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10 Wonderful Classics. Number 4 is Absolutely Stunning.

a classic is a book which which each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading

Italio Calvino

Literary critics, historians, authors and avid readers all have different opinions on which works of literature can be considered “classic”. Are they novels which captivate because of their lyrical, figurative language? Are they works that ask profound questions about our society and what it means to be human?

The answer is of course Yes and Yes.

I think of classics as works that are unforgettable as a result. Reading them is an intensely rewarding experience. And the initial joy on first reading never goes away. Each time you read the book you discover a new layer of meaning or a new question to consider.

Coming up with a list of just 10 classics makes Brexit negotiations seem like a piece of cake. There are easily twice that number I could have included. I’ll enjoy seeing your reactions and debating what should or should not have made the list.

A Seventeenth Century Classic

1. Paradise Lost by John Milton  (1667).

Lucifer-The-Fallen
Depiction of Satan, illustration of the central character of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. 1866.From Wikepedia under creative commons licence

I can remember sitting on my bed in my university room feeling daunted by having to read this for a tutorial.

It was a monster of a book because of the extensive notes that explained all of Milton’s references. And boy did I need those explanations since I was not blessed with a deep knowledge of the Bible (the price for not paying attention in Sunday School) or Greek and Roman myths.

But I still found this epic a gripping read with its rebel angels, the clash of good and evil, creation of the world and then the fall from grace of Adam and Eve. Yes it’s long and the prose is often convoluted but utterly memorable.

Nineteenth Century Classics

This was the century that saw the greatest change in the form and nature of the novel. Starting with the first realist texts of the early part of the century, and ending in the realm of stream of consciousness.

So many wonderful novels from which to choose that I could easily have just done a list of 10 favourite 19th century novels. But I’ve tried to pick ones that I never tire of reading.

2. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)

There is no way that a list of favourites from the nineteenth century could ignore Jane Austen. Pride and Prejudice can be read as a romance story which ends happily ever after. But as the title indicates Austen was more concerned about issues of social class and the precarious position of unmarried women.

3. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847)

This was one of the first classics I ever read and it’s still giving me pleasure 50 years later. Obviously my understanding and interpretation of Charlotte Bronte’s most famous novel has changed over those decades. But that’s one of the beauties of this novel, that it can be read in many different ways.

At it’s most basic level it can be a story of a put-upon orphan to finds love and happiness. Delve deeper however and you can find ideas about women’s right for independence and a fulfilling life; the unenviable position of governesses and 19th century attitudes towards science in the form of phrenology.

4. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871)

My all-time favourite novel.

I know many people who have started to read this book but struggled because it’s a bit slow to get going and has a very large cast.

One way to read it is to think of it like a soap opera with a few key relationships – the ‘eternal triangle’ of Dorothea, Casaubon and Ladislaw and the predatory Rosamund who snares Dr Lydgate and almost bankrupts him.

Look beyond that however and you’ll find  a novel about ambitions for great medical discoveries, altruism and electoral reform. All are thwarted.

This is a novel about big ideas but one that also shows how gossip can bring a man down.

5. Germinal by Emile Zola (1885)

This was my first experience of reading Zola and, though I’ve gone on to read a few others by him (see my list here) , this is the one that has  a special place in my affection.

It’s hard reading not because Zola’s prose is impenetrable but because of the subject matter –  a struggle for survival by impoverished miners in France. They take strike action  in the hope of a better future but their rebellion is violently crushed by the army and police.  

Uncompromisingly harsh this is a novel that is absolutely unforgettable.

6. The Awakening  by Kate Chopin (1898)

A novella about a woman who feels trapped in her role as wife and mother. It was castigated at the time of its publication but has come to be viewed as a key feminist text. 

Edna Pontellier’s process of “awakening” and self-discovery that constitutes the focus of the book takes several forms: she learns to swim, has an affair and leaves her husband and children. But her freedom doesn’t provide her with happiness.

The ending is enigmatic – does Edna’s action represent a failure of her bid for freedom or is it a liberating triumph?

Twentieth Century Classics 

Heart of the Matter


8. A Passage to India by E. M Forster  (1924)

Set against the backdrop of the British Raj and the Indian independence movement in the 1920s, Forster’s novel traces the disastrous consequences when well-meaning but clueless representatives of the colonial class mix with those who are subjects of the Raj.  

