town, heralding the death of children. The suspense is handled well and it kept me engaged theiughout a red eyed flight when I couldn’t sleep. But I wouldn’t give it many marks for quality of writing. Susan Hill seemed to think stuffing the narrative with lots of adjectives  was the best way to conjure up the atmosphere. It didn’t. It just left me feeling irritated.

witchhunter

 

The Witch Hunter by Bernard Knight. This is part of his Crowner John series which revolves around the figure of a coroner based in Exeter, England in the twelfth century. I’ve read or listened to audio versions of about half of them and they are all excellent at conjuring up the spirit of those times. I dont recall the plots usually, preferring the way Bernard Knight in eyes the uncertainties of life in those times, the struggles of a monarch trying to extort his power across the whole country in the face of opposition by the powerful barons and vested interests. Knight shows the coroner as a man of principle, determined to fulfill the responsibilities for this newly established role even if thet means he comes head to head with the county sheriff who happen so be his brother in law. In The Witch Hunter he has to contend with a community that views the death  of a prominent burgess as a signof witchcraft. Personal interests intervene when the coroners beloved mistress Nesta is implicated. I’m surprised this series doesn’t have more visibility because it’s highly readable. I’ve posted about the series in general here.

 

Adultery in Islington: Nina Bawden’s The Ice House #Virago

the-ice-houseWhen asked in an interview for The Independent newspaper how she would describe her novel The Ice House was about, Nina Bawden answered:

Asked what The Ice House is ‘about’, I would probably say ‘adultery in Islington’. But that would be to speak dismissively, protectively, as a parent in a superstitious culture might cover a child’s face and call it plain and stupid. In fact, it is a novel about love and friendship; in particular, the friendship between two women who have been close since a dreadful episode in childhood when one of them was viciously beaten by her father.

Friendship is the theme that runs through the four sections of this novel. It begins in around 1951 with two fifteen year old girls Daisy Brown and Ruth Perkins who live in London. Their different backgrounds and characters make them rather unusual friends. Daisy lives within the warm embrace of a loving modestly well-off family who take a relaxed, open attitude to their domestic situation.   Ruth Perkin comes from a wealthy family who live in a turreted house hidden behind large gates complete with a disused ice house in one of the corners of the grounds. She’s a quiet child who says little about her family and her father’s rather strict form of upbringing. She explains this by his years spent as a prisoner of war in Japan. No-one else that Daisy knows has ever been invited to the Perkin’s house before so an unexpected invitation to tea gives her a thrill. it will give her a chance maybe to discover information about Ruth’s family that Ruth has never shared with her friend.

The real explanation for Ruth’s reticence becomes abundantly clear soon after Daisy enters the Perkin household and encounters her father Captain Perkins. Daisy is a bit of a flirt but even she is surprised at the forwardness of the Captain’s comments

“Captain Perkin said, ‘I daresay you have lots of boyfriends, Daisy,’ and she was conscious that her last year’s summer dress was too tight across the chest. … ‘I hope your mother knows what she is doing,’ Captain Perkin said. ‘I am careful with Ruth. But I have seen a bit of the world, you understand. I know what men are, with ripe young girls.’ He spluttered as he laughed, as if his mouth was full of juice. And, with a gloating emphasis, ‘I know what girls are, come to that!’ His eyes were on her breasts.”

The experience of that afternoon, though never spoken about between the two girls, cements their relationship, Thirty years later, they live on the same street in the Islington district of London, they are still friends though married and with families of their own. They live nearby, keep in regular touch. When Luke, Daisy’s husband, is killed in a road accident which may be a suicide, secrets are revealed that shock Ruth. Instead of a the loving marriage she thought her friend had she finds Daisy  launches into a series of diatribes against her husband and reveals she’d been bored with her marriage.

The development comes at a time when Ruth is also experiencing some difficulties with her own marriage. Her husband Joe becomes more distant having taken his friend’s death very hard and Ruth fears what he is keeping hidden from her. Eventually he comes clean and discloses there has been someone else in his life for some time.

The two friends move onto a different phase of their lives in which they contemplate life without a partner or with only a semblance of a relationship. There are plenty of twists and turns along the way over the next few years as the different personalities of the friends shape their responses. And Ruth’s previous experience as a child plays a significant part in her own ability to deal with life.

I wanted to enjoy this rather more than I did. I didn’t warm to either character and found the rather tedious at times. I just wanted the book to be over. It’s the third title I’ve read by Nina Bawden. The first A Little Love, a Little Learning was wonderful, the second The Solitary Child left me cold – you can see my reactions here . My most recent experience hasn’t left me with a feeling Bawden isn’t for me but I need to chose the next one more carefully it seems.

