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Sample Sunday: The Classic Selection

This week candidates for Sample Saturday are novels that were on my Classics Club list but never got read. I think I acquired them more than ten years ago when they were on a supplementary reading list for a course I was taking on the nineteenth century novel. I no longer need them for academic reasons so the question is whether they would still hold my interest or is it time to let them go.

Evelina by Fanny Burney

Evelina or to give the book its full title The History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World, was published anonymously in 1778 as a satire on Georgian society. It’s meant to be a notable significant precursor to the work of Jane Austen and Maria Edgeworth.

Told in epistolary style, it traces the experiences of an unacknowledged but legitimate daughter of a dissipated English aristocrat. At the age of 17 she gets to leave her secluded country home to take a holiday in London. The visit opens her eyes to the delights and dangers of society.

I’m thinking No. I’ve tried epistolary novels from this period (and earlier) previously and never found them very entertaining.

The Verdict: Abandon

Belinda by Maria Edgeworth

Belinda is an 1801 novel that forms part of a tradition of society novels where bright young women are in search of a good marriage. Belinda was rather different however because it features an inter-racial marriage.

In the first two editions of the book, Edgeworth has an African servant on a Jamaican plantation who marries an English farm-girl and a potential marriage between the eponymous heroine and a rich West Indian Creole. By the third edition, published in 1810 both plot lines have been toned down. The servant character is omitted and Belinda only esteems the Creole and never agrees to marry him. One theory is that Edgeworth’s father insisted on the changes.

I don’t much care for the early society novels – they can be rather tedious. But the inter-racial dimension makes this one more interesting.

The Verdict: Keep

The Egoist by George Meredith

A tragicomic novel published in 1879 about the marriage intentions of a self-absorbed knight who can’t understand why any woman wouldn’t jump at the chance to be his wife. One of the women in his sights is strong-willed however and has no interest in getting hitched to this vain man.

There’s a theme in the book about the difficulty of being a woman in Victorian society, treated as an object to be traded between fathers and potential husbands. That would encourage me to read the book but it’s the description of a comic narrative that sets alarm bells ringing. My sense of humour isn’t on the same level as the original readers of the book so I have a feeling I’d find it silly or irritating

The Verdict: Let Go

Unless you strongly disagree and tell me I’m making a big mistake with Burney and Meredith, my TBR is now lighter by two books. The idea of Sample Saturday isn’t to get rid of books but to make sure my shelves have only books I do want to read. What do you think of the decisions I’ve reached – if you’ve read any of these books I’d love to hear from you.

The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope

It’s taken me almost three months to get through The Small House at Allington, book number five in the Chronicles of Barsetshire.

It was a lengthy read – my edition totalled 695 pages. But reading all the previous books in the series had got me accustomed to Anthony Trollope’s verbosity. Dr Thorne (book number 3) was more than 500 pages and Framley Parsonage (number 4 in the series) had 573.

I came to love those doorsteppers for their wit and satirical commentary about the church, politics and the aristocracy. They also had some utterly memorable characters like Mrs Proudie, the Bishop’s wife; Septimus Harding, the meek, elderly warden of almshouses and Obadiah Slope, a brash and unctuous social climber. 

Sadly, The Small House at Allington, had few of those elements. Instead of intrigues in the bishopric palaces and grand country estates, we get inter-woven tales of thwarted romances, unrequited love and marriage in all its guises.

Most of the plot revolves around the two Dale sisters who live with their widowed mother at the Small House. It’s a grace and favour house owned by Squire Dale, brother in law to Mrs Dale.

The squire’s cherished wish is that Bell will marry his nephew and heir Bernard and inherit the whole estate. But he is thwarted in his aim because Bell rejects the marriage proposal and marries the local doctor instead.

Lily falls deeply in love with Bernard’s friend, the handsome Adolphus Crosbie, not realising that he’s a self-seeking social climber. Just weeks after his engagement, Crosbie decides marriage with an Earl’s daughter is a more -advantageous match. He ditches Lily and gets hitched to the Lady, believing that association with the de Courcy family will help him rise in the world.

