Archive for the ‘Victorian Literature 2011’ Category

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Retrospective posts seem to be going up on blogs everywhere as 2011 draws to a close.  I have been loving the many 2011 favourites lists, which making for some excellent and very tempting reading.  My list is a few days off, both because I’m finishing off a book that might very well make it on and because I find it excruciatingly difficult to pass judgement on the many wonderful books I’ve read.  I’ll draft a list one day and then come back the next and wonder what I was thinking; how could I have though ——– was worthy of the list?  How could I have excluded ———?  List making is serious business, a delicate art rather than science, and I have some difficult choices ahead of me.

Less challenging, thankfully, is recapping the challenges I participated in this year (excluding the Canadian Book Challenge 4, which wrapped up at the end of June): the Victorian Literature Challenge and the Eastern European Reading Challenge.

My goal for the Victorian Literature Challenge was to read between 5 and 9 books.  I had an enormous amount of fun coming up with a book list for this challenge and then promptly ignored all Victorian lit for several months.  As usual when I spend hours making a reading list for a challenge, I ended up reading almost nothing from it.  It took me until April to get started on the challenge, with a wonderful reread of Wives and Daughters, one of my all-time favourite books.  I then read Agnes Grey and, in Anne, finally found a Brontë sister whose work I can enjoy.  I tried Mrs Oliphant for the first time, reading her novellas The Rector and The Doctor’s Family, and was not particularly won over (though listening to the BBC radio dramatization of Miss Marjoribanks this autumn has made me wonder if I shouldn’t give Oliphant another chance).  And, most wonderfully of all, I finally discovered Trollope.  I enjoyed The Warden but fell completely in love with The American Senator.  Reading Trollope has truly been one of the delights of 2011 and, having now amassed a considerable collection of his novels, I plan to continue my enjoyment in 2012 (and, most likely, every year after, reading and then rereading).

Here is the list of what I read for this challenge, with snippets from each review:

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell (highly recommended)
“Gaskell’s straightforwardness has always appealed to me. Artifice and obfuscation are the talents of her minor characters, never her heroes or heroines, admirable for their plain speaking and clarity of purpose. Never is this contrast clearer than between Molly and her stepsister Cynthia. Cynthia bursts into the novel and into Molly’s life in a whirl of colour and energy. She is beautiful and captivating, spirited and somewhat mysterious. She can be all things to all people, knowing how to act best to please each member of her audience. And though the contrast between her and the honest, direct Molly is great, they quickly become close confidents, true sisters…”

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë
“This is not an affectionate portrayal of the life of a governess. It stresses the isolation Agnes feels in the households where she is employed, how powerless she is in dealing with both the children and the adults but, generally, it is by no means a dreary book. If anything, it attempts to cover too many things in too few pages, turning this into a book crammed with wit, romance, a shocking amount of moralizing (usually expressed with some painfully affected writing), and some rather heavy themes (isolation and oppression being the two main ones). It is an interesting but confusing mix.”

The American Senator by Anthony Trollope (highly recommended)
“After reading The American Senator by Anthony Trollope, I am now certain that Trollope will become one of my favourite authors. I had suspected as much before but, now that I have finally read him, I know. So chatty, so funny, so detailed, so entertaining – this book was everything that a book should be!”

The Rector and The Doctor’s Family by Margaret Oliphant
“I found Oliphant’s writing style unmemorable and uneven, with some quite clever passages followed by pages and pages of dull plodding stuff, and her tendency to moralize reminiscent of all those lesser Victorian novelists who rely on sentiment rather than skill.”

The Warden by Anthony Trollope
“What I particularly loved about The Warden were Trollope’s descriptive passages. Most of these were mere tangents to the main plot, with Trollope poking fun at newspaper men, politicians, clergymen, lovers, spouses…really anyone and everyone who could possibly be woven into the story however remotely, but they had me giggling away throughout the book. It is these passages that allow the observant, witty narrator to establish himself as the most entertaining character of all.”

And then there was the Eastern European Reading Challenge.  My aim was to read 12 books either by authors from or set in Eastern Europe.  Considering the generous definition of ‘Eastern’ (here, “Eastern Bloc” countries are all considered Eastern, regardless of their actual geographic orientation), I thought this would be a breeze.  It really just seemed like a challenge tailor made to encourage me to read more Czech literature, history, and biographies, maybe with a dash over to Russia or Hungary for a bit of variety.  Again, there was a delightful book list made to start things off and, again, I ended up reading very little from it (3 titles, somewhat better than the 1 I managed from the Victorian lit list).  I started off well but then read nothing for the challenge between June and November.  Whoops.  Readers may have noticed a flood of reviews over the last few weeks of Eastern European titles in my desperate attempt to catch up and meet my targeted 12.  But with only a few days left in 2011 and mountains of other, non-Eastern European books that I’m eager to read, I am officially admitting defeat and calling it quits at 11 books.  Though it was hectic towards the end, I had an amazing time with this challenge.  I ventured well outside of my comfort zone and found some absolute delights on my journey (The Snows of Yesteryear, The Gardener’s Year, Skylark, and Prague Tales stand out – several of which are currently in competition for spots on my Best of 2011 list).  This challenge did absolutely what a challenge is meant to do: it expanded my horizons as a reader, enriching my life by introducing me to the unfamiliar.

Here are the 11 (sadly, not 12) books I read:

A Mountain of Crumbs by Elena Gorokhova
“…a good but certainly not great memoir of Gorkhova’s life growing up in St. Petersburg during the 1960s and 1970s. Gorokhova is charming and at times quite engaging; overall, it was a pleasant but not particularly special or memorable reading experience.”

The Snows of Yesteryear by Gregor von Rezzori (highly recommended)
“Strictly speaking, yes, this is a memoir but really it is von Rezzori telling the life stories of those who surrounded him in his childhood and adolescence. He is their biographer but also our subject. Through portraits of five others – his nurse, his mother, his father, his sister, and his governess – von Rezzori tells the story of his family and his early life, a strangely rootless existence begun in Czernowitz (in Austria-Hungary) in 1914. His homeland eventually became part of Romania and von Rezzori seems to have accepted and love his new country though he was ethnically anything but Romanian.”