Footnotes

Author: The Ice House by Nina Bawden

Published: 1993 by Virago Modern Classics

Length: 236 pages

My copy: Bought from a charity shop in Oxford. Read as part of AllVirago/All August month in 2016. Also counts towards my Classics Club challenge and the #20booksofsummer challenge for 2016

 

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen: a novel of tension

Mansfield Park, Jane Austen’s third novel “seethes with sex” according to an article published in the Daily Telegraph to mark the 200th anniversary of the book. Was I reading a totally different novel or was the article’s author overly influenced by Andrew Davies’ determination to fit sex into every one of his TV adaptations of Austen’s work?

Passion and sexual tension were there in abundance in Pride and Prejudice but I could find few indications in Mansfield Park that “… eroticism, danger, illicit love and incest simmer below the surface.” The scene that apparently resonates with sexual undertones is the one where the Bertrams (who live at Mansfield Park) and their lively visitors Henry and  Mary Crawford take a day trip to the country manor of a wealthy, but stupid, young man. Trailing along with them is Fanny Price, a poor cousin of the Betrams who’d been uprooted from her loving but noisy home in and sent to live in a mansion where few of the inhabitants pay her the slightest attention.

MANSFIELD-PARK-BBC_400

Simmering tension in this 2007 adaptation of Mansfield Park

The trip contains plenty of undercurrents as both Bertram sisters compete openly for the attention of Henry Crawford and he plays one off against the other. Apparently we are meant to see as significant that they stroll along a serpentine path until they reach some phallic iron railings that separate the landscaped estate from the wild countryside beyond. Fanny warns Maria against climbing over the railings: “You will certainly hurt yourself against those spikes, you will tear your gown.” which the Telegraph columnist suggests has sexual connotations. Clearly I am a naive reader since I just read that as practical advice..

 

That’s not to say the novel is devoid of tension.

Much of the novel turns on the diametrically opposed attitudes of the Crawfords and the Bertram sisters to how they should disport themselves. The stylish, witty Crawfords arrive at Mansfield Park trailing the glamour of London society life, an aura which proves utterly seductive to Maria and Julia, leading them to  forget decorum to the point where they  stage an erotic play and indulge in some risqué jokes. It’s not the only clash of attitudes seen in Mansfield Park. Running through the novel is an issue of a landowner’s responsibility to manage his estate appropriately. Henry Crawford is an absent landowner who cares little for his duties to the land and to the local farmers, putting him at odds with Fanny and Edmund Bertram who are both sensitive to nature and tradition. Both Bertram sisters are on the side of change, seeing the estates as playgrounds for the wealthy rather than a critical part of the agrarian society of England.

And then we have the thorny question of how these members of the landed gentry earn their wealth. Sir Thomas Bertram, Mansfield Park is a sugar baron whose wealth comes from his plantations in Antuiga. At the start of the novel he sets off for his plantations in the West Indies to sort out a problem of “poor returns” on his investments.  His absenteeism causes him to lose focus on his duties at home, both as a father and a landowner. By leaving Mansfield Park and placing it under the control of a thoroughly inappropriate guardian in the shape of Mrs Norris, he creates an atmosphere in which moral chaos reigns.

These issues kept my attention though Mansfield Park is still not one of my favourite Austen novels. I kept getting confused at the beginning between the Bertram sisters and I also found the opening chapters a bit slow. Once the odious Henry Crawford came on the scene and showed his true colours, the novel perked up immensely. Like many readers I had an issue with Fanny Price. As kind and patient as she is, she still felt rather insipid compared to the feisty Liz Bennett of Pride and Prejudice and the protagonist of Persuasion the intelligent, witty, and considerate  Anne Elliot. I have a feeling though that this is  a novel that rewards re-reading.

Adam Bede: the spark of George Eliot’s creative genius

Adam BedeWhat distinguishes a truly great classic for me is that no-matter how many times I read it, I can still discover something fresh within its pages. It’s why I love George Eliot’s Middlemarch so much and why I never tire of going back to it.  This is a novel stuffed with big ideas, from Darwin’s natural selection to advances in medical sciences, from the Great Reform Act to industrialisation; all organised within a central metaphor of “the web” of society. Yet it’s also a very human novel; one that deals with ambition and the loneliness of failure whether in love or  theological research or the desire to bring great benefit to mankind.