It features a tremendous set piece of an expedition to the Marabar caves where something happens (exactly what is a typical Forsterian ‘muddle’ that causes the disgrace of an Indian doctor and inflames the ruling Sahibs.

The novel might feel a bit dated at times but it’s on the ball in its depiction of the difficulties in bridging cultural divides.

9. Heart of the Matter  — Grahame Greene (1948).

Few authors do a better job of portraying people undergoing a moral crisis and tortured by their consciences.

Greene himself didn’t care much for this book. But I love this story of a British police officer in an African outpost who becomes embroiled in a moral crisis In the end there is no way out for him, except one of eternal spiritual damnation.

 
10. Cry, the Beloved Country  — Alan Paton (1948).

I’m staying in Africa for my final choice.

This novel is set in South Africa on the eve of apartheid. It features a clergyman who travels to Johannesburg from his home in a small rural village and discovers racial tension, economic inequalities between black and white and a breakdown of traditional values.  

Paton uses multiple voices to expresses his love for South Africa and his fear for the future of his homeland.

This is a novel of protest in a sense but it is also an appeal for justice.

So there you have my choices. What would be on your list?

Why Nancy Mitford’s “genius” novel left me underwhelmed

Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford

Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate is supposed to be the novel that best displays her reputed “genius” for sharp and provocative wit.

Naturally, I was expecting to encounter writing that fizzed, crackled and sparkled as Mitford pricked the bubble of complacency surrounding rich, aristocratic families.

What I got instead was a slightly funny book parading the absurdities of a bunch of people who are supremely confident in many things, but particularly their superiority above all other mortals.

I felt cheated. Much like you do when you pull the Christmas cracker but end up with nothing more than a feeble pop and an empty roll of coloured cardboard. Not even a tiny packet of playing cards or a giant paper clip to make the effort worthwhile. 

An Unsuitable Match

Love In a Cold Climate brings us the tale of Polly Hampton, more properly known as Lady Leopoldina. She’s the only child of an immensely rich and very aristocratic  Earl of Montdore and his wife, Sonia.

Polly shines amid the debutants who have flocked to London for the ‘season’; the annual series of glittering balls and big social occasions whose real purpose is to find a marriage partner.  Much to her mother’s frustration, however, Polly shows little interest in the London season and the men she meets consider her cold and aloof.

The cause of Polly’s indifference is revealed to her shocked family: she’s been in love with  her uncle, “Boy” Dougdale since she was fourteen. She’s hell bent on marriage to a man considered by all and sundry to be eminently unsuitable as a husband; he’s a serial womaniser and known for his lecherous behaviour towards young girls.

Polly is determined to have her own way. Her punishment is banishment and disinheritance.

Mitford’s characters 

You won’t find a lot of humour in the plot.  The wit resides instead in Mitford’s characterisation, in particular the figures of Lady Montdore and Uncle Matthew.

Matthew is great fun as a character. because he’s so over the top.  He plays the role of a conventional English Lord very well, with his love of hunting, fishing, shooting and his firm belief in the importance of lineage. He has little tolerance for silly, ignorant women and even less for the business of bringing girls out into society (expensive nonsense in his eyes).

The most fascinating character is however Lady Montdore.

A portrait of egotism

She’s a woman who is so easy to dislike with her  “worldly greed and snobbishness, her terrible relentless rudeness.”  The forcefulness of her personality  generally ensures that she gets her own way, whatever the situation though she can also exploit the social status conferred by her husband’s title and wealth.

So wrapped up in her desires to be the hostess with the mostest and to secure a brilliant marriage for her daughter, Lady Montdore has no idea how condescending she can appear. Marriages of acquaintances and relatives are dismissed as inferior and inappropriate unless they involve solid assets like “acres, coal mines, real estate, jewels, silver, pictures..”  All of the things in fact that her husband has in vast quantitites.

She’s not afraid to use her influence to prevent such a social calamity. Upon discovering  that her daughter’s friend Fanny has made a  “quite ridiculous” engagement to a professor, she offers to call the editor of the Times on the girl’s behalf, to retract the announcement.