The Russian Album by Michael Ignatieff
“… a thoughtful, intimate book, absolutely worthy of all the praise that has been heaped upon it since it was first published in 1987.”

Far to Go by Alison Pick
“This really should be a book that I have strong feelings about – it was, after all, a book I was quite excited to read, so much so that I requested a copy from the publisher; when have I ever been able to refuse a book about Czechoslovakia, never mind one set in the exciting years of 1938 and 1939 and written by a Canadian? And yet even as I was reading it, I felt strangely disconnected from it. It was neither glaringly bad nor especially good.”

The Gardener’s Year by Karel Čapek (highly recommended)
“Even new as I am to the obsession, my own recent gardening plights, the missteps and mistakes that were weighing heavily on my soul, were perfectly echoed by Čapek, as though he had been in the garden witnessing my incompetence only a few days previously…”

The Legends of Prague by František Langer
“While these stories are definitely friendlier and less bloodthirsty than the ones I adored as a child, they are still captivating and delightful. And they do what any book about Prague should do: bring the magic of that city to life, allowing the reader, regardless of age, to take as a matter of fact that normal Praguers share drinks with known water sprites and headless horsemen, that statues act as godparents, and that saints still shape the city as they wish to see it, regardless of the bureaucrats’ intentions. Because if it could happen anywhere, it would be there…”

Skylark by Dezső Kosztolányi (highly recommended)
“When the Vakjay’s beloved, spinster daughter Skylark leaves for a week to visit relatives, Mother and Father don’t know quite what to do with themselves. Their lives revolve around their much loved, ugly, dull daughter and in her absence they find themselves doing the most unexpected things. They dine out, reconnect with old friends and make new ones, go to the theatre, and Father even attends one of the Panther drinking club’s infamous Thursday nights (which all of Friday is needed to recover from). It is an inversion of the classic plot of children running wild once adult authority and supervision is removed, but here it is Skylark, the child, whose mild, loving attentions and constant presence at home restricts her parents.”

Sunflower by Gyula Krúdy
“…a strange, strange novel and not in a particularly endearing way. If I hadn’t been reading it for the Eastern European Reading Challenge, I’m not sure I would have stuck with it until the end. It confirmed all of my family’s most dearly held prejudices against Hungarians. Here, they are the dramatic, suicidal, alcoholic, crazy, passionate and rather obsessive eccentrics I have been forever warned about and yet are sadly uninteresting.”

How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed by Slavenka Drakulić (highly recommended)
“Although this was written twenty years ago, I was astonished by how informative I found it, how many of the essays brought new details to my attention that have never been mentioned in the histories or even memoirs that I’ve read covering the same area during the same time period. I may be astonished by that, but Drakulić would not be. She knows that the lives and stories she is concerned with, those of normal, unexceptional women, are the ones most easily ignored and most quickly forgotten. And yet by lacking any kind of political power, they were the ones whose lives most clearly mirrored the politics of the day…”

Café Europa by Slavenka Drakulić
“Here, the essays are more cynical, more disappointed, written in the mid-90s when Drakulić was clearly frustrated by the lack of change in post-communist Europe. The governments may have changed but people’s attitudes have not. Whether it is people lying to and cheating the customs officials or the widespread apathy when a democratic government behaves with the arrogance and secrecy of a communist one, citizens mourning a dictator or Bulgarians grudgingly providing customer ‘service’ with a grimace rather than a smile, Drakulić’s observations are always intelligent and absorbingly personal.”

Prague Tales by Jan Neruda (highly recommended)
“All set in the Malá Strana district of Prague…the stories were originally written in the 1860s and 1870s before being collected and published together in Czech in 1878. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect before I started reading. Neruda is primarily remembered as a poet and these are certainly not what I would expect from a poet. Tender and sharp, witty and sympathetic, each story reveals Neruda’s skill as a realist.”

I truly loved my reading challenges for 2011, despite a few issues along the way, and am now in the midst of trying to decide what to join for 2012.  The Eastern European Reading Challenge is being continued so that is a definite option but I do also like the idea of trying something new.  If you’re participating in or are hosting any challenges next year that you think I might be interested in, please let me know!

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I feel like I should have more to say about The Warden by Anthony Trollope.  When I read The American Senator earlier this year, I was stupidly ecstatic the entire time, delighted by every character, amused by every turn of phrase.  I had been warned that The Warden, the first of Trollope’s six Barsetshire novels, was the least impressive of the lot.  Well, I didn’t adore it but I did enjoy it.  If this entertaining, amusing, affectionate novel is the least impressive of the series, I am very excited to read on.

The book is concerned with the trials of one Septimus Harding, a respected, well-liked clergyman in the cathedral town of Barchester, who is also the warden of Hiram’s Hospital, an alms-house for a dozen aged and infirm local men.  Mr Bold, an earnest young reformer, is convinced that the hospital funds are being unfairly allocated and that the warden’s income of £800 is overcompensation for the minimal duties he is expected to perform.   Poor Mr Harding, who had never questioned his income before, had in fact used his personal funds to increase the allowance given to the hospital’s residents, is placed at the center of the controversy and the book focuses on his struggle to decide his opinion on the matter.  His claim to the money is supported by the clerical community, most especially by the forceful archdeacon Dr Grantly, the son of the Bishop and the husband of Mr Harding’s eldest daughter, while John Bold, having brought the issue to public attention, is clearly of the opposing faction, though he counts Mr. Harding as one of his dearest friends and is in love with Harding’s youngest daughter Eleanor.  A fine mess, indeed, though from the start there are clearly so many satisfactory outcomes available that there is no real sense of tension.