To read it is to see Eliot’s creative imagination as its most mature. But you can see in Adam Bede, the novel she wrote some 14 years earlier, (it was in fact her first full length novel) her first steps towards the themes and approaches that will become prevalent in Middlemarch.

I first read Adam Bede more than 30 years ago. What I remember mostly is how sorry I felt for poor gullible Hetty Sorrel, a milkmaid who dreamed of love and a life beyond the drudgery of the cowshed and dairy only to be abandoned by the dastardly squire’s son.  Reading it now however it’s evident that in focusing so much on the doomed love triangle between Hetty, the carpenter Adam Bede and Captain Arthur Donnithorne, I overlooked many of the key themes of the novel. In particular I failed to notice how Eliot in this book – just as in Middlemarch – considers the idea of vocation and how individuals can achieve a sense of fulfilment through work.

A commitment to working hard is one of the chief differences between the ‘good’ characters in Adam Bede and those whose behaviour we are lead to despise.  Most of the ‘admirable’ characters are hard-working peasants who labour on farms, in mills, or in shops, like Mr and Mrs Poyser who are renowned for the way they manage their farm on the Donnithorne estate  or like the millworker Dinah who selflessly visits the sick and the sick at heart to give succour wherever she can. In contrast Captain Donnithorne, the handsome heir to a substantial estate, dreams of doing good things when he comes into his inheritance but actually does little other than ride and visit his prospective tenants. It’s not until he goes off to join the militia that he seems to find fulfilment.

If there was ever any doubt that this is a novel about work, the first chapter of the novel gives us the key to Eliot’s intention. It’s set in a place of work – a carpenter’s shop – where, as they bend over their workbenches, discuss the idea of duty. The work ethic runs particularly deep through the veins of the foreman Adam Bede. When his co-workers stop work instantly they her the church clock mark the end of their day. Adam alone continues working, chastising them for their lack of dedication “as if they took no pleasure i’ their work and was afraid o’ doing a stroke too much … just as if he’d never but a bit of pride and delight in ‘s work.”  (Chap 1).  Though the other carpenters tease him, what Adam shows is his belief in the intrinsic value of work and of a job well done. It’s a lesson he repeats just a few chapters later. Arriving home to find his father has gone off drinking instead of finishing a coffin promised for the following morning, Adam rejects bed and supper in order to get the job done.

What signifies how long it takes me? Isn’t the coffin promised? Can they bury the man without a coffin? I’d work my right hand off sooner than deceive people with lies i’ that way. It makes me mad to think on’t. (Chap 12)

Adam’s dedication flows partly from a sense of responsibility and because he knows he needs a secure financial base before he can marry Hetty. His industrious manner enables him eventually to rise from being a mere employee to own his own business. But he also sees a higher order value in work, one that is connected to the long term improvement of human lives:  “It’s all I’ve got to think of now—to do my work well and make the world a bit better place for them as can enjoy it.” (Chap 48).

Adam’s attitude to work is similar in many ways to the estate manager Caleb Garth in Middlemarch. He too regards his work of managing other people’s land as a mark of honour.

It’s a fine thing to come to a man when he’s seen into the nature of business: to have the chance of getting a bit of the country into good fettle … and putting men into the right way with their farming and getting a bit of cgood contributing and solid building work done – that those who are living and those who come after will be the better for … I hold it the most honourable work that is … it’s a great gift of God (Book 4, Chap 40)

What both Adam and Caleb represent is the honesty and integrity of work and a belief in its ability to be a force for good. Where many other nineteenth century novels show work as a physical activity (often making a social point about its exploitative nature) what Eliot seems to do in these two novels feels rather different. Instead of portraying work itself, she shows the idea of work as a vocation, in order to underline her belief that all individuals need to think beyond themselves. Endeavours that fulfil the intellectual, spiritual and emotional needs of the individual are important – but what is even more critical is that in doing so they contribute to the general and long term improvement of other human lives.

 

 

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and her unfulfilled dreams

mrsdallowayChances lost; dreams unfulfilled; expectations diminished: virtually all the characters in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway seemed to me to be failures in many ways.

It’s evident in even the minor characters. Rebellious natures like those of Sally Seton have been suppressed by  marriage to a bald manufacturer with £10,000 a year and “myriad of servants, miles of conservatories”. Intellect has turned into a form of religious fanaticism and resentment for all the things that Doris Kilman, a tutor employed by the Dalloway family, could not have or could not be. And Hugh Whitbread, a friend of the Dalloways has opted for a life of little consequence as a minor court official, merely touching the surface of life and attracting sniggers from acquaintances.