Masterclass in how to patronise

One of the funniest scenes in the novel is when Her Ladyship makes an unplanned afternoon visit to  the – now married – Fanny.  It’s a master class in how to be patronising.

I suppose your husband is a clever man , at least so Montdore tells me. Of course it’s a thousand pities he is so dreadfully poor –  I hate to see you  living in this horrid little hovel, so unsuitable.

And with that she wrinkles her nose at the weak tea and broken digestive biscuits served without the nicety of a plate or napkin.

But worse is to follow when Lady Montdore puts on her “we’re hard done by” act:

It’s all very well for funny little people like you to read the books the whole time, you only have yourselves to consider, whereas Montdore and I are public servants in a way, we have something to live up to, tradition and so on, duties to perform, you know, it’s a very different matter. A great deal is expected of us, I think and I hope it’s not in vain. It’s a hard life, make no mistake about that, hard and tiring but occasionally we have our reward  – when people get a chance to show how they worship us, for instance when we came back from India and the dear villages pulled our motor car up the drive, Really touching!

If only all of the novel could have been as delicious as this episode.

The saga of this odd romance and its consequences are related by Fanny Wincham, a distant cousin of Polly and a frequent visitor to the family’s home.

And therein lay my biggest issue with this novel: Fanny is a very dull girl. Fanny is the sensible one, the friend who longs for a stable life (understandable perhaps when you’re mother is known as ‘The Bolter’ because she left so many men in the dust)

I suppose Fanny had to be rather ordinary, in order to make a sharp contrast with the larger than life characters of her Uncle Matthew and Polly’s mother, Lady Montdore. But I would have appreciated a narrator with a little more to her than this ‘nice’ but tepid individual. Perhaps then her observations would have helped the book live up to its much vaunted status as the work of a genius.


Footnotes

About the author

Nancy Mitford was one of six daughters of a British aristocratic family (the very class she features in her novels). The siblings achieved fame/notoriety in 1930s, three of them because of their political affiliations. A journalist for The Times, Ben Macintyre, labelled them “Diana the Fascist, Jessica the Communist, Unity the Hitler-lover; Nancy the Novelist; Deborah the Duchess and Pamela the unobtrusive poultry connoisseur”.

Why I read this book

I added Love in a Cold Climate to my Classics Club list having seen it described as a “masterpiece’ of witticism. I also included her earlier novel The Pursuit of Love but now I’m wondering if that will be just as disappointing.

Want to know more

  • Read more about the Mitford family in this BBC article.
  • Vanity Fair has a published an interesting feature  exploring why the six Mitford sisters continue to fascinate people.
  • Ali who blogs at HeavenAli is more of a fan of the Mitford writers, than I seem to be. Check out her reviews here. 

Mary Barton: A bold novel of social turmoil [review]

Mary Barton By Elizabeth Gaskell 

In the early 1840s, the city of Manchester was the engine house of the Industrial Revolution in Britain.

Its huge cotton mills were a magnate for people from the countryside who saw in them an opportunity to improve their lives, particularly since industrial employees were paid more than agricultural workers.

But when demand for cotton began to fall away in the mid 40s, thousands of workers were put on reduced hours or dismissed. Dissatisfaction mounted as newly unionised workers began to demand a better deal.

The social turmoil of strikes and lockouts added to the misery of overcrowded streets, inadequate water and poor sanitation.

Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell, the wife of a Unitarian minister in Manchester, saw at first hand the consequences: starvation, disease, early death.

In the preface to Mary Barton: a Tale of Manchester Life she confessed that she knew nothing of political economy or the theories of trade, but she had always felt ” a deep sympathy with the care-worn men, who looked as if doomed to struggle through their lives in strange alternations between work and want.”

Her intent in the novel was to give a voice to those care-worn men in order to reveal the common humanity that could serve to unite social classes.

The more I reflected on this unhappy state of things between those so bound to each other by common interests, as the employers and the employed must ever be, the more anxious I became to give some utterance to the agony which from time to time convulsed this dumb people.

Driven to desperation

Gaskell uses the figure of John Barton, a mill worker, to illustrate how even honest men are driven to desperation in such a climate.

At the start of the novel Barton is an intelligent, thoughtful man who cares strongly about two things: his family and his livelihood. He goes into a rapid decline when his wife dies in childbirth and  then the factory where he works is closed. He cannot find a job anywhere else.

