Category Archives: Classics Club
In an age where just about anyone attracting a modicum of ‘celebrity status’ feels compelled to tell the world about their life history, it’s a delight to come across a novel which parodies such pretensions. The Diary of a Nobody was written with the deliberate intent of mocking the diaries and memoirs that proliferated in the late 1880s. George Grossmith, an actor, and his artist brother Wheedon took the view that the British reading public had surely had enough of diaries written by people who were ‘Somebodies’ and it was high time attention was given to the ‘nobodies’ of this world. As Charles Pooter (the central character) puts it
Why should I not publish my diary? I have often seen reminiscences of people I have never even heard of, and I fail to see – because I do not happen to be a ’Somebody’ – why my diary should not be interesting. My only regret is that I did not commence it when I was a youth.
In Charles Pooter we have a man who tries so hard to be a respectable member of the middle class but is foiled every time because of his inexhaustible ability to make a mess of a situation. So successful was this characterisation that it gave birth to two new adjectives: Pooterish and Pooteresque, both indicating a person who takes themselves far too seriously, believing their importance or influence is far greater than it really is.
The Diary of a Nobody records the daily events in the lives of this London clerk, his wife Carrie and their feckless son Willie (who insists on being called Lupin). When the Diary begins Charles and Carrie have just moved into a six-roomed house in the Holloway district of London. The new residence is meant to signify that the Pooters are on their way up the social ladder. Charles in fact has a keen sense of his own importance and sees this move as his entry into a more refined social circle. Over the course of 15 months he records the many small pleasures, modest social occasions and acquaintances that make up his life.
The summary of the day’s entry for April 19 gives a good flavour of the Diary:
A conversation with Mr Merton on Society. Mr and Mrs James of Sutton come up. A miserable evening at the Tank Theatre. Experiments with enamel paint. I make another good joke; but Gowing and Cummings [two close friends] are unnecessarily offended. I paint the bath red, with unexpected results.
A year later Pooter is complaining about another social occasion which did not go according to plan:
Trouble with a stylographic pen. We go to a Volunteer Ball where I am let in for an expensive supper. Grossly insulted by a cabman. An odd invitation to Southend.
The Diary is a litany of mishaps and misadventures. Every time Charles gets an opportunity he thinks will enable him to shine, he makes some kind of mistake which proves socially embarrassing. He manages to tear his trousers and smear coal dust over his shirt just before going out to the Lord Mayor’s party, then in his eagerness to show he can waltz he slips bringing both he and his wife to the floor.
He fares no better at home, constantly falling over the boot scraper outside the front door and getting stitched up by tradespeople who over-charge or fail to deliver the promised goods. An episode in which he turns his hand to some home decor was probably my favourite. Enamoured with the red enamel paint he hears about at work he gets rather carried away, painting flower pots, wash-stands and chests of drawers. Then its the turn of the coal-scuttle and the bath to get the red paint treatment. Even though readers will guess what the outcome is, his discomfiture in the bath that night is still one of those laugh aloud moments:
… imagine my horror on discovering my hand, as I thought, full of blood. My first thought was that I had ruptured an artery, and was bleeding to death and should be discovered later on looking like a second Marat, as I remember seeing him in Madame Tussaud’s. My second thought was to ring the bell but I remembered there was no bell to ring. My third was, that there was nothing but the enamel paint, which had dissolved with boiling water. I stepped out of the bath, pefectly red all over resembling the Red Indians I have seen depicted at an East End theatre.
In amongst the humour and the humdrum details of every day life, there are times when we see Charles Pooter in a way that evokes our sympathy. Despite his social aspirations this is a man who genuinely loves his family and is deeply concerned when his son loses his job and starts running around with an undesirable bunch of people. His sense of honour and integrity is severely put to the test by his so-called friends who regularly mock him while taking advantage of his hospitality.
Though more than 100 years old, it’s surprising how contemporary some of the pre-occupations of this novel feel. Don’t most parents even today worry their children are going off course and want to step in with a bit of course correction? Haven’t we all felt the frustrations when goods get delivered late or the order is incomplete? And I bet some of you at least will have been bamboozled by technical jargon when confronted by IT engineers or motor mechanics (or is that hust me?). Isn’t there a touch of Mr Pooter in all of us?
About the Book: Initially Charles Pooter’s exploits saw the light of day in a serial which appeared periodically in Punch magazine between 1888 and 89. It wasn’t published in book form until 1892. The book had a lukewarm reception from the reading public and critics – The Athenaeum declared that “the book has no merit to compensate for its hopeless vulgarity, not even that of being amusing”. But by the time of the third issue in 1910 it was recognised as a classic work of humour – J B Priestley described it as “true humour…with its mixture of absurdity, irony and affection” while Evelyn Waugh considered it “the funniest book in the world”.