He did not go deeply. He brushed surfaces; the dead languages, the living, life in Constantinople, Paris, Rome; riding, shooting, tennis, it had been once. The malicious asserted that he now kept guard at Buckingham Palace, over what nobody knew. But he did it extremely efficiency… And if it were true that he had not taken part in any of the great movements of the time or held important office, one or two humble reforms stood this credit…

Of course Woolf reserves her deepest analysis of a life unfulfilled for the woman whose search for her true self lies at the heart of the novel, Mrs Clarissa Dalloway. This is the portrait of a woman uncertain  about her life and her identity. Walking in London early in the novel, she experiences a feeling that her life is defined by her marital status; that she herself has disappeared.

She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen, unknown; …. this being Mrs Dalloway; not even Clarissa any more; this being Mrs.Richard Dalloway.

The outside world sees her very differently. To them she is a successful hostess and wife of an important man. Chic and financially secure she moves in a world of fine fashion, parties and high society. But it’s a world Clarissa herself has come to realise is frivolous and her life superficial and passionless. Years previously she’d been offered a different life with Peter Walsh, one with lower social status and comfort levels but full of emotion and excitement. She turned down his offer of marriage, settling for the safer option of life with Richard Dalloway, a man who seemed destined for high political office. Richard never fulfilled that early promise however. Though a good man, capable of thoughtfulness and good deeds, he never did become a Cabinet member or Minister of State.

On the day in 1923 on which Mrs Dalloway takes place,  Clarissa discovers that Peter Walsh has returned from India after many years. Throughout the day as she prepares for the party she will give that evening, she thinks about the past, about what might have been and whether life is now all over for her. Woolf apparently intended Mrs Dalloway to end with Clarissa’s death, potentially at her own hand. In the event it’s another death that Clarissa hears about during the party. Although she has no knowledge of the dead man, nor even his name she identifies strongly with him and his dramatic action. By the end of the novel she has come, if only for a fleeting moment, to accept the past is past and to prepare for the next stage of her life.

There is no such moment of peace for her former adorer. Peter has his own reasons to regret the passing years. All his ambitions for a glittering literary career came to nothing. Neither has he found happiness in love. Having married simply to fill the void left by Clarissa’s rejection of his proposal he is now a widower planning to marry the woman half his age with whom he’s been having an affair. He doesn’t recognise his own failings but is quick to see them in others, including the Dalloways whose English bourgeois lifestyle he detests.While Clarissa comes to terms with her own mortality, Peter becomes frantic at the thought of death, following a young woman through the London streets to smother his thoughts of death with a fantasy of life and adventure.

I know I’m making it sound as if Mrs Dalloway is a linear narrative but of course that’s far from being the case. It’s a novel that doesn’t have a plot in the traditional sense; it’s a collection of scenes which reveal information about the characters, how they relate to each other and how they think and feel. It jumps without warning from one character to another, and from outside to inside the character’s head. At times the narrative seems to use a cinematic technique, pinpointing a character the midst of a crowd, tracking them as they progressed along a street and then zooming in on them for a close up. This is how she introduces us to Septimus Warren Smith, the war veteran suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome whose death will so affect Clarissa. We spot him outside the florist’s where Clarissa buys her flowers for the party, watch him and his wife begin to walk arm and arm to St James Park and then to settled on a park bench watching the trail of a plane through the sky. And at that moment Woolf delivers an example of what she once described as “moments of being” a time where just for a moment the individual isn’t only aware of himself but gets a glimpse of his connection to a larger pattern hidden behind the opaque surface of daily life. For Septimus the moment begins with the leaves in the trees.

…leaves were alive; trees were alive. And the leaves being connected by millions of fibres with his own body, there on the seat fanned it up and down; when the branch stretched he, too, made that statement. The sparrows fluttering, rising, and falling in jagged fountains were part of the pattern; … All taken together meant the birth of a new religion…

Woolf isn’t someone whose writing can be skimmed or read at speed. It requires full concentration and an alertness to the fact that even in one sentence, we can encounter multiple ideas, multiple voices, multiple tones. Complex indeed but so rich and incredibly rewarding even if you only feel you’re understanding a tenth of it.

The Dead Secret by Wilkie Collins

thedeadsecretWilkie Collins was a pioneer of the sensation novel, the genre often considered a precursor to detective and suspense fiction. I’ve long been a fan of his work, particularly The Woman in White and The Moonstone though I also enjoyed No Name and Armadale. I’m less familiar with the other 20 or so novels and novellas he wrote from the mid 1850s until his death in 1889  so I decided to delve into his earlier work. But it’s clear from reading one of those,  The Dead Secret, that even this maestro had his off days.