He gets his come upance when the de Courcy family’s financial status is revealed to be little more than smoke and mirrors. And his marriage bed turns distinctly chilly when his Lady wife turns out to be a bore, always whining that she has no social life and no carriage. Adolphus begins to wish he’d married Lily after all.

There are other stories in the background, most of which relate to portrayals of marriage. Trollope seems to be something of a cynic when it comes to affairs of the heart. Although Bell does marry for love, the majority of the featured couples marry for reasons of expediency. Making a “good match” is shown as especially important in the upper echelons of society, helping to advance the status of the dynasty or protecting its interests. But the result is a sterile life where the two people involved have little to say to each other and can barely tolerate being in the same room.

That theme, and some scenes set in a London boarding house, are about the most interesting aspects of The Small House at Allington. The plot is OK, but Trollope takes an age over it and could easily have wrapped up the whole novel with considerably fewer pages. I could have forgiven him his bagginess if only he’d given us some sparkling characters. But I found most of them to be lacking dynamism.

Lily is meant to be the heroine. Early on in the novel, Trollope introduces her thus:

Lilian Dale, dear Lily Dale – for my reader must know that she is to be very dear, and that my story will be nothing to him if he do not love Lily Dale… 

When Lily’s heart is broken she doesn’t succumb to weeping and wailing. Nor does she collapse under the strain of her abandonment (though she does succumb to scarlet fever). She just carries on her life; playing matchmaker on behalf of her sister, teasing the gardener and generally acting in a kindly way to all.

Her refusal to say anything bad about the man who jilted her, shows admirable decency. We can also admire the way she steadfastly refuses to marry long time friend Johnny Eames. He was once a hobbledehoy but is now a fine, upstanding young man with a good future ahead of him. Lily’s mother thinks he’s the perfect match for her daughter. Her uncle and sister are in agreement. But Lily is adamant: her heart still belongs to Crosbie.

I imagine contemporary readers wanted Trollope to give her a happy ending, but they don’t get it. Lily in effect resigns herself to widowhood.

There is only so much fortitude and forbearance I can take. And Lily wore me out on that score. The more she insisted Crosbie would always be the love of her life, the more she closed her mind to other people’s opinions he’d acted a cad, the more frustrated I became. Even Trollope ended up less than enamoured with his heroine. In his autobiography he commented:

In the love with which she has been greeted, I have hardly joined with much enthusiasm, feeling that she is somewhat of a female prig.

Former British Prime Minister John Major who was a fan of Trollope’s work, declared The Small House at Allington to be his favourite book of all time. It certainly isn’t mine. In fact its the least interesting of all the Barset novels I’ve read. I’m just hoping that the final book – Last Chronicle of Barset – marks a return to his previous form.

My 10 Classics Club Favourites

Now that I’ve completed my Classics Club project (whoopee) I thought it would be fun to look back over the 50 books I read and and pick my 10 favourites.

The books I’ve listed were those I consider the most memorable and thought provoking out of the 50 books I read in the last seven and half years. They are also books I think that perfectly fit Italio Calvino’s definition of a classic as

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

Though I seldom seem to find the time to re-read, these 10 novels are all ones I know will prove as rewarding the second, third or even fourth time around.

L’Assommoir by Emile Zola

You knew there would be a Zola in the list didn’t you? My all-time favourite is Germinal but L’Assommoir comes a very close second. Paris is the setting for this tale of a woman from the bottom rungs of society who tries to make something meaningful in her life. Her lazy, drunk of a husband thwarts her ambitions. There are some magnificent set pieces including a brawl between women in a wash house and a wedding “banquet”.

Published: 1877. Read 2014

Author’s origin: France

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West

This was a joy to read. Elderly women are not often portrayed in a positive light in fiction but Sackville-West gives us a memorable tale of a woman who decides at the age of 80 to assert her independence.

Published: 1931 Read 2019

Author’s origin: UK

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

On the surface this would seem to be a novel about a crime and the hunt to bring the culprit to justice. But actually it’s more a study of the criminal mind and whether it is ever acceptable to commit murder. Completely engrossing.