About the authors: The Diary of a Nobody is the sole output of the brothers George and Weedon Grossmith. Both were stage entertainers – George often played the comic figure in Gilbert and Sullivan operas. Weedon was also an artist and it was his work that illustrated early copies of the text.
Why I read this book: I included this in my Classics Club list because of the extrordinary literary influence it has exerted through the decades. Sue Townshend’s Diary of Adrian Mole and Bridget Jones’ Diary are just two of the works that owe a debt to the Wheedon brothers, emulating their tone and format to huge commercial success. Without The Diary of a Nobody I wonder whether we would have ever seen the spoof diaries in Private Eye that parody the Prime Minister of the day (including the unforgettable St Albion Parish News from ‘Tony Blair’ and the current St. Theresa’s Independent State Grammar School for Girls (and Boys) from Theresa May.
Diary comic novel,
Is there no place to hid from news of (alleged) election shenanigans. First we had allegations of voter fraud and wire-tapping in the US presidential race. Then came claims the British electorate was misled about the impact of the referendum on future membership of the EU. And now we have accusations about misuse of public funds against one of the candidates in the French presidential elections. Surely if I buried my head in Anthony Trollope’s Dr Thorne, a novel set in a quiet English country village, I would be free from such issues?. Not a chance…. Mr Trollope had a surprise up his sleeve.
Dr Thorne is the third of the Chronicles of Barsetshire series. In the first two – The Warden and Barchester Towers – Trollope concerned himself with the insular ecclesiastical world of a cathedral town. In Dr Thorne we move to the countryside and an entirely different pillar of society- the landed gentry in the shape of Squire Gresham and family. They’ve lived at Greshambury Park as the foremost citizens of this part of the county of Barsetshire for many generations but these are precarious times for the Greshams. They are beset by financial difficulties, most of which originate with the Squire’s wife Lady Arabella. As a descendant of the aristocratic De Courcy family she firmly believes she has a certain status in life that must be maintained. This means she absolutely must have a house in London so she and her daughters can enjoy The Season. And of course the said property has to be refurbished to the standard befitting her position. Her most damaging measure however was to encourage the Squire to seek election to Parliament. Now after two unsuccessful bids, both of which involved the outlay of vast sums of money, the Squire is having to sell off part of his land and take out a loan.
The family’s only hope for the future lies in the son and heir Frank. There is no doubt at all in Lady Arabella’s mind but that “Frank must marry money’” if they are to avoid the unthinkable, the loss of the estate. There is just one obstacle in the way of her determination to find him a rich heiress as his wife: Frank is in love Mary Thorne, the niece of the local doctor. Though she’s been hitherto welcomed at Greshambury Park, she is considered totally unsuitable as Frank’s wife. Not only doesn’t she have a bean to her name, she comes with the taint of illegitimacy and murder. What the Greshams don’t know – and neither does Mary – is that she’s an heiress to a large fortune.
Most of the novel is concerned with the romantic problems of Mary and Frank. Will Frank remain true to his childhood sweetheart or will the needs of his family prevail? it’s a story line that enables Trollope to weave in themes of class and lineage versus integrity and loyalty. Which matters most asks Trollope – to marry someone who is inherently good and honest even if they don’t have the right family credentials or to marry someone with money and breeding but without love? Lady Arabella’s view on this is quite clear and she’s prepared to take drastic action and sacrifice everything – her son’s happiness, Mary Thorne’s reputation and even her own medical treatment – to get her way. Her husband is more inclined to hope Frank’s passion for Mary is just a phase that will pass so he adopts more of a ‘wait and see’ stance. Two of the Gresham daughters fare very differently in the ‘money or love’ debate. One of them is jilted by her fiancé when he sniffs a chance to cut a more lucrative deal with a wealthy heiress but her sister, though also hampered by a very small dowry, gets to the altar because her fiancé declares he wants her and not her money.
It isn’t just the Greshams who are concerned with status. Some of the other characters are equally keen to rise up in the world, such as Sir Roger Scratchard. Once jailed for murder this humble stonemason became a wealthy man as the developer of ports and railways. Proving of invaluable help to the Government, he gets rewarded with a baronetcy despite his predilection for vast quantities of alcohol. But this title is not enough for him – he wants to be an even bigger Somebody with Influence – a member of Parliament no less. And so he throws his hat into the election ring, giving Trollope a chance to satirise the dubious electioneering practices used by the aspiring politicians of his day. During the campaign, Scratchard’s opponents paint caricatures of him around the area, portraying him as a labourer “with a pimply, bloated face … leaning on a spade holding a bottle in one hand” and throw a dead cat at him at one of the hustings. Unfortunately one of his election team sails too close to the wind when trying to secure a key voter, leaving Scratchard facing a prosecution for bribery.
