Category Archives: Oxford University Press

Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy

The penultimate read for Classically Challenged has been Thomas Hardy’s ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ and I can safely say it is the one out of all of the books that I have had the biggest rollercoaster reading wise. I have liked a lot of the books, strongly disliked one and loved another, yet Hardy and Tess have taken me from one extreme to the other. I am not sure I have ever loved a book so much and then so utterly loathed it, as I have this one. If I hadn’t been reading it for Classically Challenged I would have given up without question, instead I resolutely struggled on. It really has been a frustrating, yet eye opening, reading experiment really.

** Oxford University Press, paperback, 1891 (2008 edition), fiction, 420 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

For those of you who have yet to read it ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ tells the story of a young woman, the eldest of her siblings, who lives in the impoverished parts of Wessex. Her family, the Durbyfields, constantly seem to be living on the breadline until one day a Parson passing Tess’ father, John, tells him that he believes he is related to the noble family of ‘D’Urbervilles’, the name having been corrupted and changed a little over the years (made me think of Savage and Savidge). This John believes is their salvation. Upon discovering that they have a family of D’Urbervilles living nearby he sends Tess to meet them and to claim their fortune, in doing so he puts Tess in the path of Alec D’Urberville little knowing that Alec will become the very undoing of his daughter and may not change their futures for the better but for the worse.

Of course there is much more that goes on. Early in the novel, while still living her simple if hard life in the countryside, Tess meets Angel Clare at the May Dance in the village, she is instantly attracted to him and falls for him yet he doesn’t dance with her, even if he admires her from a far. Without spoiling anything too much I will say they do meet again and it creates further twists and turns as when they meet Tess is not the girl that she once was, despite all appearances.

“Tess went up the remainder of its length without stopping, and on reaching the edge of the escarpment gazed over the familiar green world beyond, now half-veiled in mist. It was always beautiful from here; it was terribly beautiful to Tess today, for since her eyes last fell upon it she had learnt that the serpent hisses where the sweet birds sing, and her views of life had been totally changed for her by the lesson.”

Before I tell you what I loathed about the book I will start with what I loved about it, as that is how I felt when I was reading the first third of the book. I loved the character of Tess, initially, I liked her unknowledgeable yet slightly holier than thou (though heartfelt and only with good intentions) outlook on life. As the book went on I loved how it became darker little by little, the whole book has a foreboding nature to it and often when you think things couldn’t get worse for our protagonist they invariably do, and a brooding atmosphere takes over the pages. Just my sort of thing. I also loved Alec (I am sure people will be screaming in rage at their screens at that) as he is a complete, and though this may be strong its true, bastard and yet a beguilingly devilish one that as a reader I found him horrifying yet slightly comic and fascinating.

“Tess wished to abridge her visit as much as possible; but the young man was pressing, and she consented to accompany him. He conducted her about the lawns, and flower-beds, and conservatories; and thence to the fruit-garden and greenhouses, where he asked her if she liked strawberries.
“Yes,” said Tess, “when they come.”
“They are already here.” D’Urberville began gathering specimens of the fruit for her, handing them back to her as he stooped; and, presently, selecting a specially fine product of the “British Queen” variety, he stood up and held it by the stem to her mouth.
“No–no!” she said quickly, putting her fingers between his hand and her lips. “I would rather take it in my own hand.”
“Nonsense!” he insisted; and in a slight distress she parted her lips and took it in.
They had spent some time wandering desultorily thus, Tess eating in a half-pleased, half-reluctant state whatever d’Urberville offered her. When she could consume no more of the strawberries he filled her little basket with them; and then the two passed round to the rose trees, whence he gathered blossoms and gave her to put in her bosom. She obeyed like one in a dream, and when she could affix no more he himself tucked a bud or two into her hat, and heaped her basket with others in the prodigality of his bounty.”

I also, initially, really liked Hardy’s prose. No pun intended but I thought that this was going to be really hard work. I was expecting endless descriptions of the surrounding villages and fields (there were a few at the start but not many, boy does that change) yet whilst there were a few descriptive passages it was all done with a pace to it. I also, and I think the above section I have quoted shows you some of this, found his writing raw and rather (and this might sound odd) earthily sexy. There is an almost animalistic quality to it, well in the first few parts, that really gives it an edge and drive. You might all think I am mad but that’s what I thought.  Anyway, I genuinely flew through the first hundred or so pages… And then it all went wrong.