Published: 1866 Read 2013

Author’s origin: USSR

Heart Of The Matter by Graham Greene

This has become my all-time favourite Graham Greene novel. It’s an intense novel in which a decent and well-meaning man takes an action that leads to spiritual conflict and despair. The West African setting adds to the atmosphere of oppression and suffocation.

Published: 1948 Read 2013

Author’s origin: UK

North And South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Nothing I’ve read by Gaskell has come anywhere close to being as good as this tale of conflict in an industrial city (it”s loosely based on Manchester.) In what is considered a classic Industrial Novel, Gaskell shows the desperate poverty of the mill workers and the consequent effects on their health.

Published: 1855 Read 2012

Author’s origin: UK

Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

New York in Wharton’s novel is a city where the individual spirit is hampered by codes of behaviour that govern everything from the time at which dinner is served to what to wear to the opera. It takes a brave spirit to try to break out from the constraints of this society.

Published: 1920 Read 2020

Author’s origin: USA

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

Steinbeck isn’t an author you would naturally associate with humour. But this novella has characters who make such a mess of things, that you can”t help but laugh even though their situation is anything but funny. They are people who live in the sardine canning district of Monterey, California. Among them is a group of down-and-outs who live from one drink to another, begging, borrowing, stealing and fighting.  

Published: 1945 Read 2013

Author’s origin: USA

Old Goriot by Honore Balzac

A biting novel in which Balzac portrays France as a corrupt, ruthless society that feeds on ambition, money and status. This is meant to be one of the best novels in La Comedie Humane series. It’s made me hungry for more Balzac.

Published: 1835 Read 2015

Author’s origin: France

Mrs Dalloway  by Virgina Woolf

A complex stream of consciousness novella that takes place in the course of one day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway. It’s so rich and multi-layered that I don’t think one reading alone can possibly do justice to Woolf’s narrative.

Published: 1925 Read 2016

Author’s origin: UK

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

Set on the cusp of the apartheid regime in South Africa, Paton’s novel expresses his love for his home country and his fear for its future. Paton uses multiple voices to dramatise the differing attitudes between the country’s white and black populations and the emergence of irreconcilable hatred.

Published 1948 Read 2015

Author’s origin: South Africa

What do you make of my choices – any surprises? What would be on your list of 10 favourite classics? If you’re curious about what else I read, you can see my full Classics Club list here.

Classics Club Project: It’s A Wrap!

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Flush with the success of completing my Booker Prize project, I’ve now reached the finishing line on a second long-term reading project: The Classics Club.

This was a project started in August 2012 to read 50 classics of literature over the course of five years. That “deadline” came and went. As did the sixth and the seventh anniversaries. But I was determined I would have this done before the eighth anniversary rolled around.

I made it with three months to spare.

Thankfully my final book was a pleasure to read: Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope which is book number four out of the six that form his Chronicles of Barsetshire series.

What else did I read as part of the project? You can see my full list of titles here as well as the books I couldn’t finish, I actually listed far more than 50 titles when the project got underway because I wanted plenty of choice. So there are another 30 books that I never got around to reading.

The books I chose were a combination of authors I’d never read previously (like

was an attempt to fill in the gaps in my reading of the great and the good from the literary world. The eagle eyed among my readers will notice that there are more than 50 titles listed here. The reason is simple: I wanted plenty of choice so I could pick a novel to suit different moods. 

Some of the authors I selected were people I have never read before such as Honore Balzac and John Steinbeck. Others were novels I had read previously but at age when I don’t think I fully understood them  (such as Mrs Dalloway). I mixed in a few favourites like George Eliot; some novels translated from their original language and some Welsh classics.

I used a very loose definition of “classic”. I didn’t take it to mean just old (though I did read a few Greek tragedies). Nor did I interpret classics as those books appearing in “xxx books you must read before you die” lists. I wanted books that had endured the passage of time; that could be considered “important” or “significant” in themselves or in terms of the author’s body of work.

