The Classic Club is entering a new era with a changing of the guard (in other words we have a new set of moderators). They’re fired up with bags of enthusiasm and some of that has clearly rubbed off on me because it’s prompted me to revisit my Classics Club list.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Classics Club the idea is that we list 50 classics that we’d like to read over the course of 5 years. The definition of ‘classic’ is very fluid so there’s no compunction to be reading Tristram Shandy if it doesn’t appeal.
I put my list together in August 2012 and made good progress for the first few years. But I’ve neglected it for the last twelve months. I read only two from the list last year and so far it’s just been one – The Ladies Paradise by Emile Zola So naturally I didn’t make the “deadline’ of completing 50 by the end August 2017. I still have 14 titles to go. But really it doesn’t matter. It’s a self imposed deadline and I can’t imagine any of the club moderators are going to throw me out as punishment.
To coincide with the ‘relaunch’ of the club, we get to play in the Classics lub spin where the idea is to choose 20 titles from our Classics Club, number then in sequence starting with 1. On August 1, 2018 the wheel will turn and reveal the winning number. The challenge is to read whatever book falls under that number on my Spin List, by 31 August 2018.
The moderators would like us to put the list together in four categories:
- 5 books you are dreading/hesitant to read
- 5 books you can’t WAIT to read
- 5 books you are neutral about
- 5 books which are free choice
I don’t really understand the point of creating a reading list that includes books I am dreading to read. So I don’t have any in that category. Nor do I have any that I can’t wait to read – if I truly couldn’t wait then I would have read them long ago. So I’m going to have to go with just a free choice list. Since I don’t have 20 titles remaining, I’ve had to add in a few to the original list just in case a number between 15-20 comes up on Wednesday.
My list is as follows: it’s a mixture of eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I’ve included two Welsh authors and an Australian to bring a little diversity
- The Vicar of Wakefield — Oliver Goldsmith 1766
- The Black Sheep — Honore Balzac 1842
- Basil— Wilkie Collins 1852
- Framley Parsonage — Anthony Trollope 1861
- New Grub Street— George Gissing 1891
- Lord Jim — Joseph Conrad 1899
- Age of Innocence — Edith Wharton 1920
- All Passion Spent — Vita Sackville West 1932
- The Pursuit Of Love — Nancy Mitford 1945
- The Quiet American — Graham Greene 1955
- My Brilliant Career — Miles Franklin 1901
- O pioneers — Willa Cather 1913
- The Last September — Elizabeth Bowen 1929
- Old Soldiers Never Die— Frank Richards 1933
- Troy Chimneys — Margaret Kennedy 1952
- Gone to Earth — Mary Webb 1917
- Never No More— Maura Laverty 1942
- Return of the Solider — Rebecca West 1917
- A Kiss Before Dying — Ira Levin 1953
- Turf or Stone — Margiad Evans 1934
If I had to choose a few that I would most like to read it would be Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton whom I read many years ago but don’t feel I appreciated her enough at the time. I would be quite happy with some of the Virago classics too such as the Mary Webb or the Maura Laverty.
All will be revealed on August 1.
This week’s Top Ten Tuesday invites us to list the books on our reading horizons for autumn. I had intended to say that I don’t have an Autumn reading plan because a) I’m no good at sticking to these kinds of plans b) I haven’t long finished working through the 20booksofsummer list so am suffering a little list fatigue and c) I’m a hopeless prevaricator so can never make up my mind in advance what I want to read.
But then of course I remembered that I have a little unfinished business with my Booker project. So by default I seem to have a plan of sorts because I want to finish this project by the end of the year. That means I know there are seven Booker Prize winners I will be reading in coming months.
2015 – A Brief History of Seven Killings (Marlon James)
2004 – The Line of Beauty (Alan Hollinghurst)
2003 – Vernon God Little (DBC Pierre)
1994 – How Late It Was, How Late (James Kelman)
1993 – Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (Roddy Doyle)
1974 – The Conservationist (Nadine Gordimer)
1972 – G. (J Berger)
Based on the insight from several bloggers I’m saving The Line of Beauty and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha until the end. The order in which I read the other five will be down to the mood I’m in at the time I’m ready to start a new book.