Every kind of electioneering sin known to the electioneering world was brought to his charge; he had, it was said in the paper of indictment, bought votes, obtained them by treating carried them off by violence, conquered them by strong drink, polled them twice over, counted those of dead men, stolen them, forged them, and created them by every possible, fictitious contrivance; there was no description of wickedness appertaining to the task of procuring votes of which Sir Roger had not been guilty, either by himself or his agents.
Now you might very well draw some parallels between that situation and some more recent events. But in the vein of House of Cards “I couldn’t possibly comment. “
It’s good fun though Trollope is using the election campaign and Scratchard’s fate to counterpoint Lady Arabella’s belief that money is everything. Having been disgraced, Scratchard is forced to acknowledge that though he is still a wealthy man, this is of little comfort – what he has valued all along is to rub shoulders with the great and the good.
Money had given him nothing but the mere feeling of brute power; with his three hundred thousand pounds he had felt himself to be no more palpably near to the goal of his ambition than when he had chipped stones for three siblings and sixpence a day. But when he was led up and introduced … when he shook the old premier’s hand on the floor of the House of Commons, when he heard the honourable member for Barchester alluded to in grave debate as the greatest living authority on railway matters, then indeed, he felt that he had achieved something.
Trollope packs a lot into his novel. Dr Thorne is consequently rather baggy, especially when it deals with the backstory of the Gresham’s declining financial situation. Trollope was so aware of this that he apologises to his reader for the fact the novel begins with “two long dull chapters full of description”. He also acknowledges that readers might find the young, energetic Frank more interesting than the real hero, the middle aged country Doctor. Yet Dr Thorne is one of the two most interesting characters in the novel for me. He acts as the novel’s moral compass, confronting a personal ethical dilemma (should he reveal the secret of Mary’s impending fortune) with fortitude and refusing to instruct Mary in how to deal with Frank’s continued declarations of love, preferring instead that she work out for herself the best course of action. Even in the face of insults from Lady Arabella and Sir Roger’s wayward son, he shows great forbearance. Essentially he is an all round good egg.
But pride of place as a character has to go to Lady Arabella Gresham. She’s a magnificent portrait of a thoroughly selfish woman, so imbued with notions of her status that she cannot see the damage she causes through her manipulative treatment of her daughters, her son and even her husband. The one person who is more than a match for her is the doctor. Despite her best endeavours to break off the relationship between him and the Squire, it’s the doctor to whom her husband turns for support and with whom, ultimately, she herself has to find a compromise. How would Lady Arabella fare when confronted with Trollope’s other superb harridan – Mrs Proudie the Bishop’s wife last seen in Barchester Towers. Now that would be an encounter I’d love to see……
The Book: Dr Thorne by Anthony Trollope was published in 1858 as the third in his Barchester series. According to Ruth Rendell in the introduction to my edition, the idea of the plot was suggested to Trollope by his brother. A television adaptation by Julian Fellowes (scriptwriter for many classic adaptations) was broadcast in the UK in 2016.
The author: In addition to giving the world two series of best-selling novels, Anthony Trollope left a permanent mark on British society with his introduction of the Royal Mail pillar box in 1874. These were painted green initially but changed twenty years later to the red that exists today on every post office collection box in the country. Trollope was working as a civil servant at the Post Office at the time – an occupation he continued until 1866. More information about his career and writing can be found at the Trollope Society website.
Why I read this novel: I enjoyed The Warden and Barchester Towers so much I decided to read all of the Chronicles of Barsetshire novels in order. Dr Thorne is one of the titles on my Classics Club list.
Many many months have passed since I last paid attention to my Classics Club project. In fact it seems that I barely read anything from that list last year. I still have 21 books remaining to be read which means I am not going to achieve the goal of 50 read by August this year. But hey, these are classics so they’ve been around for decades or centuries. Which means they can easily wait for another year or so.
The Classics Club spin which has just been announced has given me a much-needed prod to revisit this list however. The idea is to list 20 of the titles from our list of books remaining to read. On Friday, March 10 we’ll be told which number has come up in the spin and then we should read that book by May 1. Easy peasy….
My Spin List
- Candide — Voltaire 1759
- Vicar of Wakefield — Oliver Goldsmith 1766
- Evelina — Frances Burney 1778
- Ormond – Maria Edgeworth 1817
- The Black Sheep — Honore Balzac 1842
- Basil – Wilkie Collins 1852
- Framley Parsonage – Anthony Trollope 1861
- The Kill/La Curée – Emile Zola 1871-2
- Anna Karenina — Leo Tolstoy 1873-77
- Daniel Deronda — George Eliot 1876
- The Brothers Karamazov — Fyodor Dostoevsky 1880
- The Diary of a Nobody — George Grossmith 1888
- New Grub Street – George Gissing 1891
- The Secret Agent — Joseph Conrad 1907
- Clayhanger – Arnold Bennett 1910
- The Voyage Out — Virginia Woolf 1915
- Age of Innocence — Edith Wharton 1920
- All Passion Spent – Vita Sackville West 1932
- Frost in May — Antonia White 1933
- Love in the Time of Cholera — Gabriel Garcia Marquez 1985
Ideally I would like the ball to fall on number 8 which will re-unite me with Emile Zola or number 7 so I can read the next in the Chronicles of Barchester series. But if that doesn’t come to pass I shall not be too distressed since all titles on this list are ones I want to read (rather than feel I have to read).