What I particularly loved about The Warden were Trollope’s descriptive passages.  Most of these were mere tangents to the main plot, with Trollope poking fun at newspaper men, politicians, clergymen, lovers, spouses…really anyone and everyone who could possibly be woven into the story however remotely, but they had me giggling away throughout the book.  It is these passages that allow the observant, witty narrator to establish himself as the most entertaining character of all.  Trollope is particularly excellent when introducing new characters: the introduction of the Grantly sons, and the narrator’s blunt remarks on their virtues and failings, seemed to be unnecessarily lengthy and yet, for me, it was one of the most entertaining parts of the book.  Much time is devoted to studying each character, however insignificant, and none is without his or her virtues but they all have some human foibles, as befits the cast of a comedy.

But of all the excellent characters here, one stands out as being particularly well-suited to comedy.  The archdeacon Dr. Theophilus Grantly is wonderful.  So rigid, so decisive, his happily bullies Mr. Harding along, confident that the law, morality, and God are on their side and he joyously sets forth, eager to smite those who would question the church’s internal accounting:

He was about to defend the holy of holies from the touch of the profane; to guard the citadel of his church from the most rampant of its enemies; to put on his good armour in the best of fights; and secure, if possible, the comforts of his creed for coming generations of ecclesiastical dignitaries.  Such a work required no ordinary vigour; and the archdeacon was, therefore, extraordinarily vigorous.  It demanded a buoyant courage, and a heart happy in its toil; and the archdeacon’s heart was happy, and his courage was buoyant.

Honestly, the plot of The Warden is not terribly well formed.  Even as the scandal is escalating, it was difficult to feel much concern when the narrator clearly didn’t, happily contenting himself with making amusing remarks about all the actors involved and the complications of their home lives.  But it is these amusing asides and these excellent, flawed, essentially good characters that make the novel so entertaining and which make me so excited to read on.  I already have my copy of Barchester Towers pulled out, ready to commence reading as soon as I begin my Christmas holidays at the end of this week.

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When I started to read The Rector and The Doctor’s Family by Margaret Oliphant, the first two novels in Oliphant’s “Chronicles of Carlingford”, I didn’t know what to expect.  I’d never read anything by Oliphant before and had really heard very little about her.  I’d heard her work compared to that of Gaskell and Trollope and, with such praise, thought I’d best try her for myself.  After all, I love domestic novels about village life.  Surely she would be a perfect fit with my usual reading?  In theory: yes.  In practice: not quite.

The Rector is a rather somber, instructive little story (at less than 40 pages in the VMC edition, I can hardly call it a novel) whose style and occasional bursts of energy and humour made me very hopeful indeed that I could come to like Mrs. Oliphant.  Mr Proctor, the new rector, is a gentleman of fifty who has been cloistered in a university college for the past thirteen years and is singularly unsuited for the realities of his new position.  He is completely ill-at-ease with anyone other than his delightful old mother, a woman who has embarked on her second youth with great determination:

His mother was, let us say, a hundred years or so younger than the Rector…Mr Proctor was middle-aged, and preoccupied by right of his years; but his mother had long ago got over that stage of life.  She was at that point when some energetic natures, having got to the bottom of the hill, seem to make a fresh start and reascend.

To his credit, Mr Proctor took up the position of rector in order to provide his mother with company and a comfortable home in her final years.  Mrs Proctor is as socialable as her son is introverted, as forthright as he is timid.  What an excellent heroine she would have made!  The kind but inept Mr Proctor feels his shortcomings deeply and, miserable after his first true failure in his position (when he proves unable to counsel and comfort a dying woman and must step aside in favour of those who, apparently effortlessly, are able to succeed where he did not), he returns to his old college and the security it offers.  But, the narrator reveals, even there he is not happy, knowing that he is taking the coward’s way out of a difficult situation rather than facing his limitations and forcing himself to conquer them.  The ending is pathetically saccharine (I would have been so pleased if he had just disappeared into depressed obscurity) and far too neat and hopeful.  There is a strong and off-putting moralizing tone that emerges and I find it difficult to palate.

And then there is The Doctor’s Family, which is also rather gloomy but significantly longer and, with its put-upon, self-sacrificing heroine, rather explains why Oliphant must have appealed to Virago.  It begins in a promising, if stilted way, but greatly disappointed me in the end.  Doctor Edward Rider is sullenly putting up with his wastrel elder brother Fred imposing on his home and hospitality when Fred’s unheard of wife, three children, and sister-in-law suddenly appear, come out from Australia to track him down.  Mrs Fred is just as useless and resentful as her alcoholic husband and it is her younger, energetic sister Nettie who finds them lodgings nearby, who sees to it that there is food on the table, that the landlord is paid, that the children are respectably clothed.  Nettie’s entire life revolves around this useless, thankless family.  They are her life’s work and her sense of responsibility for them, and the sense of purpose they give her, is so great that she cannot imagine any life of her own.  She jealously and proudly guards her responsibilities, refusing Edward’s rather pathetically small attempts to help, and when she is suddenly no longer needed, she becomes completely lost:

The work she had meant to do was over.  Nettie’s occupation was gone.  With the next act of the domestic drama she had nothing to do.  For the first time in her life utterly vanquished, with silent promptitude she abdicated on the instant.  She seemed unable to strike a blow for the leadership thus snatched from her hands. 

The ending is shockingly unsatisfactory.  Nettie is a sad shadow of herself and the concluding events, so eagerly anticipated for much of the novel, seem manipulative and exploitative given Nettie’s weakened spirit.   

Between the two novels, there was really only one character I came away liking: Mrs Proctor, that charming, spry septuagenarian.  And when I can’t like the characters, I really do find it difficult to like the book (particularly when unworthy characters are rewarded with relatively happy endings).  I found Oliphant’s writing style unmemorable and uneven, with some quite clever passages followed by pages and pages of dull plodding stuff, and her tendency to moralize reminiscent of all those lesser Victorian novelists who rely on sentiment rather than skill.  Clearly, I was not won over.

Dear Readers, does she improve with other novels, does her style develop, her characterization gain depth?  There was enough of merit here that I couldn’t quite abandon this book as I was reading it, enough promise (never quite fulfilled) that made me hopeful.  If she is worth pursuing, if you can assure me there is still hope, then pursue her I shall.