What else is in the offing?
From the library today I picked up a copy of Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor which was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize and – according to many comments I’ve seen – deserved to be on the shortlist but was overlooked by the judges. In it, he depicts the aftermath of the disappearance of a 13 year old girl during a New Year’s holiday in a village in the Peak District. Over the course of 13 years, McGregor shows how life goes on in this community after the initial shock of her disappearance. To get the best idea of this book take a look at Susan’s review at A Life in Books.
I’ve already started reading this it being a perfect day to sit in the sunshine with a coffee and read. And so far it’s turned out to be a remarkable book…
I have a few novels I’ve agreed to review including a crime story in the style of the Golden Age of Crime, a historical fiction book set in Versailles and a new work by Richard Flanagan called First Person which is apparently a story about a ghostwriter haunted by his demonic subject.
And then there are a few Elizabeth Taylor and Penelope Lively novels that are calling to me, and it’s time I revisited some of my classics club list. which has a few Anthony Trollope and Emile Zola titles I fancy. But wait a moment, what about all the Louise Penny titles I bought on my last trip to the USA? And the authors from Wales that I’m trying to highlight….
Even with my less than stellar arithmetical skills I realise I’m way over 10 books. Better get reading hadn’t I????
I decided at the start of this year that I wouldn’t make any reading plans. I’m just hopeless at sticking to them so what’s the point? And so far I’ve been able to keep pretty much on track, just reading whatever has taken my fancy from my current bookshelves (only a few non-bookshelf exceptions like Station Eleven).
But a few cracks have developed in that game plan lately.
First, along came Cathy’s 20booksofsummer challenge which I joined last year and thought would be good to repeat. I seem to prefer short term ‘challenges’ where you can participate at different levels. This one is just three month’s duration and though it involves making a reading list, there’s no compulsion to stick to the list. I’m now on book five from my list and not yet feeling constrained.
Then Adam at Roof Beam Reader pops up with his Austen in August event where the idea is to read Jane Austen’s works (finished or unfinished), or biographies, critique’s etc. Since this is Austen’s bicentenary year, what could be more appropriate? Besides which I have a few non-fiction books that I’ve been meaning to read for several years including What Matters in Jane Austen?: Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved by John Mullen and The Real Jane Austen by Paula Bryne. And so I’m signed up for this.
The next person to test my resolve was Meredith who blogs as Dolce Bellezza. with her Japanese literature challenge which runs from June to January 2018. Easy this one I thought – there’s no need to make any kind of a list and most of the activity will run after 20booksofsummer is over. And so I’m signed up for this.
Still manageable I was thinking until I saw a blogger mentioned a few that I’d forgotten about like July such as Spanish Lit Month in July, German Lit Month in November and Women in Translation Month in August. And then there is the All August/All Virago project happening in just a few months.
You can see a pattern emerging now I think?
For someone who had no plans, I seem to have acquired one which will take me into 2018. Hmm. However that’s happened, the reading journey ahead is going to get congested because I still have 10 titles remaining to complete my Booker Prize project . I’m determined to do that by end of this year.
To navigate around the bottleneck I’m going to reign back even further on my Classics Club reading . I’m way behind with that anyway – 16 books to read before the end of August if I’m to meet the ‘deadline’ of 50 books in five years which is never going to happen. I’ll also be a little more judicious about any further reading projects/challenges I join for the rest of 2017. I’ll do the ones I’ve already signed up for (20booksofsummer, Austen in August, Japan literature) but I’m going to forgo Spanish Literature Month and decide between Women in Translation and All August/All Virago.
Wish me luck as I steer through the congestion.
Twenty Books of Summer hosted by Cathy at 746books is about to begin so I can’t procrastinate much longer about the books I’m putting on my list to read. This is about the third version I’ve created. I’ve gone for a mix of classics from my Classics Club project, some Booker prize winners (only nine more to read in this project), some translated fiction and a few by authors from Wales. All of these are on my ‘owned but not read’ shelves.