The Dead Secret was the fourth of his novels to be published, unveiled in 1857 to Victorian readers in serial format in Household Words, the magazine edited by his friend Charles Dickens. It was the first full length novel that Collins  wrote specifically for serialisation. According to his introduction to the book format published later in the year, he wrote it to show ‘the influence of a heavy responsibility on a naturally timid woman, whose mind was neither strong enough to bear it, nor bold enough to drop it altogether.’

The plot centres on a deathbed confession written as a letter by Mrs Treverton, a former actress, to her husband Captain Treverton.  She makes her servant Sarah Leeson swear an oath to deliver it to the Captain. But Sarah disobeys her dying mistresses’ wishes.  Instead she hides the letter in a disused room at the Treverton home at Porthgenna  in Cornwall.  And then she disappears.

Fifteen years or so pass during which time Mrs Treverton’s only daughter Rosamund gets married. By one of those coincidences that happens only in novels, Sarah Leeson (under an assumed name) obtains a post as servant to Rosamund and conveys to her the cryptic warning “when you go to Porthgenna, keep out of the Myrtle Room”. Rosamund, being the headstrong girl she is, immediately upon hearing that warning resolves that she absolutely must go to Porthgenna. And must of course, find that room and discover the secret.

To explain any more about the story would spoil the mystery. There are plenty of really big clues dropped by Collins however so it doesn’t take any ace detective skills to work out the nature of the secret well before the end.  Along the way we get plenty of sensational episodes. The novel opens with a wonderfully gothic death bed scene; later on we find the servants tremoulousy making their way through the disused rooms of Porthgenna, fearful that at any minute they will meet a ghost. The cast of characters tremble, faint and declaim whenever they are not engaged in hand-wringing or tears that is.

Most of the characters are not particularly memorable. The few exceptions are really in the minor parts. I would have been delighted for example to spend more time in the company of the hilariously hypochondric Mr Phippen.

Wherever Mr. Phippen went, the woes of Mr. Phippen’s stomach went with him. He dieted himself publicly, and physicked himself publicly. He was so intensely occupied with himself and his maladies, that he would let a chance acquaintance into the secret of the condition of his tongue at five minutes’ notice; being just as perpetually ready to discuss the state of his digestion as people in general are to discuss the state of the weather.

With his aversion to anything that might disturb his constitution and equanimity, this ‘A Martyr to Dyspepsia’ was clearly a prototype for Frederick Fairlie in A Woman in White.  Equally engaging was the devious servant Mr Shrowl, a man with an eye always open for the chance to get one up on his employer.  I’ll pass discreetly over Rosamund, one of the most irritating characters I’ve encountered in a novel for many years, to talk about Sarah, the servant whose actions drive the plot and whose behaviour, though bizarre at times, does at least compel our sympathy..

Collins creates a mystery about her from the first time we encounter her, making much of her  distinctive appearance. Though she has the face of a young woman, her hair is prematurely grey. This is a woman we’re told who has experienced suffering.

Much in her manner, and more in her face, said plainly and sadly: I am the wreck of something that you might once have liked to see; a wreck that can never be repaired—that must drift on through life unnoticed, unguided, unpitied—drift till the fatal shore is touched, and the waves of Time have swallowed up these broken relics of me forever.

Only much later do we discover the traumatic event responsible for her looks and why she is drawn to the grave of a young man killed in a mining accident. By the time she meets up with the Treverton family again, Leeson feels she is a haunted woman, fighting to keep her emotions in check so the truth of the past and her part in it, is not revealed.

As interesting as some of these characters are, this is a novel that is overlong, has a shaky plot and a secret that is far too obvious to justify the reader’s sustained interest. Contemporary critics were not over enthused by it, The Athenaeum published a lengthy review but judged it only moderately successful, with “too much made of too little mystery.”

Given these flaws it’s astonishing that in just over a year, Collins could rectify these defects and produce The Woman in White, one of the great mystery thrillers of the nineteenth century. Its intricate plot and superb characterisation (who can possibly forget the incomparable Count Fosco and his adversary Marian Halcombe) make The Dead Secret pale into insignificance.

 

Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

crythebelovedcountryIn Cry, The Beloved Country Alan Paton expresses his love for South Africa and his fear for the future of his homeland. His anxiety proved prophetic. In 1948, a few months after the novel was published, the country’s governing National Party implemented the apartheid  system of racial segregation which remained in place until 1994.