So I ended up with books spread across the centuries starting from Euripedes and Medea, both believed to have been written around 431 BC. I managed one eighteenth century novel in the form of The Vicar of Wakefield and 18 novels from my favourite literary period. To my surprise the majority of books I read were from the twentieth century, starting with Miles Franklin, My Brilliant Career in 1901 and ending with The Human Factor by Graham Greene in 1978.

Was it worth doing? Yes absolutely, I read some fabulous books and found some authors that I want to discover further.

Will I do it again? I know there are some members of the Classics Club that are on their second cycle. I have 30 books already identified and it wouldn’t be too hard to find another 20.

But I’m not going to commit myself at this point. You all know I don’t like projects which involve reading from lists plus I have a few other projects i’d like to complete first. So I shall pause for this year at least.

Which were my favourite books? I’ll share my list of 10 favourites and (maybe) 10 disappointments with you soon but will just leave you with my top 3 selections for now.

The 3 Favourites

L’Assommoir by Emile Zola: My love affair with Zola continued with this novel from 1877. It’s set in Paris, tracing the miserable existence of a woman who tries to make something of her life but keeps getting pulled down by a lazy, drunkard husband. Simply superb.

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West: A wonderful tale of a recently woman who decides, in her late 80s, to exert independence for the first time in her life.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky: I read this on a flight from UK to USA and, for once, did not want the journey to come to an end. I was quite resentful when we landed and had to unbuckle before I had read the last few pages.

Would these be among your favourite “classic” reads? Are there any books you think I should add to my list if I decided to do a second round of the Classics Club? By the way if you’d like to join in with this project, just visit the blog site Classics Club via this link.

Homage To An Irish Childhood: Never No More by Maura Laverty

Never No More is a delightful tale that evokes the generosity of spirit at the heart of a small rural Irish community in the 1920s.

Maura Laverty spent her childhood in the vast peatlands known as the Bog of Allen in County Kildare. Through her fictional alter ego, Delia Scully, Laverty vividly recreates the natural beauty of this region, its colourful characters and the traditions that provide a rhythm to their lives.

Delia is nine years old when her recently widowed mother decides to move her large family to Kilkenny where she will open a new drapery business. Delia hates the idea but fortunately her beloved Grandmother, Mrs Lacy, comes to rescue – Delia can live with her in Derrymore House, Ballyderrig.

Gran sees potential in the girl where her mother sees nothing more than a dreamer. In the gentle nurturing bosom of the older woman. Delia flourishes, becoming a trusted helpmate in the kitchen, an aide in Gran’s many errands of mercy to her neighbours and skilful with her needle.

The one blot in this idyllic world is that Delia can’t make the progress she needs to fulfil her grandmother’s wish for her to become a teacher. The girl delights in reading poetry but cannot get on with French and maths. She also struggles with what she views as the petty rules and regulations in her convent school.

Never No More doesn’t have a plot as such, beyond tracing Delia through the years as she navigates the typical milestones in any young girl’s life. Her first days at school, the onset of puberty, the first dance, the first kiss are all made easier to manage when there is Gran to provide sound advice and the occasional shoulder upon which to cry.

The relationship between the young girl and the mature woman is the outstanding feature of this book. Mrs Lacy is loved and respected by everyone in her community, generous with her time, her knowledge and her food. A committed Catholic, she has no evident vices beyond the occasional tendency towards impatience.

She’s the person you want at your side if you’re a mother in labour or a young bride. When your home burns down and you’re left with not even a stick of furniture, it’s Mrs Lacy who offers you shelter and a home for however long you need it.

To the young Delia. she is much more than a substitute mother:

Did you ever know just how much you meant to me Gran? That to me you stood for understanding and sympathy and wisdom and for all the warm uncritical loving I needed? you were the purple bog and a ripe wheat-field and a crab-tree in May. You were good food, and songs in the firelight and the rosary at night. You were a welcome for my coming in and a prayer for my going out.