I know I’ll never manage to read 20 books between June 1 and September 3 (that’s 7 books a month) so I’m going for the 15 books of summer option. But since past experience tells me the minute a book goes on a list its appeal for me diminishes, I’ve listed 20 books anyway in the hope that this, plus the mixture of genres/styles I’ve chosen will give me plenty of choices to suit all moods.
Here’s my 20 Books for summer 2017 list – click on the titles to read the description on Goodreads:
Update as of August 17, 2017: 11 read. One abandoned.
1. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf Read August 2017
One that featured on my post about books that have been on my ‘to read’ list for many years. Following several comments from bloggers about how good this is, I’m persuaded it’s time to just get on and read this.
2. We Have Always Lived In the Castle by Shirley Jackson Read July 2017
I’d not heard of Shirley Jackson until I started listening to some book podcasts and kept hearing about this but since it’s considered Jackson’s masterpiece it feels like the right place to begin exploring her work.
3. Good Behaviour by Molly Keane Read August 2017
I bought this in a library sale (unfortunately my edition has a less attractive cover than this one but I couldn’t find that image). It’s the first novel Keane published after a writing break triggered by the death of her husband and was the first time she used her real name (rather than her pseudonym of M. J Farrell. I’ve read only one book by her – Devoted Ladies which I enjoyed but didn’t love. I’m hoping Good Behaviour comes up trumps because so many other readers seem to love her work.
4. Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier (Read June 2017)
Inspired by the real life Jamaica Inn on Bodmin Moor at which du Maurier stayed in 1930, this is a tale about a group of murderous wreckers who run ships aground, kill the sailors and steal the cargo. I was disappointed by the last du Maurier I read (My Cousin Rachel) so am hoping this proves more enjoyable.
5. The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson (part read)
This won the Booker Prize in 2010, becoming the first comic novel to win the prize since Kingsley Amis’s The Old Devils in 1986. Opinions are greatly divided on this book amongst the blogging community.
6. The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer
Another Booker winner that remains on my list to read. I started reading it last year but found it rather dull at the time. I see that the Guardian reviewer described it as “a portrait of a dangerous man lent dangerous power by apartheid is great writing, but not brilliant reading.” Based on what I’ve read so far I’m not convinced that it really does constitute ‘great writing’ but I know I’ll at least be able to finish it (unlike the appalling The Famished Road by Ben Okri which remains the only Booker prize that I absolutely could not finish.)
7. Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth Read August 2017
Joint winner of the Booker prize along with Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient in 1992, this is likely to be a grim read because of its subject. It is set on an eighteenth century slave ship called The Liverpool Merchant which is bound for Africa to pick up its human cargo. Much of the book apparently deals with the issue of greed.
8. True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey
Peter Carey is one of the few people to win the Booker prize more than once. His other award winner — Oscar and Lucinda — is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read so far this year. The True History of the Kelly Gang, a fictionalised biography of the Australian outlaw Ned Kelly, won the prize in 2001, and also the Commonwealth Writers Prize in the same year. Since it’s written in a distinctive vernacular style, with little punctuation or grammar, it could be tough going.
9. The Vegetarian by Han Kang (read June 2017)
Han Kang’s novel features a rather ordinary South Korean housewife who decides to throw away all the meat from the freezer and announces that henceforth she is going to be a vegetarian. Her action is completely counter to South Korean culture so the book examines the reaction of her family, husband and friends. This will be only the second Korean author I’ve read and if it’s as good as my first experience – with Please Look after Mom by Shin Kyung-sook – I know I’m in for a treat.
10. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (Read June 2017)
Ruth Ozeki’s novel got my attention when it was shortlisted for the 2010 Booker prize but I never got around to reading this story which has two narrators. One is a sixteen-year-old Japanese American girl in Tokyo who keeps a diary, the other is a Japanese American writer living on an island off British Columbia who finds the diary washed up on shore some time after the 2011 tsunami that devastated Japan.
11. Twilight in Djakarta by Mochtar Lubis
I put this on my list of books to read this Spring but it fell by the wayside so I’ve resurrected it for summer. The novel was published about 50 years ago, having been smuggled out of Indonesia where the author was held under house arrest. It depicts social and political events in the capital during the run up to a national election.