The problems I had, without giving any spoilers away, were these. I stopped believing in Tess after a while, or maybe my sympathies left, as whilst initially she is naive and then she shows great courage, with a really bad lot, she soon becomes rather ineffectual. Maybe that is Hardy’s point, women had no real role in society at the time and certainly no stature, plus if life keeps throwing hard times in your direction you might not crack but just go with whatever is simplest, yet that to me wasn’t the Tess I had met. Secondly I hated, yes hated, Angel Clare who really is supposed to be the hero of the whole book. He’s a complete patronising, self serving, ineffectual and slightly pompous hypocrite of the highest order. Give me Alec D’Urberville any day of the week, ok he is a slightly slimy self serving tool himself but at least you know what you are getting. (Have any jaws hit the floor there or are you with me?)

Classically-Challenged-OUP-Banner

The final three nails in the coffin, for me at least, were that in the middle of the book all the endless descriptions of the countryside and farming that I had expected from the off suddenly actually happened. Almost at the same time all the misery that I was expecting, for Hardy hasn’t a reputation for being the jolliest – not that books should be all smiles, also hit and I found the middle up to about six chapters from the end really hard work. As I said had it not been for the challenge I would have given up, it had all the elements that killed ‘Anna Karenina’ for me. Then came the end, which of course I won’t spoil, which to be honest I simply didn’t buy despite the fact it caught my attention again, it just seemed so out of kilter.

Yet despite all this I can’t say that I hated ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ nor can I say I am sorry that I read it. I did really love the first one hundred pages and could see what all the fuss was about; alas for me it just didn’t stay like that the whole way though I am glad I gave it a whirl. I had show that whilst reading is very much about the enjoyment for me it can also be about being challenged, reading some things that you don’t like and putting it all down to experience. Will I read another Hardy, probably not, but this wasn’t a wasted effort by any means.

What are your thoughts on ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’? Have you read it and loved it or read it and loathed it? What did you think about Angel vs. Alec and Tess’ progression? Have you put off reading it and if so why? It is interesting I mentioned to Gran my dislike for this, and Trollope, and she said ‘Simon, do you think you like good books and proper literature?’ do we have to love classics (and I still can’t stop thinking about ‘The House of Mirth’ which I read last month and finally watched the film of last night, so I know I like some) in order to love literature? I don’t think they necessarily correlate, do you? Now then, deep breath, it’s time for ‘Middlemarch’ next…

16 Comments

Filed under Classically Challenged, Oxford University Press, Review, Thomas Hardy

The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton

I am beginning to think that my little faux pas that Edith Wharton was one of the UK’s canon authors, when deciding on the six authors for ‘Classically Challenged’ with AJ, was actually a twist of fate and an accidental moment of brilliance. While I liked Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’ and enjoyed Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ (let us gloss over Trollope’s ‘The Warden’) I have to say that ‘The House of Mirth’ simply surpasses them for me by a long stretch and has been the first to set me alight. I think it is probably going to become one of my favourite novels of all time and has reminded me what joys there are in the classics and forget the side that makes you feel like you are back at school. Now though I have the nightmare task of trying to write my thoughts on this book which I know will never really do it justice. Gulp!

***** Oxford University Press, paperback, 1905 (2008 edition), fiction, 368 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

In New York in the late 1800’s Lily Bart, at the ripe old age of twenty nine, is in the time of her life where she needs to find a husband. She has had many good seasons living with her rich friends of high society, which is quite miraculous as she herself is made of limited means and no fortune yet Lily is wily. We follow her on her quest to find a husband and the gambles she takes not only with her meagre allowance and cards but in the society she keeps and how she plays them and they play her.

Edith Wharton does some wondrous things in this novel. Firstly Wharton marvellously creates an overview of society at the time. As we meet her Lily actually spends most of her time living off her incredibly wealthy friends. Of course nothing comes for free. It is Lily’s beauty, wit and ability to seem fascinated by anyone and everyone whilst having them fascinated by her that gets her in with the right set. Keeping them as friends and on side however is the really tricky part and one that anyone would find hard to pull off. Lily knows that if she marries someone with utmost wealth she could have everyone at her bidding and the life she has always felt she is her due. This was the plight of many women at the time. When not living off friends though, Lily finds herself living off an aunt, Mrs Penistone, who took her because no one else would after her mother’s death. This relationship I think has a real psychological affect on Lily. She doesn’t want to owe anyone, apart from a husband, anything nor does she want to end up like many of the spinsters that her aunt knows, working in factories and living in boarding houses.