He is a proud man. When his daughter asks why he does not accept money from the town so he can buy food, he replies angrily: “I don’t want money, child! D — n their charity and their money! I want work, and it is my right. I want work!”

In anger and frustration he succumbs to the temptation of opium and becomes heavily involved in the burgeoning trade union movement and the Chartist cause.

When all efforts fail to get politicians and mill owners to listen, he concludes that the only way to get their attention is through an act of violent rebellion.  He turns murderer, killing Harry Carson, the handsome but arrogant son of a mill owner.

Is violence a solution?

Gaskell rejects such violence as the solution to the problems of the working poor of Manchester.  The core of the issue for her is that workers and employers simply don’t understand each other.  As John Barton says early in the novel:

The rich know nothing of the trials of the poor; I say, if they don’t know, they ought to know. We’re their slaves as long as we can work; we pile up their fortunes with the sweat of our brows, and yet we are to live as separate as if we were in two worlds …

Through her narrator Elizabeth Gaskell openly pleads for the two sides to come to a meeting of the minds through communication. In the final stages of the novel she puts this idea into the mouth of one of her worker characters, an intelligent and rational man. After a meeting with the mill owner Mr Carson, father of the murdered man :

You say our talk has done no good. I say it has. I see the view you take of things from the place where you stand. I can remember that, when the time comes for judging you; I sha’n’t think any longer, does he act right on my views of a thing, but does he act right on his own. It has done me good in that way.

It’s a worthy sentiment but it’s hard to see how improved communication can have any practical application as a solution to poor wages and slum conditions.

Love and devotion

Gaskell’s other solution to the problem of the poor is revealed in the novel’s parallel plot of the problematic love life of John Barton’s daughter Mary.

Mary Barton is a good girl at heart, a hard working seamstress who is devoted to caring for the father. But she has her head turned when Harry Carson, the mill owner’s son begins paying her attention.

The silly girl thinks she can marry him and thus secure a comfortable life for herself and her father. Only after she rejects a proposal from Jem Wilson, a hard working boy she’s known all her life, does she realise it’s Jem she loves after all. But it’s almost too late.

Jem gets arrested on suspicion of Carson’s murder and it takes all of Mary’s courage to find a way of saving him. It all ends happily ever after with Jem, who had been a much respected foreman at a forge, and Mary setting up home in Canada.

It’s meant to seem a reward from his boss for his loyalty and dedication but is Gaskell suggesting that the only way out of the poverty in Manchester is to leave the country? It’s not exactly a vote of confidence in England and can surely only have limited application. Emigration was for sure an escape route for many (particularly the Irish) but how many of them really found live on the other side of the Atlantic a bed of roses?

Power of redemption

The book’s conclusion, with its emphasis on the power of redemption and heavily sentimental tone,  is the one flaw in an otherwise perfectly constructed and engaging novel that depicts real, rather than idealised Victorian family life.

The world of Mary Barton is one in which mothers die in the agony of childbirth, children suffer starvation and scarlet fever and women abandoned by their lovers end up wandering the streets as gin-soaked prostitutes. Gaskell’s characters speak in a natural voice using Lancashire colloquialisms and dialect.

It’s a bold move.

Other Victorian novelists, such as Charles Dickens, often had their protagonists and most virtuous characters speak in ‘standard English’, regardless of their social or regional background. But Gaskell’s decision gives her novel an added dimension of realism. Some of her most frequently used words such as ‘clem’ which means to suffer from extreme hunger and ‘frabbit’ which apparently means peevish, convey sentiments that would be difficult to fully capture in ‘standard English’.

Mary Barton is a novel with multiple elements.

It has a love triangle, a murder,  a tale of a wronged woman and a life and death chase, all set in a city in the grip of an industrial revolution.  It does tend towards the polemic and the melodramatic at times but fortunately it doesn’t spoil what is otherwise a powerful and moving picture of working-class life in Victorian England.

Publication history of Mary Barton

Elizabeth_Gaskell

Mary Barton was the first novel to be published by Elizabeth Gaskell.  She wrote it at the suggestion of her husband as a response to the death in infancy of  her  son from scarlet fever. It was published anonymously in 1848 though relates the events of a few years earlier and is believed to have been based on the real-life murder of a progressive mill owner in 1831.