12. The Kill/La Curée by Emile Zola
My plan to read all the books in the Rougon-Marquet cycle stalled last year but I’m looking to The Kill to give it a kickstart. The Kill is book number 2 in the series is set against the background of the massive redevelopment of Paris and the birth of the modern city.
13. Good Women of China: Hidden Voices by Xinran read July 2017
Xinran is a former radio journalist from China who, over a period of 10 years in the 1990s, collected stories of women who endured child child abuse, rape, gang rape, abduction and the forced parting of parents and children. The 15 stories in this collection lift the lid on Chinese society at a time when prohibitions against discussion of feelings and sexuality were relaxing.
14. Three Days and a Life by Pierre Lemaitre
I wanted something in my list that fell into the genre of thriller, for those days when I just crave a fast paced narrative. Three Days and a Life which will be published in July, fitted that description perfectly. It begins in a small provincial town of Beauval, France with the accidental killing of a young boy. More than a decade later the killer returns to the town and discovers there was a witness to his crime, a person who has the power to destroy his life. [note I corrected this synopsis based on the comment by Words and Peace that I had the gender of the victim incorrect).
15. Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto (Read July 2017)
I’ve enjoyed my explorations of Japanese fiction so far but have never read Banana Yoshimoto. I know little about this book other than it’s about relationships between two cousins in a small Japanese seaside town.
16. An Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah
This is on my list to assuage my feelings of guilt that it was on last year’s 20 books of summer list but I only got half way through the collection of short stories.
17. What I Know I Cannot Say/ All That Lies Beneath by Dai Smith
One of the books by Welsh authors that I bought at the end of 2016, this is actually a combination of a novella and a linked section of short stories that reveal life in the South Wales Valleys during the twentieth century.
18. Ghostbird by Carol Lovekin
From another author living in Wales, Carol Lovekin’s novel was the Waterstones Wales and Welsh Independent Bookshops Book of the Month in April 2016.
19. Anglesey Blue by Dylan Jones (read June 2017)
The first in a crime fiction series featuring a Welsh Detective Inspector based on the island of Anglesy in north wales. The colour in the title has nothing to do with the colour of the sea around the island but a powerful new drug which is being ruthlessly introduced to the island community. There is trouble in this paradise with drugs, disaffected youth and brutal murders.
20. The Hogs Back Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts Read August 2017
There are times when my brain cries out for a good yarn about crime. The Hog’s Back Mystery is on my list in case that need arises over the summer. A crime story from the past this has been given new life via the British Library Classic Crine series. It’s the fourteenth title written by Freeman Wills Crofts and begins with the disappearance of a semi-retired doctor from the North Downs in Surrey. He apparently simply walked out of the house in his slippers.
So that’s my 20 books of summer list. Whether I’ve made the ‘right’ choices is debatable – I have a feeling that I’ll come across a book on my shelves over the course of the next few months and wish I’d put it on my list.
If you want to join the fun, Cathy will put up a post on June 1 to mark the official start of the challenge and will tweet regularly using the hashtag #20booksofsummer.
Time to get that cuppa brewing and those Hot Cross buns buttered. After a lifetime of tasting various versions of these buns I feel qualified to vote the ones my dad makes as by far the best. Even though he gave up his baking business more than 20 years ago he keeps his hand in every Easter with a bunch of these buns for selected customers only (ie family and friends). Forget about those variations they now offer in supermarket – chocolate flavoured for goodness sake – they are no substitute for the real thing. Sorry you can’t taste them for yourselves but I’m planning to scoff the lot…..
Suitably sustained I’m in good shape to do a catch up on what’s been happening in the Booker Talk world of late.
Wales on the Map
I admire bloggers like Lisa at ANZLitLovers and Sue at Whispering Gums who are advocates for the literature from their country. Reading their blogs made me realise last year how poor a job I did as an ambassador for my own native land of Wales. I’ve been slowly rectifying that on the blog (you can see some of the results on the Authors from Wales page). The Book on the Map series run by Cleopatra at CleopatraLovesBooks has given me an opportunity put Wales into the spotlight via an interview with the author Thorne Moore who lives in Pembrokeshire and whose book A Time of Silence I discovered late last year. If you have a moment in between all that bun-eating, do take a look at the interview on Cleo’s site and the superb photos.