The second wonderful thing about ‘The House of Mirth’ is Lily Bart herself. Lily isn’t really likeable and yet we do like her. She has airs and graces above her station and yet she is witty and does care about people, well overall if we give her the benefit of the doubt. She is the creation of a society at the time along with the aspirations left upon her by her mother’s influence from a young age. There is a real sense of sadness and tragedy underlying her beauty and charm however and I think it is this that while we might not always think she is behaving as we would or correctly makes us like her and root for her all the same. For those of you who have read the book it was her behaviour with a certain collection of letters that showed her true character I felt.

With so much going on it is takes a deft writer to throw in another strand to the story and Wharton does this by introducing, from the very start in a brilliant set of paragraphs where he describes Miss Bart so we are left in no doubt as to her looks and personality, the character of Lawrence Selden. This is another master stroke. He is by no means a rich man having been forced to do the thing that everyone in Lily’s set dreads, work. As a lawyer the rich think he might be useful someday and indeed some of the rich married women of high society, like Bertha Dorset, find his handsome charms might just be the thing to provide some light relief in their lives or all sorts. There is a tension and chemistry between Lily and Selden however, though neither of them really wants it as both know that Lily ideally needs to marry for money, being a woman of no stature. Yet this friction and their love hate relationship are part of what we follow throughout.

‘Exactly. And so why not take the plunge and have it over?’
She shrugged her shoulders. ‘You speak as if I ought to marry the first man who came along.’
‘I didn’t mean to imply that you are as hard put to it as that. But there must be some one with the requisite qualifications.’
She shook her head wearily. ‘I threw away one or two good chances when I first came out – I suppose every girl does; and you know I am horribly poor – and very expensive. I must have a great deal of money.’

Their sparing with each other show what Lily is really thinking or planning and why. Also through Selden’s eyes we get this rather brutal and pitying look on Lily and the monster she threatens to become. This was another of the things I loved about this book; the ability of Wharton to flip between Lily’s perception of things and then to the perceptions others have of Lily and her actions, these perceptions of course being based on whether the person has sympathy for Lily or is in some way her rival or superior. This also highlights the calculating nature of a certain group of women, who Wharton was clearly aware of at the time, from the destroyer such as Bertha Dorset and indeed our own Lily in her calculations of how to get a suitably rich husband or live off others, whichever the case may be.

It was not that Miss Bart was afraid of losing her newly-acquired hold over Mr. Gryce. Mrs. Dorset might startle or dazzle him, but she had neither the skill nor the patience to affect his capture. She was too self-engrossed to penetrate the recesses of his shyness, and besides, why should she care to give herself the trouble? At most it might amuse her to make sport of his simplicity for an evening–after that he would be merely a burden to her, and knowing this, she was far too experienced to encourage him. But the mere thought of that other woman, who could take a man up and toss him aside as she willed, without having to regard him as a possible factor in her plans, filled Lily Bart with envy. She had been bored all the afternoon by Percy Gryce–the mere thought seemed to waken an echo of his droning voice–but she could not ignore him on the morrow, she must follow up her success, must submit to more boredom, must be ready with fresh compliances and adaptabilities, and all on the bare chance that he might ultimately decide to do her the honour of boring her for life.’

‘The House of Mirth’ is a real unflinching and honest lifting of the lid on society and how it worked just before the turn of the 20th century in America and you feel Wharton new exactly what was going on no holes barred. She also looks at the interesting divide of old money and new money and how the latter felt they had to win the other over until the Wall Street crash when roles were reversed. Here the initially, to Lily, odious Mr Simon Rosedale suddenly becomes the man everyone wants to know and many women want to wed. There are so many layers, sub plots and characters to the book I could go on all day, so I shall bring myself to a close and surmise.

Classically-Challenged-OUP-Banner

Having had some space from the book and time to mull it over there is very little doubt in my mind that ‘The House of Mirth’ is an absolute masterpiece and could easily be one of my favourite books. I loved Wharton’s prose, her humour and the fact she did completely the opposite of what I was expecting with Lily’s story which alas I can’t discuss in detail for I would completely spoil it for you if you have yet to read it – if that is the case you must go and get it now. Lily Bart walked fully off the page for me and I found myself thinking about her a lot when I wasn’t reading the book. Reading it is an experience, and I don’t say that often. One thing is for sure, I will not be forgetting the tale of Lily Bart for quite some time and I believe I will be returning to it again and again in the years to come.