Paton sees a deterioration in relations between South Africa’s white and black inhabitants which he believes may have reached a point of no return. While he populates his novel with white South Africans characters who exhibit enlightened attitudes to the country’s black population, he fears that by the time whites as a whole understand the injustices experienced by African blacks, it will be too late. South African blacks will have already reached an irreconcilable level of hatred.

Cry for the broken tribe, for the law and the custom gone …  cry aloud for the man and children bereaved. Cry, the beloved country, these things are not yet at an end.

Paton uses multiple voices to dramatise the differing attitudes within the country and examine the causes for the breakdown. One of the factors he points to is the destruction of the tribal system and the failure to replace it  with anything that had the same cohesive effect.

Alongside the breakdown in human relationships, Paton points to a fracture in man’s relationship with the land they inhabit. The novel opens in the remote village of Ndotsheni, in the Natal province of eastern South Africa. It’s presented as an idyllic place yet by the second paragraph Paton’s tone has changed to show how the lush green of this setting is fragile. “Keep it, guard it, care for it, for it keeps men, guards men, cares for men. Destroy it and the man is destroyed”, implores his narrator. What Paton shows is how this appeal has been ignored and instead, the land has been exploited in the rush for gold. Its young people have deserted the farms,  flocking to Johannesburg in search of work only to be sucked up by its noisy, polluted, over-crowded streets and exposed to prostitution, crime and destitution.

Paton relays his message through a dramatic rendering of multiple and dissonant voices and through individual stories. The novel homes in on one man in particular, Kumalo – a simple, devout Zulu clergyman in Ndotsheni who travels to Johannesburg to help his sick sister. While in the city  he hopes to find news of his son and brother, both of whom disappeared after they left Ndotsheni for the city.

What he discovers leaves him disheartened and alienated. He finds his sister living a life of prostitution and alcohol, his brother has become corrupted by a love of power and his own importance and his son is accused of being an accessory to the murder of a young white man campaigning to improve conditions for black Africans. Kumalo sees evidence everywhere of the breakdown of community and values, of the exploitation of workers in the gold mines and the gaping racial and economic divisions that are threatening to split his country.  Returning to his village he begins a friendship with James Jarvis, a white farmer, the father of the murdered man. In his grief over his dead son, Jarvis re-examines his attitudes towards the country’s black population and begins to act to improve life for those who live hear his farm. Together both fathers reach an understanding and they vow to build on the ruins of the tragedy.

What impressed me about this novel wasn’t simply that it is written so beautifully, or that his characters are so well-rounded but that Paton doesn’t simplify the issues or offer any easy solutions. He provides a portrait of goodness, through people like Kumalo’s clergyman friend in Johannesburg, to balance the darkness. His ending suggests there is hope if somehow, someday more people can come together like Jarvis and Kumalo to work as one for their country. But he also acknowledges that it will take individual courage to overcome fear and take the first steps necessary for mending a broken nation. As Kumalo sits alone in the mountains on the day of his son’s execution, he sees darkness engulfing the land but he also sees that the dawn of black emancipation must come. It will not happen in his lifetime but come it will just as the morning dawn “has come for a thousand centuries, never failing.”  And then they can sing “for all the people of Africa, the beloved country, Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika, God Save Africa.”

 

Cry, the Beloved Country is a novel of social protest but it is also a cry for one’s land, for justice and for hope. It’s as powerful now as it was when I first read it more than thirty years ago.

Old Goriot by Honoré de Balzac [classic French realism]

La Pere GoriotWhat a joy it’s been to discover Honoré de Balzac. I’ve had Le Père Goriot on my shelf for years but now I’m wondering why I waited so long to read this unsparing indictment of Parisian society.

This is the work of a skilled wordsmith turning a shrewd eye on a city of increasing tension between the newly restored aristocratic class and the bourgeoisie class resulting from the Industrial Revolution. What Balzac sees is a corrupt, ruthless society that feeds on ambition, money and status.

Into its net steps a young, poor law student from the provinces. Eugène de Rastignac is determined to climb the ladder to wealth and status. He is undeterred by his lack of money (he simply exploits his poor mother and sisters by persuading them to sell their jewels) but he has a valuable connection through his cousin Madame de Beauséant.  She tutors him in the ways of high society, advising him bluntly that to succeed he must put aside his previous character.