Another month further into the year and time for another snapshot of my reading life. March 1 marks the beginning of Spring in the northern hemisphere and for once nature is in tune with the calendar – daffodils are in bloom in the garden though the squirrels seem to have snaffled most of the crocus bulbs I planted. Tulip leaves are also pushing up through the earth heralding the pleasure to come. My recovery from surgery is also going well – so plenty to celebrate this month.
As I expected, being unable to do much other than vegetate on the sofa while the wounds healed, meant I was able to do fair amount of reading in the past few weeks. On March 1 itself I was half way through Dr Thorne by Anthony Trollope. It’s the third book in the Chronicles of Barchester series and though it doesn’t have my three favourite characters from the first two – Mrs Proudie, the Bishop’s Wife, Septimus Harding and the most magnificent of all, the chaplain Mr Obadiah Slope – it does have a rather delicious character in the shape of the Squire’s wife. Where the first two books, The Warden and Barchester Towers, focused on the dealings of the clergy, Dr Thorne takes us into the world of the gentry with their political ambitions and concerns to maintain their status in society. Dr Thorne is a book I’ve long planned to read as part of my Classics Club project and it didn’t disappoint.
State of my personal library
One of my goals for 2017 is to enjoy the books I already own and to reign back on acquiring yet more. I started 2017 with 318 unread books ( I thought it was 299 but then discovered my list of ebooks was incorrect) and a plan to hold off from adding to that number for the first six months of the year. I’m amazed that I’ve been able to keep to this plan – largely down to my strategy of immediately deleting from my in box any emails from publishers about new titles and from booksellers about special offers. I won An Exquisite Sense of What is Beautiful by J David Simons in a giveaway hosted by Lizzy at https://lizzysiddal.wordpress.com/. Lizzy’s review is here.
Then I was sorely tempted when asked if I would review The Last Gods of Indochine by Samuel Ferrer that was nominated for the Man Asian Literary Prize (“The Booker of Asia”). It’s a historical drama combining two storylines separated by six centuries; one story is set in Cambodia in 1294 during the last days of Khmer imperial glory and the other in 1921 during the period of French colonial rule. Here is the opening paragraph:
“Farther India”, 1861 (Laos, Indochina).It was hard to believe the human body could contain so much water, and yet, there it all was. Phrai twisted the cloth and watched it plop in dull patters on the ground, the pocked earth sponging up sound as well. Sweat had been seeping out his employer for weeks, and he had been at the dying man’s side all the while, pouring fresh water back into his mouth with the devotion of a nun. Phrai imagined nearly half the man had been absorbed and squeezed from these rags, creating small pools just outside the hut. In another part of the world, that half of him would evaporate out of existence, but here it could not; the thick air held eternity at bay.
So with two additions to my collection but five read, I ended February with 311 books remaining in what I call ‘my personal library’.
The collection of owned-but-unread books might be on the downward trend but the same can’t be said for my wishlist in Goodreads. In February I added The Long Dry by Cynan Jones, I Refuse by the Norwegian author Per Petterson plus twelve titles from the Greatest Books from Wales list that I posted a few days ago. I’m hoping I can get to end of June before I start buying any of these but it’s good to dream…..
On the reading horizon…
March is Reading Ireland month, hosted by 746books.com which has given me a good impetus to dig out the Ireland-related books from my shelves. Of the titles I found I’m probably gong to begin with John Banville’s Ancient Light. After that I will see where my mood takes me – I’ve discovered that planning too far ahead doesn’t work well for me. Making a list is good fun but the minute I have to start reading it, my enthusiasm wanes. I much prefer the serendipitous approach.
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:
- classics are books about which you usually hear people saying “I’m rereading….” never “I’m reading”
- 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
- 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
- a classic is a book which which each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading
- a classic is a book which even when e reading it for the first time gives the sense of something we have read before
- a classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers
- 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
- a classic is a work which constantly generates a pulviscular cloud of critical discourse around it, but which always shakes the particles off
- 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
- a classic is a term given to any book which comes to represent whole universe
- ‘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
- 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
- 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
- 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….
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.
Cranford 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).
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.
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.
When 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.
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, 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.
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.
What 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.