Who else has read ‘The House of Mirth’ and what did you think? Did anyone else (without any spoilers please) see the end coming? What about Bertha Dorset, did anyone loathe her as much as I found myself doing? Did anyone else think that Selden was a bit of an ineffectual wet lettuce? Which other works of Wharton’s have you read, as I now want to get them all, and you would recommend?

33 Comments

Filed under Books of 2013, Classically Challenged, Edith Wharton, Oxford University Press, Review

Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

Well, what a book to end 2013 on, as I have to admit that I have been reading Charles Dickens celebrated ‘Great Expectations’ right up to the deadline of today which AJ and myself set for this, the third, instalment of Classically Challenged, and I think having completed it I might have a bit of time off from reading for a while. This I have to admit has been the book I have been looking forward to the most and the least all at once. For years and years, much to the dismay of my mother and grandmother and several followers and a few critics of the blog, I have gone on and on about how I didn’t, and wouldn’t, like Charles Dickens and that he was simply paid per word and so wrote too many of them, without having read a word. Well, now I have and I have to hold my hands up and say that I was wrong. That said, I don’t want any ‘I told you so’s’ because whilst it truly was very much a book I enjoyed, and will most probably read Charlie-Boy again because of, I still have the odd reservation.

Oxford University Press, paperback, 1861 (2008 edition), fiction, 442 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

Oxford University Press, paperback, 1861 (2008 edition), fiction, 442 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

It seems a little silly to sum up the story of Charles Dickens thirteenth, unlucky for some but not for him, novel because I am pretty sure most of the world knows it, however here it is. ‘Great Expectations’ is really the story of Pip, Pirrip Philip, and his young and formative years. As we meet him, well as we learn after he is accosted and scared to death by convict Abel Magwitch in a cemetery, he is living with his sister and her husband, the local blacksmith, on the breadline in the marshes of Kent. Soon after, at the request of his uncle-in-law Uncle Pumblechook, he finds himself at Satis House and hired in a way as the playmate of the adopted daughter, the rather cold Estella, of a wealthy spinster, Miss Havisham. He falls in love with Estella and his meeting with her and Miss Havisham seems to be the start of a change in his life as whilst training to be a blacksmith with his uncle Joe he receives a large income from an anonymous benefactor and can instead become a gentleman, only as we go on with Pip’s journey we discover great fortune might not bring him happiness or the love he so wants.

Of course this is not the whole story, merely a teaser if you have yet to read the book, as following these events Dickens weaves twists and turns into the narrative which I wasn’t expecting (no pun intended) along with random off shooting stories for some of the lesser characters which create one of these wonderful Dickensian worlds I have always heard so much about.

Did I enjoy the story? Yes. Was it what I expected (pun not intended)? No. In many ways ‘Great Expectations’ was much more than I could have wished for. I became completely immersed in the world that Dickens’s created for Pip and followed his life with great interest. I loved the gloomy and dark opening of the misty marshes at the start, and was completely hooked by Miss Havisham from the first scene in which we met her. In fact I did at several points wonder why on earth Charles Dickens had not just written an entire book about her. I mean in hindsight the tale of Miss Havisham and the forever jilted bride has become the most famous part of this tale hasn’t it?

“I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes. I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose, had shrunk to skin and bone. Once, I had been taken to see some ghastly waxwork at the fair, representing I know not what impossible personage lying in state. Once, I had been taken to one of our old marsh churches to see a skeleton in the ashes of a rich dress, that had been dug out of a vault under the church pavement. Now, wax-work and skeleton seemed to have dark eyes that moved and looked at me. I should have cried out, if I could.”

When Miss Havisham appeared, a lot like when Magwitch appears in the cemetery, the book really came alive for me. The gothic elements of it all, and indeed the pre-Victorian London did spring to life when Pip’s journey takes him there. I will say though that if the story was merely just about Pip without these extra characters, or just about him and Estella (why he fell for her I simply couldn’t understand), I don’t think I would have fared so well. He is a bizarre character in many ways, not likeable really but not dislikeable, and one I couldn’t decide if Dickens liked or not as sometimes he seemed to be the butt of Dickens jokes. Here was a shocker for me; Dickens is really quite funny when he wants to be. Pip seemed to like being a bit of a victim, which sounds awful but there are people out there like this, and rather a drama queen and I would find myself laughing out loud at things when they happened to him, was Dickens wanting us all to do this I wondered?