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After reading The American Senator by Anthony Trollope, I am now certain that Trollope will become one of my favourite authors.  I had suspected as much before but, now that I have finally read him, I know.  So chatty, so funny, so detailed, so entertaining – this book was everything that a book should be!

The plot of The American Senator has very little to do with that gentleman, a Mr Elias Gotobed, who takes great delight in insulting his hosts in the name of education (for surely they must be made to see how flawed their ways are), and much to do with those who reside in or pass through the country town of Dillsborough one winter.  When have I ever been able to resist a novel about English country life?  The novel is comprised of three main, interconnected stories: the Senator’s fumblings about society, the romantic life of the unassuming Mary Masters, and the attempts by the dazzling Arabella Trefoil to catch the wealthy Lord Rufford (though she is already engaged to the diplomat, and local squire, John Morton). 

I have to admit, the novel does begin slowly with several chapters devoted to the histories of Dillsborough’s local families, explaining long-standing feuds and giving character descriptions of the neighbourhood’s eligible males.  It’s important information but presented in a very tedious way.  However, as soon as the narrator’s explanations are concluded and the characters appear and begin to speak for themselves, the fun begins.

John Morton has just returned home from a diplomat posting in America, where he came across and became engaged to Arabella Trefoil, an Englishwoman travelling abroad with her mother, and made the acquaintance of Mr Gotobed.  These characters quickly join him in the country; Arabella and her mother with the purpose of surveying Morton’s home and evaluating his worth as a prospective spouse and Mr Gotobed with a view to educating himself about the English people and their customs.  At a local hunt, Mr Gotobed has much to critique and Arabella much to consider, as she meets the wealthy, eligible and possibly attainable Lord Rufford.     

Arabella is a magnificently unsentimental anti-heroine.  She is not a keen sportswoman but, in pursuit of the huntsman Rufford, is quite the huntress, plotting out and adapting her strategy over the course of several months in an attempt to snare her prey.  There is no sentiment about Arabella, just level-headed practicality supported by a dash of ruthlessness:

She herself did not care much for pleasure.  But she did care to be a great lady, – one who would be allowed to swim out of rooms before others, one who could snub others, one who could show real diamonds when others wore paste, one who might be sure to be asked everywhere, even by the people who hated her.  She rather liked being hated by women, and did not want any man to be in love with her, – except as far as might be sufficient for the purpose of marriage.  (p. 81)

With effort, she is beautiful but she is getting older and there is little money.  She accepts Morton when they meet in America but, when she meets Rufford and recognizes him as the greater prize, quickly shifts her focus without ever quite sacrificing the security offered by Morton.  And she handles it marvelously, it must be said, though she’s not quite so clever as to actually pull it off. 

The level of work that Arabella puts into running Rufford to ground is immense and though I was struck with admiration of her for her strategic brilliance and perseverance (because, really, she leaves nothing on the table in her bid to win Rufford), Trollope’s purpose here is not to glorify the huntress but to win sympathy for the hunted.  Rufford is almost powerless against Arabella’s machinations and blatant lies, the publicity campaign she wages in effort to coerce him into marriage after blackening his reputation and making herself appear as the wronged party, a man more sinned against than sinning:

He was being hunted and run down, and, with the instinct of all animals that are hunted, he prepared himself for escape.  It might be said, no doubt would be said, that he behaved badly.  That would be said because it would not be open to him to tell the truth.  The lady in such a case can always tell her story with what exaggeration she may choose to give, and can complain.  The man can never do so.  When inquired into, he cannot say that he has been pursued.  He cannot tell her friends that she began it, and, in point of fact, did it all.  ‘She would fall into my arms; she would embrace me; she persisted in asking me whether I loved her!’  Though a man have to be shot for it, or kicked for it, or even though he have to endure perpetual scorn for it, he cannot say that let it be ever so true.  And yet is a man to be forced into a marriage which he despises?  (p. 307)

And yet Rufford’s fate, having slipped Arabella’s grasp, is perhaps less pleasant than it would have been had he yielded and married her.  There is no love match waiting for him, just a more subtle huntress, favoured by his family, who bides her time until he is exhausted by the hunt and too weak to give flight.  Arabella, having lost both Rufford and John Morton, makes a surprisingly suitable match to a young man as clever, hard-working, and calculating as she, an intriguing end to an eventful career.  She is certainly not good but then neither does Trollope cast her as entirely bad, musing that “there was something even in her hard callous heart softer than the love of money, and more human than the dream of an advantageous settlement in life.”  She is an endlessly intriguing character and certainly the most memorable one in the novel. 

What to say about the Senator?  Comically frank, Mr Gotobed makes many good and valid observations about England and the English – questioning fox hunts, decrying the powers of the landed gentry over the peasants, ridiculing the apathetic members of the House of Lords – for the edification of his less than appreciative English audience.  But who could really respond well to a man who believes “the want of reason among Britishers was so great, that no one ought to treat them as wholly responsible beings”?  The greatest amusement comes from seeing how other characters react to his grandiloquent statements, fighting to stay polite to the foreigner as he insults their country and their ways (rightly or wrongly – the Senator does not always let facts get in the way of that which he and his American values knows to be right).  But for all his comic appeal, he does speak a great deal of truth and it is remarkable how many of the English customs he quibbles over are still issues today.  Watching him struggle with his New World ideals of equality as he is charmed by the gentry and scammed by the lower classes is also rather delightful:    

There is a reality about them [‘those here of the highest rank’], and a desire to live up to their principles, which is very grand.  Their principles are no doubt very bad, utterly antagonistic to all progress, unconscious altogether of the demand for progressive equality which is made by the united voices of suffering mankind.  The man who is born a lord, and who sees a dozen serfs around him who have been born to he half- starved ploughmen, thinks that Good arranged it all, and that he is bound to maintain a state of thing so comfortable to himself, as being God’s vicegerent here on earth.  But they do their work as vicegerents with an easy grace, and with sweet pleasant voices and soft movements, which almost make a man doubt whether the Almighty has not, in truth, intended that such injustice should be permanent.  That one man should be rich and another poor is a necessity in the present imperfect state of civilization; – but that one man should be born to be a legislator, born to have everything, born to be a tyrant, – and should think it all right, is to me miraculous.  But the greatest miracle of all is that they who are not so born, – who have been born to suffer the reverse side, – should also think it to be all right. (p. 195)