The love Delia feels towards this woman is equalled by the love she feels for the countryside around Ballyderrig:

The bog was never so beautiful as in May, when we cut the turf. A white road stretching straight and true as a taut ribbon ran gladly through that gentle spread of lovely colour. For a little distance, the full beauty of the bog was screened by the hedges that bordered the road – hedges of foaming May blossom and twisted mountain ash and swaying bog-willow. Later, the wild convolvulus would join each bush and tree with wildly-flung vines dripping with purple and white bells, and the honeysuckle and sweet briar would do their most fragrant best to kill your memories of the scent of departed hawthorn.

When the novel was published in 1942, people in that part of Ireland were apparently unhappy about the way they had been portrayed. I didn’t feel Maura Laverty was being unfair towards these individuals however. For sure there is a lot of humour involved in her anecdotes about the turf cutters, farmers and tinkers who make up the community. But she never makes them seem ridiculous. Nor does she sentimentalise this way of life; never shying away from the fact that people are poor and women die young in childbirth.

Never No More doesn’t just delight with description and anecdote, it also tantalises the taste buds.

The whole novel is punctuated by episodes in which Gran gets to work in the kitchen. Laverty can’t resist going into detailed description of each dish and exactly how its made. Some are more appealing than others!

“Buttery pancakes speckled with sultanas” I can relate to but I think I’ll pass on the stuffed eels and pigs brains “parboiled and coated in batter and fried”

Unsavoury dishes aside however, Never No More is an enjoyable read, a warm and heart-felt homage to a way of life I suspect exists only in fragments.

Never No More by Maura Laverty: Endnotes

Maura Laverty

Never No More: The Story Of A Lost Village is the debut novel by the Irish born Maura Laverty.

Published in 1942, it proved popular around the world. She followed it with another semi-autobiographical novel featuring Delia Sculle: No More than Human.

Though she wrote several novels, short story collections and two cookery books, she was better known for her work as scriptwriter for an Irish soap opera called Tolka Row that was broadcast on the RTE television station for four years in the 1960s.

Classics club Spin #22

Classics club spin

The Classics Club Spin is making another appearance and I’m using this to give me a nudge towards finishing this project.

I have only 3 books left to read towards the target of 50. Which sounds as if I’ve done a great job with this challenge but in reality I am way behind. The intention was to read 50 classics in 5 years, a timescale that went completely out of the window for me. No member of the Classics Club police force came knocking on my door however so I suppose my crime wasn’t that heinous.

Nevertheless I’d like to finish this soon. Then I can start again but with a new list…

If this is the first time you’ve heard of this, the idea is to create a list of any twenty books remaining from your Classics Club list, numbering them 1-20. On Sunday 22nd December  the Classics Club will announce a number. This is the book I will need to read by 31st January.

When I put my original list together I included more than 50 titles to give me flexibility in case I didn’t like some of my chosen titles. Even so I don’t have 20 titles left unread so I’m having to be  creative. Numbers 16-20 are new additions.

  1. The Black Sheep  — Honore Balzac 1842
  2. Basil Wilkie Collins 1852
  3. Framley Parsonage  Anthony Trollope 1861
  4. New Grub Street George Gissing 1891
  5. O pioneers —  Willa Cather  1913
  6. Gone to Earth  — Mary Webb 1917
  7. Age of Innocence  — Edith Wharton 1920
  8. The Last September —  Elizabeth Bowen 1929
  9. Frost in May Antonia White 1933
  10. Old Soldiers Never Die Frank Richards 1933
  11. Turf or Stone  — Margiad Evans 1934
  12. The Grapes of Wrath   John Steinbeck 1939
  13. Never No More Maura Laverty 1942
  14. The Quiet American  — Graham Greene 1955
  15. Alone in Berlin Hans Fallada 1947
  16. To the Lighthouse Virginia Woolf 1927
  17. No Name Wilkie Collins 1862
  18. The Lifted Veil — George Eliot 1859
  19. The Fall – Albert Camus 1953
  20. Anna of The Five Towns – Arnold Bennett 1902

I’m rather hoping for The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope or Turf or Stone by the Welsh author Margiad Evans , a dark novel about an abusive marriage. I’ve never read anything by her previously but she features in the Library of Wales collection of Welsh ‘classics.’

Keep your fingers crossed for me ..

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