“I was in mortal terror of the young man who wanted my heart and liver; I was in mortal terror of my interlocutor with the ironed leg; I was in mortal terror of myself, from whom an awful promise had been extracted; I had no hope of deliverance through my all-powerful sister, who repulsed me at every turn; I am afraid to think of what I might have done, on requirement, in the secrecy of my terror.”

These wonderful quotes do bring me to a very important topic – Dickens’ prose. Overall I really liked it; I was at its heart proper storytelling. It is this storytelling nature that makes me think it is so interesting that prose that was written for the masses and serialised has become seen as some of the greatest around. He creates atmospheres and characters brilliantly, sometimes merely in a name we learn everything about a characters traits, whilst also introducing lots of strands of stories weaving off to the left and right of the main narrative. He is a little over wordy though on occasion, being paid per word I am sure I would be too, but occasionally this can become repetitive and on occasion I found myself thinking ‘blooming heck Mr Dickens, why use a word when you can use six paragraphs?’ Part of this might have been my impatience of wanting to know what happened and part of it might simply be that I was reading it straight, not in serial, and with a deadline – either way I noticed it, it wasn’t a major problem it just made me wonder if the sense of atmosphere and wonderful characters could sustain me through a monster like ‘Bleak House’ for example? Also, how on earth did Dickens want to make this story even longer, as was the original plan?

Classically-Challenged-OUP-Banner

This all makes me sound rather grumpy and as if I didn’t like it and I did. I think what frustrated me though was that I think Wilkie Collins does it better (which I fancy having made on a t-shirt) especially the twists and the suspense in his books and yet doesn’t get half the credit Dickens does, it seems unfair. That small point made, I got a lot more than I expected (pun now intended) from ‘Great Expectations’. It was far, far, far more enjoyable than I expected it to be. I loved the atmosphere of the novel, especially when it was at its darkest, and some of the characters – mainly Miss Havisham – will stay with me for years to come. I was also impressed by how funny it could be in parts. Oh and, as this seems to be a big point of discussion with this book, I much preferred the original ending that Dickens came up with to the revised, but we can discuss that in the comments not to give anything away for those who you who haven’t read it, or Dickens, yet – and I would recommend everyone give this book a whirl.

So who else has read ‘Great Expectations’, though really I know probably most of you who visit here have and I am very late to this Dickensian party, and what did you think? Who is still a bit dubious? Now I have given this a whirl, and you have seen what in his books/prose do and don’t work for me, would you suggest I try next? Oh and don’t forget to check AJ’s thoughts when they go up, he is poorly so they may be late.

30 Comments

Filed under Charles Dickens, Classically Challenged, Oxford University Press, Review

The Warden – Anthony Trollope

And so to the second in the series of books AJ and myself have chosen to read by ‘canon authors’ that we have called ‘Classically Challenged’ and to a book that I feel very conflicted about writing about to be honest. Though really the good things about a book like Anthony Trollope’s ‘The Warden’, and indeed any canon classic, is that the author is dead so they can’t take offence and the book has legions of fans already. Plus can anyone’s book thoughts really do justice to books with so much fame/infamy? Interestingly AJ and I have been saying how hard these books are to write about when you think about the legions of academics who have studied and poured over the books in the past, I would never simply say a classic was’ boring rubbish’ or just ‘dead good’ but you know what I mean. Can you tell I am procrastinating actually writing about my thoughts on this book at all?

Oxford University Press, paperback, 1855 (2008 edition), fiction, 336 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

‘The Warden’ is the first in the series of the Chronicles of Barsetshire/Barchester Chronicles, tales all constructed around a fictional English Cathedral town. The novel doesn’t have a particular date in which it is set but as you read on you realise it is very much about the Victorian period in which it was written. Really ‘The Warden’ centres on Mr Harding who is the precentor of the cathedral and also the warden of Hiram’s Hospital, an almshouse supported by a previous and now deceased Diocese of Barchester which supports several men in it and also the warden themselves. It is this income that has been bequeathed that a certain John Bold, a zealous reformer, wants to look into as it seems that Mr Harding gets around £800 a year for really doing very little, is that really what the Diocese wanted and that money not benefit more people in better ways? Throw in the fact Mr Bold is in love with Mr Harding’s youngest daughter Eleanor and all becomes rather awkward.