And then we have the final thread of the story, the romance thrown in to entertain soft-hearted female readers (that would be me).  Mary Masters is the daughter of a country lawyer who, after her mother’s death, was essentially raised by Lady Ushant until that lady was forced to remove from the area after her great nephew John Morton inherited Bragton, where she had been living (this is one of those messy family relationships explained at the beginning of the novel).  As the novel begins, Mary is in her early twenties and has been living with her father, step-mother, and half sisters for some time. Mary is content with her family but perhaps a little more refined than her sisters.  A well-off local farmer – not quite a gentleman, to his dismay – Larry Twentyman is desperately in love with her.  Larry is everything that a lover should be.  He is earnest, constant, respectful, and passionate.  He cannot conceal his love for Mary, nor his disappointment each time she rejects his advances.  He is handsome, young, in possession of a good house, a good fortune, and a good temper.  He is ideal.  Everyone around Mary certainly seems to think so, from her step-mother to Lady Ushant.  The townsfolk are in universal agreement that the match would be a good thing.  The only ones who disagree are Reginald Morton, a local gentleman now in his late thirties who has been friends with Mary since her childhood, who thinks her too fine, too cultured for the countryman Larry, and Mary herself, who knows even before she realises her love for another, that she cannot return Larry’s affection.

Larry is everything that is good-humoured and generous but, after hearing Reginald describe his quiet daily life to Mary, was there ever really a chance I was going to favour Larry?: ‘I rush in and out of the garden, and spend my time between my books and my flowers and my tobacco pipe.’  Alright, not a terribly heroic schedule but clearly that of a man after my own heart.  Larry suffers greatly when the true lovers get their happy ending, which I did so appreciate (however cruel that may sound).  I hate novels where there is obviously one good lover and one bad one, or where the enthusiastic lover proves comically unfaithful when rejected.  Larry is constant and endures – though not quietly – the pain of unrequited love, lending him a certain air of nobility.  Besides, his future is not so bleak: there is promise of future happiness with Kate Masters, Mary’s younger half-sister, a friend and hunting partner of Larry’s, who possesses a jolly spirit that matches his own.

I purposely started my Trollope reading with a comic, stand alone novel and I am so glad that I did.  It was a wonderful way to test the waters, as it were, and I’m thrilled to know I have his series to look forward to as well as his many other independent novels.  Isn’t it wonderful to discover a favourite author who was also shockingly prolific?

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Anne Brontë is easily my favourite Brontë sister but, frankly, she held that position without me knowing anything of her or her writing, her standing based entirely on my dislike of her sisters’ books.  I have also always rather liked her pen name, Acton Bell, which is perhaps a silly reason to favour a person but there you have it.  My dislike of Jane Eyre is well documented and my opinion of Wuthering Heights is so low that expending the effort to express it would be to give the novel more attention than it deserves.  But, other bloggers were quick to cry, Anne Brontë is different!  Hate Charlotte, loathe Emily, but give Anne a chance!  Who am I to resist the advice of such learned friends?  I picked up Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë, read it, and, I am happy to report, rather enjoyed it.

The eponymous heroine of Agnes Grey is the youngest daughter of a well-meaning clergymen, beloved by his wife and daughters but rather irresponsible when it comes to managing the family’s wealth.  When they fall on hard times, Agnes is determined that she shall not be a strain on her parents’ limited resources so she hires herself out as a governess.  And, thank goodness, this is where the story began to both surprise and delight me.  It is funny!  I had not anticipated that, not realised that Anne Brontë would be able to make me smile and chuckle as she unerringly portrays her overbearing employers and ill-behaved charges.  This is not an affectionate portrayal of the life of a governess.  It stresses the isolation Agnes feels in the households where she is employed, how powerless she is in dealing with both the children and the adults but, generally, it is by no means a dreary book.  If anything, it attempts to cover too many things in too few pages, turning this into a book crammed with wit, romance, a shocking amount of moralizing (usually expressed with some painfully affected writing), and some rather heavy themes (isolation and oppression being the two main ones).  It is an interesting but confusing mix.

In Mansfield Park, the morally malleable Crawford siblings steal the show from the pious, respectable Fanny.  Miss Murray, one of Agnes’ grown charges, does the same thing here.  Beautiful and very conscious of it, Miss Murray is out to break hearts and toy with the local men before making the most brilliant match she can manage.  She is selfish, vain, and greedy and I adored her.  There is much moralizing done at her expense but her little speeches, her maneuvers when it came to attracting the attention of the gentlemen of the region, were, to my way of thinking, Brontë’s most realistic passages in the entire novel (and some of the most entertaining, it should go without saying):

…if I could be always young, I would be always single.  I should like to enjoy myself thoroughly, and coquet with all the world, till I am on the verge of being called an old maid; and then, to escape the infamy of that, after having made ten thousand conquests, to break all their hearts save one, by marrying some high-born, rich, indulgent husband, whom, on the other hand, fifty ladies were dying to have. (p. 71)

I have mixed feeling about the central romance story.  Agnes falls in love with the new curate Mr Weston almost immediately after meeting him.  Mr Weston is very, very good (as behoves a clergyman) and very, very boring.  It takes only a few glances at him in the pulpit, a few words of praise from a mutual acquaintance, and one face-to-face conversation before she is quite enamoured.  This alone amused me.  What young woman hasn’t nursed a crush through such adversary, through a total lack of contact or communication, through complete ignorance of his interests, background or, indeed, character?  Who hasn’t, like Agnes, built castles in the sky on the strength of one perfunctory conversation?  I adored Brontë’s description of Agnes’ rapture on seeing him speak in church.  How convenient to be in love with someone who you can so easily gaze on and listen to without looking like a stalker! 