The more cold-blooded your calculations, the further you will go. Strike ruthlessly; you will be feared. Men and women for you must be nothing more than post-horses; take a fresh relay, and leave the last to drop by the roadside; in this way you will reach the goal of your ambition.

The further Eugène progresses towards remaking himself, the more he sees that beneath the glitter lies a world of deceit, greed and manipulation and an obsessive love of money.

In the decrepit boarding house where he takes a lodging he experiences another kind of obsession in the shape of a fellow inhabitant, the retired pasta maker, Père Goriot. Once wealthy, the fortune of this old man appears to have melted away and he’s fallen on hard times. He’s a target for snide comments by other lodgers who soon learn that the two young and astonishingly beautiful girls seen entering his room are his daughters.  So obsessed with fatherly love, Père Goriot has sacrificed everything he ever owned to indulge these women and help them maintain their status in the salons of the city. He has just one shirt to his name while they run up bills with dressmakers and drive around the city in gilded coaches.

On his deathbed, one of the most pitiful scenes in the novel, Goriot cries out to see his daughters one more time, alternatively berating them for their ingratitude and forgiving them for going to a ball instead of visiting him. Eugène is so touched by the old man’s plight he chases around the city in search of the daughters to persuade them to visit their dying father. In the event, rather than attend Goriot’s funeral, his daughters simply send their empty coaches.

Goriot does at first appear to be a man to be pitied. But ultimately, Balzac makes it evident that Goriot is entirely responsible for this situation, having raised the girls in a way that ensured they would be vain, idle, and grasping women. “The upbringing he gave his daughters was of course preposterous,” we’re told at one point.  Far from being the epitomy of fatherhood he has spectacularly failed in his duty to install in them qualities of moral integrity and selflessness. In one of his few moments of lucidity Goriot is forced to acknowledge his culpability:  “It was I who made them, they belong to me.”

Goriot’s experience and the reaction of his daughters open Eugène’s eyes still further to the true nature of the society he has aspired to join. But it doesn’t deter him from his path. It means only that he goes forth, no longer an innocent youth, but a man more cynical and calculating, ready to take on the city.  Standing on a hill surveying the city laid out beneath him, he shouts a warning “Beware Paris, here I come — ”

There is plenty of drama and fast moving action to be found in this novel with some exciting set pieces. But it’s the meticulous detail in which Balzac describes Père Goriot’s boarding house lodging at Maison Vauquer and the penury of its inhabitants, that most held my attention. The book opens with a lengthy description of this establishment in the old Latin Quartier of Paris. It is not a place where you would relish having to spend even one night. The high garden walls surrounding the house give the impression of entering a prison , its shabby sitting room is full of furniture that is “old, rotten, shaky, cranky, worm-eaten, halt, maimed, one-eyed, rickety, and ramshackle”;  the bedrooms are wretched and the nauseating smells from the kitchen permeate the whole place. Sounds wonderful doesn’t it?

For page after page Balzac gives shape and form to this residence and breathes life into its tenants, detailing what brought them through the door of Maison Vauguer, what hopes they have for the future and how they relate to each other. The point isn’t simply to show the individuals involved in the drama but to depict a society patterned after the Parisian one. Here is the city in microcosm where the guests are lodged and treated according to their financial means and social position. Their room within the house changes as their fortunes fluctuate. Goriot himself had started in prime position on the lower ground but as a bankrupt he is despatched to the topmost and most decrepit room.  It’s a visible, uncomfortable reminder to Eugène of the fate that awaits him if his quest for higher social status should fail.

Having gobbled up Le Père Goriot, I’m now wondering what next by Balzac I should tackle…This is meant to be one of the best novels in La Comedie Humane series

End Notes

Le Père Goriot first appeared in 1834 in series form. My copy of this novel is a Penguin Classics edition translated by Marion Ayton Crawford. For a reason not explained in the foreword, the title is translated as Old Goriot, not Father Goriot which seems to eradicate the centrality of Goriot’s role as a father.  The point of the novel isn’t that Goriot is old, but that he is a father. Annoyingly I can’t find any explanation for this decision.

The Unsolved Mystery of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw

turn of the screwI’ve struggled to fully appreciate Henry James in the past but some recent discussions about the merits of his work prompted me to give him another go.  I chose The Turn of the Screw simply because I’ve been long intrigued why a work of less than 100 pages has provoked so much debate and argument over the years.

The story originated apparently from a half-remembered anecdote told to Henry James by the Archbishop of Canterbury. James wrote it while staying at a rambling mansion in Sussex where he was liking his wounds following the poor reception to his play Guy Domville. It wasn’t his first – nor would it be his last – ghost story. He was attracted to the ghost story genre though he didn’t care for the stereotypical approach, preferring instead to create figures that were eerie but could still be associated with reality.