2017 Goals Update
Let’s start with the good news here. My first goal was to cut back on buying/acquiring anything new so I could enjoy the ones I already own. At the start of the year I had 314 unread books in my personal library. Just over three months into the year and the tally has broken the 300 mark – just (at 298). It would have been even lower but the fact I gained a few donations from my sister (two of which have duly been returned unread) and I won two giveaways. It hasn’t been as onerous as I expected though I won’t guarantee not to slip a little in the next few weeks. The one thing I know I’ll have to watch is that I don’t over-compensate for the enforced deprivation by buying a stack of new stuff in the second half of the year.
How about the second goal which is to get a bit more creative with images I use on this blog? This got off to a slow start. I worked my way through a manual on how to use the Photoshop software program but it was hard going. I had bought a scaled down version because I know the full one is way too sophisticated for my needs but even then the vast array of tools was just confusing. I produced a few montages – like this one of the Swallows of Kabul but they weren’t any great shakes and each one seemed to take forever to produce. Then last week I did what I should have done months ago – turned to my resident Photoshop expert (otherwise known as Booker Talk husband) who uses the full blown version for his graphic design work. I’d stupidly assumed the two versions wouldn’t be similar to any great degree. But after just one hour he figured out what I needed to do and away I went.
My first attempt – His Bloody Project – turned out pretty well I thought though I had to go knocking on his door for help more than once.
The second one – The Daughter of Time – was all my own work. Now I’m not claiming these are brilliant but they are a lot more visually appealing than the standard book cover image I’ve used for the last few years. Maybe not quite a giant leap for mankind but this certainly counts as progress.
This week I finished reading The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy which represent a significant milestone in my Booker Prize project. It means I now have just 10 titles remaining to read. What’s been the best titles I’ve read so far? You might have seen a recent joint post I did with fellow blogger Joslyn of Chronic Bibliophilia on this point. We challenged ourselves to identify our top three Booker winning titles. Here are my top three. I’ve also ranked all the others in order and in due course will reveal my least favourite titles. Of course these choices might change by the time I get to the end of the project – certainly my enjoyment of The God of Small Things has pushed that up to the top of the list.
Progress on the Classics Club has been just as slow this year as it was in 2016. I’ve read only one title on my Classics Club list so far this year but it was a good one – Dr Thorne by Anthony Trollope. But hey these are classics and most of them have been around for a hundred years or so; I reckon they can wait a few more years until I get to them.
And that’s it for today everyone. Back to working my way through the rather large collection of chocolate my mum seemed to think it was essential I had this Easter Sunday. Hope you all enjoy your day….
Around this time last year I went on record with this statement about my goals for 2016.
2016 is going to be all about completion. ….
I deliberately avoided making definitive reading plans knowing how useless I proved to be in past years in sticking to them. Instead I opted for something more general thinking it would give me more flexibility and increase the chances of success.
Guess how I did on this goal?
You got it in one. It was a complete fail. Not a near miss or even a creditable effort. Not only didn’t I finish one of those three projects I barely made any inroads into the Classics Club list, reading just one ‘classic’ in the entire year (Mrs Dalloway) which leaves me with 22 still to read to achieve the goal of 50 classics by August 2017. It’s unlikely to happen….
I fared slightly better with my intention of reading more books by authors outside the western canon – 4 new countries were ‘visited’ in 2016 which takes my total to 35. Not a stellar performance but at least its going in the right direction.
Star billing goes to the Booker Prize project however where I managed to read a further 7 of the winning titles. Just 15 more to go now …
So why didn’t I achieve any part of this plan?
a) I was too ambitious or
b) I spread my efforts too broadly and would have done better being more focused or
c) I picked the wrong goals or
d) I am really bad at sticking to plans and get easily distracted.
Judging by some articles I’ve read recently about how to be effective at setting and achieving goals the issue was really a combination of b) and d). I got distracted by the long and short lists for the 2016 Booker prize so instead of reading previous winners I became too engrossed in who might win next. I also got carried away with Net Galley. Some lessons here that are influencing my 2017 goals. What are they you wonder? I shall leave you in suspense for a few more days….
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
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.