…at church I might look without fear of scorn or censure upon a form and face more pleasing to me that the most beautiful of God’s creations; I might listen without disturbance to a voice more charming that the sweetest music to my ears; I might seem to hold communion with that soul in which I felt so deeply interested, and imbibe its purest thoughts and holiest aspirations, with no alloy to such felicity, except the secret reproaches of my conscience which would too often whisper that I was deceiving my own self, and mocking God with the service of a heart more bent upon the creature than the creator.  (p. 118)

It is a strange novel in that, though it covers many years of Agnes’ life, she does not develop during that period.  She remains exactly the same from start to finish.  As a reader, I am usually eager to feel sympathy with the heroine but there is nothing particularly sympathetic about Agnes.  Respectable and admirable, yes, but not sympathetic.  I want to like Agnes, do in fact love her when she is thinking catty things about her charges and employers, but she turns into a bit of a drip over Mr Weston, mooning over him and daydreaming about him with no encouragement, which I suppose is realistic enough but still tiresome.  The ending is disappointingly formulaic and needlessly drawn out.  The good, moral characters get good endings while the selfish ones are punished for their sins – instructive, no doubt, but not particularly satisfying or memorable.  Still, it is a highly entertaining novel if not necessarily a great work of literature and I’m very happy to have finally found a Brontë whose work I enjoy!

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I can’t remember exactly when I first read Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell, what urged me to select it in the first place.  It was a summer while I was still in high school, I know, and I remember finishing it as I rode the bus home from work, missing my stop as I read those last pages, reeling with both delight and a sense of immense loss as the story transitioned from the last rather anti-climactic sentence Mrs. Gaskell penned before her death to the satisfactory outline of an ending contributed in her absence by her editor.  Each time I reread it, I come away feeling the same: after hundreds of pages, with the happy conclusion in sight, the abrupt end is always a shock and there is always disappointment that, even though you know how Gaskell intended to end the story, you’ll never have the pleasure of seeing how she would have executed it, what artistry and skill she would have employed in giving our heroine her much-deserved happiness.

Wives and Daughters, for those not already acquainted with Gaskell’s masterpiece, is primarily the story of Molly Gibson, the daughter of a widowed country doctor.  I hesitate to call it a coming-of-age story, knowing how some readers recoil in horror from anything so labelled, though it certainly is the chronicle of Molly Gibson’s steady growth and maturation.  Instead, I shall call it a novel-ish sort of novel.  It has everything you could want: romances of every kind, comedy, tragedy, mystery, and delicious secrets.  And yet it is not in the least sensational.  There are dramas of every sort going on around Molly but they are of the small, domestic kind.  Bad marriages are made and people die of lingering illnesses but these are the worst things that happen in Molly’s world.  It is a very human story, very relatable regardless of the decade or century.  Writing in the 1860s, Gaskell chose to set the story in the 1830s, the time of her girlhood, making Molly her own contemporary, and while the fashions and lifestyles may have changed somewhat over the years, the characters that Gaskell peoples her book with are instantly recognizable.

As the novel begins, one of Mr. Gibson’s young pupils has fallen in love with the almost seventeen year old Molly, and, worse, tried to declare his love by secret letter to the oblivious Molly.  Mr. Gibson quickly packs his daughter off for a long promised visit to a nearby family, Squire and Mrs. Hamley at Hamley Hall, and sets about rethinking his status as a widower.  After all, he reasons, a motherless daughter is a sad thing to have on ones hands.  Is it not his duty to his beloved daughter to ensure that she has the proper female guidance as she transitions from child to woman?  And so, without Molly’s knowledge, he begins to think of marrying again and begins a modest courtship of Mrs. Kirkpatrick, a schoolteacher and former governess already vaguely acquainted with the family.

Molly, meanwhile, has been absorbed into the Hamley household, proving to be the perfect companion for the invalid Mrs. Hamley and a delight to the Squire as well.  The Hamleys have no daughters, only two sons: the brilliant Osborne, of whom great things are expected, and the steady, good humoured Roger, both studying at Cambridge as Molly begins her visit.  All three parents agree that it is a very good thing their children are not in the same place all at one, young people being so inclined to fall in love when placed in proximity to an eligible party of the opposite sex: Mr. Gibson because he does not think his daughter old enough to become so entangled, the Hamleys because they believe their sons should be looking a little higher than the daughter of a provincial doctor when it comes to choosing a wife.  But Osborne and Roger are the focus of Mrs. Hamley’s life, her greatest delights, and much time is spent telling Molly of them.  Molly, like any suggestible, sheltered teenage girl, falls half in love with Osborne through both his mother’s praise and his own dreamy poetry, which his mother gives to Molly to read.  So when Roger comes home from university alone to break the news of Osborne’s academic failure, she instantly takes against the younger brother who would dare to debase this household idol and “so in mute opposition on Molly’s side, in polite indifference, scarcely verging on kindliness on his, Roger and she steered clear of each other.”  That is, until Mr. Gibson visits and springs on Molly the news of his engagement to Mrs. Kirkpatrick, sending a distraught Molly sobbing into the garden after his departure, where the awkward Roger discovers her and handles the situation far more ably than most twenty-one year old men I know and, continuing to encourage and support her afterwards, establishes the basis of a firm friendship:

If Roger was not tender in words, he was in deeds.  Unreasonable and possibly exaggerated as Molly’s grief had appeared to him, it was real suffering to her; and he took some pains to lighten it, in his own way, which was characteristic enough. (p. 123-124)

He also begins to take on her education as well.  Roger is an avid naturalist, enchanted by the natural world around him, and Molly, to some extent, catches his enthusiasm.  But, as Gaskell clearly reminds us, there is nothing untoward about their relationship as they are both very young, with very definite ideas of who their future partners will be:

Every young girl of seventeen or so, who is at all thoughtful, is very apt to make a Pope out of the first person who presents to her a new or larger system of duty that that by which she has been unconsciously guided hitherto.  Such a Pope was Roger to Molly; she looked to his opinion, to his authority on almost every subject, yet he had only said one or two things in a terse manner which gave them the force of precepts – stable guides to her conduct, and had shown the natural superiority in wisdom and knowledge which is sure to exist between a highly educated young man of no common intelligence, and an ignorant girl of seventeen, who yet was well capable of appreciation.  Still, although they were drawn together in this very pleasant relationship, each was imagining some one very different for the future owner of their whole heart – their highest and completest love.  Roger looked to find a grand woman, his equal, and his empress; beautiful in person, serene in wisdom, ready for counsel as was Egeria.  Molly’s little wavering maiden fancy dwelt on the unseen Osborne, who was now a troubadour, and now a knight, such as he wrote about in one of his own poems; some one like Osborne, perhaps, rather than Osborne himself, for she shrank from giving a personal form and name to the hero that was to be. (p. 151-152)

Eventually, reluctantly, Molly has to return home to her father and her new mother and this is when the novel really begins to take off as Gaskell begins to incorporate more and more characters, some of them truly magnificent creations.  Mrs. Kirkpatrick/Mrs. Gibson is marvelous.  A pretentious but poor widow, she eagerly accepts Mr. Gibson’s offer and the improvement in her material circumstances and social standing the marriage offers.  She instantly sets about ‘improving’ his house, his diet, and his daughter and, intriguingly, putting off the return of her own daughter Cynthia, who is the same age as Molly, from school in France.  But Cynthia does eventually return and she is just as wonderful and flawed as her mother.

Gaskell’s straightforwardness has always appealed to me.  Artifice and obfuscation are the talents of her minor characters, never her heroes or heroines, admirable for their plain speaking and clarity of purpose.  Never is this contrast clearer than between Molly and her stepsister Cynthia.  Cynthia bursts into the novel and into Molly’s life in a whirl of colour and energy.  She is beautiful and captivating, spirited and somewhat mysterious.  She can be all things to all people, knowing how to act best to please each member of her audience.  And though the contrast between her and the honest, direct Molly is great, they quickly become close confidents, true sisters.  The greatest benefit by far of Mr. Gibson’s marriage is the introduction of Cynthia into Molly’s life and it is the complications caused by the beguiling Cynthia that truly see Molly mature.  Molly is thoughtful and considerate, guided by intelligence and good judgment where Cynthia is selfish and thoughtless, eager to jump ahead without considering the consequences, to run away when complications ensue.  But Cynthia adores and admires Molly, conscious of her own flaws and Molly’s moral superiority.  Cynthia may lament her shortcomings, as in this little speech to Molly, but she would much rather have and be able to laugh at them than to attempt any great effort to reform herself:

‘…I am not good and never shall be now.  Perhaps I might be a heroine still, but I shall never be a good woman, I know.’

‘Do you think it easier to be a heroine?’

‘Yes, as far as one knows of heroines from history.  I’m capable of a great jerk, an effort, and then a relaxation – but steady every-day goodness is beyond me.  I must be a moral kangaroo!’ (p. 229)

Cynthia may never be good but, like Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp, she will always be interesting.  It comes as no surprise when Roger is instantly smitten by her on their first meeting – who would not be?  Things become suitably tangled after that and Gaskell makes the rather inspired decision to send her male love interest off to Africa for much of the novel, meaning no romantic conclusions can come about too quickly  – a clever tactic when writing a serialized story!

As I said before, yes, this is a coming-of-age story about Molly Gibson but it is so much more.  It is a story about families: the Hamleys and the Gibsons and the changing relationships within them: the loyalties between brothers, between sisters, the bonds of fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, and the consequences of both good and bad marriages.

Squire Hamley may be my favourite character.  He certainly suffers the most, losing his beloved wife and his son, whom he spent most of the time at odds with.  He is very emotional too, far more so than any of the other characters, male or female.  He speaks about what he feels – loudly! – while everyone else conceals their emotions.  It is not necessarily a positive trait: after all, his vocal admonishments of his eldest son only drive them further apart, Osborne taking his father’s words in his usual sensitive manner, leading him to conceal some rather significant details about his life away from Hamley.  So many readers eschew Victorian novels because of their repressed characters, mostly male.  Squire Hamley must be the antidote to such stoics yet he manages to be emotional and sympathetic without being emasculated.  He has an overwhelming personality and can be selfish in his desires and expectations; while I may not want him as a father, I will always love him as one of the most vivid and lifelike characters I have ever come across.

The love story between Roger and Molly is one of my all-time favourites.  Roger feels so real.  He is perfect in so many ways but not in all.  Like any young man of twenty two, he is easily blinded by love, falling prey to Cynthia’s numerous charms in a quite ridiculous manner.  Molly had been half in love with her romanticized ideal of Osborne before meeting him but Roger’s first love is rather more serious.  His keen analytical skills and strong morals fall rather to the wayside, unconsciously compromised by his selection of Cynthia as his future wife.  She is his ideal and the entire time he is falling in love with her, he never really sees her for what she is and how horribly ill-suited they are.  And poor Molly, only starting to realise her feelings for Roger when he begins to shower Cynthia with attention, having to watch him commit himself to a woman who she knows doesn’t care for him half as much as he does for her:

As long as Roger was drawn to Cynthia, and sought her of his own accord, it had been a sore pain and bewilderment to Molly’s heart; but it was a straightforward attraction, and on which Molly acknowledged, in her humility and great power of loving, to be the most natural thing in the world.  She would look to Cynthia’s beauty and grace, and feel as if no one could resist it.  And when she witnessed all the small signs of devotion which Roger was at no pains to conceal, she thought, with a sigh, that surely no girl could help relinquishing her heart to such tender, strong keeping as Roger’s character ensured.  She would have been willing to cut off her right hand, if need were, to forward his attachment to Cynthia; and the self-sacrifice would have added a strange zest to a happy crisis.  (p. 362-3)

Molly is good.  That is a very unfashionable thing to be, especially these days, but I do prefer my heroes and heroines to be so.  She is not angelically good like the heroines of sickeningly sweet children’s story or cheap, mostly forgotten Victorian novels.  She struggles, she talks back on occasion, gets frustrated and angry like anyone but, more often than not, she does as she believes she ought, even, most importantly, when it may bring social ruin.  And there’s something very noble and wonderful about that, about her desire to be good and helpful to others.  Roger is equally good and I love him for that.  After all, that is how Roger and Molly first became friends, when he sought to comfort and help her through a difficult time.  Finally, I love that they are both the kind of people who worry (to both the amusement and approval of their elders) about being worthy of the one they love – so different from the callous, delightful Cynthia, casting lovers aside with reckless abandon until she finds the one who seems to expect the least from her and worships her all the same.