Why I read this novel

The first novel by Elizabeth Gaskell that I read was North and South which I thoroughly enjoyed.  But having been disappointed by Wives and Daughters and Cranford, I wanted to get back to her gritty realism. Mary Barton features in my Classics Club list.

Classics club spin falls on Mitford

The anticipation is over and the result of the latest Classic Club Spin is in. The roulette wheel fell on number 9. Which means that from the list I put together earlier this week I will be reading………

pursuit of lovepursuit of love 2pursuit of love 3

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

Published in 1945 it is the first in a trilogy which satirises  an upper-class English family in the interwar period. Mitford of course knew this world intimately since she came from aristocratic stock herself. She put that to great effect in her portrayal of the unconventional, exuberant Radletts of Alconleigh.

Mitford’s wickedly humorous narrative traces the family  through misguided marriages and dramatic love affairs. Although a comedy, the story has a darker aspect because the shadow of World War II begins to close in on the Radletts and a world that will rapidly vanish.

This is a book that I have been intending to read for years. Now I just have to find my copy. I know the cover looks nothing like the ones shown above. Isn’t that middle one awful?

 

 

 

Classics Club spin lands on Grossmith

Diary_of_a_Nobody

Cover of first edition of The Diary of a Nobody. Creative Commons License, Wikipedia

The latest Classic Club roulette wheel has spun and landed on number 12 which for me is The Diary of a Nobody  by George Grossmith. It had to happen sometime – this poor book has been on the list for five previous spins and missed out every time. 

But now its day in the spotlight has arrived, what kind of book will I be reading?

First thing I can tell you is that it’s a comic novel, the sole output of  two 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. 

The Diary of a Nobody records the daily events in the lives of a London clerk, Charles Pooter, his wife Carrie, his son Lupin, and numerous friends and acquaintances over a period of 15 months. They are a fairly ordinary family of lower middle-class status but have significant social aspirations. A lot of the humour apparently comes from Charles’ deluded sense of his own importance which is undercut by his propensity to make mistakes, many of which prove socially embarrassing.

Initially Charles’ exploits saw the light of day in a serial which appeared periodically in Punch magazine in between 1888 and 89. It was intended as a spoof that mocked the proliferation of diaries and memoirs at the time; the brothers taking the view that if Anybody could publish a diary then why couldn’t a Nobody? It wasn’t published in book form until 1892. The book had a lukewarm reception from the reading public and critics with The Athenaeum, declaring 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”. Its tone and format have been emulated in many subsequent ‘diary’ novels from Sue Townshend’s Diary of Adrian Mole to Bridget Jones’ Diary. 

Why is the Diary of a Nobody  on my Classics Club list you might wonder? It’s certainly an unusual choice since I don’t tend to enjoy comic novels. But I happened to come across a copy, at the back of the bookcase, that seems to have been purchased sometime in the early 1990s and thought maybe it was time it got read….

 

 

 

 

Classics Club spin #15

roulette-wheelMany 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

  1. Candide  — Voltaire 1759
  2. Vicar of Wakefield  — Oliver Goldsmith 1766
  3. Evelina  — Frances Burney 1778
  4. Ormond – Maria Edgeworth 1817
  5. The Black Sheep  — Honore Balzac 1842
  6. Basil – Wilkie Collins 1852
  7. Framley Parsonage  – Anthony Trollope 1861 
  8. The Kill/La Curée – Emile Zola 1871-2
  9. Anna Karenina  — Leo Tolstoy 1873-77
  10. Daniel Deronda  — George Eliot 1876
  11. The Brothers Karamazov  — Fyodor Dostoevsky 1880
  12. The Diary of a Nobody  — George Grossmith 1888
  13. New Grub Street – George Gissing 1891
  14. The Secret Agent  — Joseph Conrad 1907
  15. Clayhanger – Arnold Bennett 1910
  16. The Voyage Out  — Virginia Woolf 1915
  17. Age of Innocence  — Edith Wharton 1920
  18. All Passion Spent – Vita Sackville West 1932
  19. Frost in May  — Antonia White 1933
  20. 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). 

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