For the first few decades after its publication in 1898 there wasn’t any real debate about the nature of this work. Readers viewed A Turn of the Screw purely as a spooky story about the experience of a young governess and Miles and Flora, children in her care who are tormented by two ghosts at an isolated country manor house.

It wasn’t until the 1930’s that critics began to question this traditional view of the story and in particular the reliability of the figure of the governess.  Edmund Wilson was one of the first major proponents of the idea that the ghosts existed entirely in her imagination being the products of a delusional mind. Since then debate has continued between those who see the ghosts as supernatural figures and those who view them as hallucinations.

A Ghostly Tale?

To read Turn of the Screw this way requires us to view the governess as a narrator upon whose account we can rely. If we start from that premise,  we believe that the two human figures she sees at Bly manor are the ghosts of two former (now dead) servants, the valet Peter Quint and governess Miss Jessel. When she sees them she sees them in a tower of the house or peering in through windows they have the solid appearance of humans. It is only later she learns they died some years previously. The governess is clear in her mind that they are evil: “a horror.” and “fiends” intent on possessing the souls of the two children. She doesn’t seem afraid the ghosts will physically harm or kill the children, more that they will corrupt them in some way. In this interpretation what we’ve faced with is a battle between good and evil with the governess fighting single-handedly and courageously to save Miles and Fora.

Can we believe her? 

James cleverly creates uncertainty about this interpretation however because the story is not told directly by the governess but by an anonymous male guest at a house party. The guest doesn’t have any first hand experience of this story but instead reads from a manuscript supposedly written by the governess. She interprets the children’s story rather than letting them speak for themselves. This  “nested structure,” denies us direct access to some of the key participants and sets up the possibility of misinterpretation and ambiguity.

A psychological tale of delusion and insanity?

There are a few issues with the ‘ghost story’ interpretation. The biggest alarm bell for me was that the ‘ghosts’ are visible only to the governess. We have multiple sightings of these ghosts in various locations at the lake, in the garden and at the window but at no time when she reports these sightings to the housekeeper Mrs Grose does the housekeeper confirm her own suspicions. Instead we see the older woman’s scepticism. The one time the governess thinks she will be vindicated, when the ghost of Miss Jessel appears before her and Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper does not acknowledge anything untoward, merely responding: “What a dreadful turn, to be sure, Miss! Where on earth do you see anything?”

Another aspect of uncertainty is the governess’ attitude towards Miles. When she first meets the boy, she’s struck by his “fragrance of purity” and his beauty. She changes her mind when she begins to have her supernatural encounters, coming to believe the boy is plotting evil deeds with Quint. Mrs Grose does confirm that Quint was a bad influence on the boy in the past but doesn’t provide any details of the nature of this influence or how it manifested itself. Miles does get up to a bit of mischief (stealing a letter the governess writes to his uncle, her employer) but its hard to see this as ‘evil’ so again we have only the governess’ word for his nature. This is a person who has a talent for fitting events to suit her hypothesis. Once she conceives the idea the apparitions are evil she decides the children are in cohorts with them and using a facade of innocence and beauty as a mask.

James compounds the mystery by giving hints that the governess’ mental state may not be totally stable. It’s clear from the beginning that s has a vivid imagination, proclaiming herself to be inclined to  “write scenarios” and “paint pictures.” On her first tour of Bly house she imagines it as “a castle of romance” and plots a “charming story” of meeting the master as she wanders the grounds. On her arrival at the house she imagines a role for herself as the captain guiding a ship to safety:

..it was a big, ugly, antique, but convenient house, embodying a few features of a building still older, half replaced and half utilized, in which I had the fancy of our being almost as lost as a handful of passengers in a great drifting ship. Well, I was, strangely, at the helm!

And then later changes roles to become guardian and protector of the the children:

It was an immense help to me — I confess I rather applaud myself as I look back! — that I saw my service so strongly and so simply. I was there to protect and defend the little creatures.

As a sceptic of all things supernatural I’m more inclined to accept an interpretation of this story as one of psychological complexity, of a figure suffering from delusion bordering on insanity. And I began to wonder whether its not Quint and Jessel who are the disruptive influences in the house – is it really the governess who haunts Bly and the children?

I’m still wrestling with this question. But by reading this I’ve come to appreciate far more how James focused on perception and consciousness in his writing. I might even come to like him.

 

 

 

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