I have so much more I could say about Wives and Daughters, so many minor characters that could be discussed, so many plot points that could be analysed!  It is a novel that I never tire of talking about, full of characters that will be with me always.  If you haven’t already read it, please do.  Take your time and enjoy it.  Or, if you’re not ready to make the commitment to six hundred odd pages of superb entertainment, do at least check out the BBC adaptation penned by Andrew Davies with Justine Waddell as Molly, Keeley Hawes as Cynthia and Michael Gambon as a truly spectacular Squire Hamley.

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Artist: Fernand Toussaint

Oh, the Victorians.  I have difficult relationships with most Victorian novelists. That the Brontë sisters, who I so dislike, are so closely linked with this period does it no favour in my eyes.  But then it did produce two of my favourite novelists, Thackeray and Gaskell, so surely it is worth giving more attention to.  As a teenager I perhaps read too much Victorian fiction, gorging myself on sensational plots and strict moral codes until I little appetite left for either.

Now, seeing the Victorian Literature Challenge 2011 advertised on other blogs, I wonder if it isn’t time to give the Victorians another chance.  I’m not sure whether I’ll officially join the challenge but I’m certainly contemplating it and, if nothing else, it has provided an excuse for me to make a list (and I do love lists).

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
My favourite 19th Century novel, bar none (yes Janeites, I love this even more than my beloved Emma).  Becky Sharp only becomes more delightful with every rereading and my affection for Dobbin knows no bounds.   

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
I still haven’t read this.  Shame on me, I know, particularly since everyone else seems to adore it.

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
Another of those novels that always earns a place on my favourites list.  Gaskell is at her best here with the loyal Molly, the fickle Cynthia, and the superbly comedic Hyacinth.  I am also terribly fond of Roger, who apparently not every reader views as the ideal romantic hero (fools, all of them!). 

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
I’ve yet to finish any Dickens novel but this is always the one I’ve been most interested in.  Let us hope that if I choose to start it I’m able to see it through to the end.

Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope
Carolyn reviewed this last week and I’ve heard great things about Trollope in general.  Where better to start than with the first of the Palliser’s books?  I’ve been promised politics and many, many pages – usually a recipe for success with me. 

Tom Brown’s Schooldays by Thomas Hughes
Because it’s one of those novels I feel like I should have read but still haven’t. 

King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard
For fun.  This is the kind of Victorian lit I like most: the fantastical, the adventurous, the kind to inspire the imaginations of readers young and old.

Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling
One of the few Kipling works I haven’t read.

Harvey Cheyne is the over-indulged son of a millionaire. When he falls overboard from an ocean liner he is rescued by a Portuguese fisherman and, initially against his will, joins the crew of the We’re Here for a summer.

Esther Waters by George Moore
Described as the story “of a mother’s fight for the life of her illegitimate son” I have to admit that I’m mostly interested in this novel because it is also considered “one of the finest of naturalistic novels”.  Aside from Zola, I haven’t read many other European naturalist novels.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
Because I feel like I should, even though I can’t seem to work up much enthusiasm for it.

Hester by Margaret Oliphant
The story of the aging but powerful Catherine Vernon, and her conflict with the young and determined Hester, whose growing attachment to Edward, Catherine’s favorite, spells disaster for all concerned.

The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner
Lyndall, Schreiner’s articulate young feminist, marks the entry of the controversial New Woman into nineteenth-century fiction. Raised as an orphan amid a makeshift family, she witnesses an intolerable world of colonial exploitation. Desiring a formal education, she leaves the isolated farm for boarding school in her early teens, only to return four years later from an unhappy relationship. Unable to meet the demands of her mysterious lover, Lyndall retires to a house in Bloemfontein, where, delirious with exhaustion, she is unknowingly tended by an English farmer disguised as her female nurse. This is the devoted Gregory Rose, Schreiner’s daring embodiment of the sensitive New Man.

A cause célèbre when it appeared in London, The Story of an African Farm transformed the shape and course of the late-Victorian novel. From the haunting plains of South Africa’s high Karoo, Schreiner boldly addresses her society’s greatest fears – the loss of faith, the dissolution of marriage, and women’s social and political independence.

East Lynne by Ellen Wood
When the aristocratic Lady Isabel abandons her husband and children for her wicked seducer, more is at stake than moral retribution. Ellen Wood played upon the anxieties of the Victorian middle classes who feared a breakdown of the social order as divorce became more readily available and promiscuity threatened the sanctity of the family.

The Doctor’s Wife by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
The Doctor’s Wife is Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s rewriting of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary in which she explores her heroine’s sense of entrapment and alienation in middle-class provincial life married to a good natured but bovine husband who seems incapable of understanding his wife’s imaginative life and feelings. A woman with a secret, adultery, death and the spectacle of female recrimination and suffering are the elements which combine to make The Doctor’s Wife a classic women’s sensation novel. Yet, The Doctor’s Wife is also a self-consciously literary novel, in which Braddon attempts to transcend the sensation genre. 

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
Describes a comic expedition by middle-class Victorians up the Thames to Oxford. It provides brilliant snap-shots of London’s playground in the late 1880s, where the fashionable steam-launches of river swells encounter the hired skiffs of city clerks. The medley of social vignettes, farcical incidents, descriptions of river fashions, and reflections on the Thames’s history, is interspersed with humorous anecdotes told by a natural raconteur.

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