I have to admit that I just didn’t ever really get into ‘The Warden’ for several reasons. Firstly there was the problem of utter confusion. At the time this was published everyone reading would most likely know what a precentor of a cathedral was, I had no clue and going off an d looking it up I was given a mass of contradicting definitions, some simply said a clergyman others said a man in charge of the choir. I also just got confused with how an almshouse worked; again I went off a researched and still didn’t really get it. So coming to it from that angle, no matter how much I wanted to understand it was a slight issue.

My second issue with confusion was why John Bold was making such a fuss. Not because, as I agreed, the money was extravagant at the time but what on earth it had to do with him. Here I will be as honest with a well respected classic author as I would be with a debut novelist as I like to compare books as a reader not an academic… It seemed simply do be done for the story, throw in this love for Eleanor and there we have a vague plot of a Victorian Robin Hood when actually Mr Harding isn’t really a villain. Plus if you have read the book and see the outcome this all becomes all the more unsatisfying frankly.

I also found ‘The Warden’ a bit boring, both in terms of the subject matter, no offence to anyone of the cloth but it just doesn’t interest me much though that said if I’d enjoyed the book more I would have been happy to find out more, and also the writing. The first few chapters were really tedious trying to build a picture of the town, the history of Hiram’s hospital and Mr Harding situation itself, all ultimately being very confusing. It is also a book of a lot of ‘and then he did this, and then he did that, and then he did another thing’ which some people might like but I find the writing equivalent of those colouring in books where the colour matches the numbers, eventually there’s a picture but the effort wasn’t quite worth all that colouring in.

“As soon as he had determined to take the matter in hand, he set about his work with his usual energy. He got a copy of John Hiram’s will, of the wording of which he made himself perfectly master. He ascertained the extent of the property, and as nearly as he could the value of it; and made out a schedule of what he was informed was the present distribution of its income. Armed with these particulars, he called on Mr Chadwick, having given that gentlemen notice of his visit; and asked him for a statement of the income and expenditure of the hospital for the last twenty-five years.”  

Though in the main I found it rather dull and dry I did like some of his writing. Trollope does describe the setting of the town very well, if a little long windily, at the start of the ‘The Warden’. I could also see that there was some deeper under workings about class and social morality going on, they were just to encased in the mundane, which reminded me of ‘Mary Barton’ by Elizabeth Gaskell only much shorter thankfully. It even manages to put some dampners on some wonderful names and characters Trollope creates, Mr Sentiment, Sir Abraham Haphazard etc.  Also, when there is dialogue I felt the book really came alive it is just a shame this was few and far between.

“‘Why not!’ almost screamed the archdeacon, giving so rough a pull at his nightcap as almost to bring it over his nose; ‘why not! – that pestilent, interfering upstart, John Bold – the most vulgar young person I ever met! Do you know he is meddling in your father’s affairs in a most uncalled for – most…’ And being at a loss for an epithet sufficiently injurious, he finished his expression of horror by muttering, ‘Good Heavens!’ in a manner that had been found very efficacious in clerical meetings of the diocese. He must for the moment have forgotten where he was.  
 ‘As to his vulgarity, archdeacon’ (Mrs Grantly has never assumed a more familiar term than this in addressing her husband), ‘I don’t agree with you. Not that I like Mr Bold – he is a great deal too conceited for me; but then Eleanor does, and it would be the best thing in the world for papa if they were to marry. Bold would never trouble himself about Hiram’s Hospital if he were papa’s son-in-law.’ And the lady turned herself round under the bed-clothes, in a manner to which the doctor was well accustomed, and which told him, as plainly as words, that as far as she was concerned the subject was over for the night.”

So all in all I am really rather disappointed in ‘The Warden’. Partly because I got on so well with Jane Austen so hoped I would every classic I tried and also because my Granddad Bongy, who used to make those books for me as a child and is no longer with us, loved this book and indeed the whole series was a favourite so I hoped I would love it too. I haven’t written Trollope off though, especially since discovering this was his fourth and apparently most disliked novel, so maybe I should try more?

In fact why did so many of you vote for AJ and myself to read this book as the first Trollope if it is so dire, not that I am saying AJ disliked it you will have to check his review yourselves. I am a little more panicked about read Charles Dickens and ‘Great Expectations’ next now. Speaking of which check the post below to win a copy.

So what are your thoughts on ‘The Warden’? Have I missed something? Should I ever read another Barchester Chronicle, or try something else by him instead?

39 Comments

Filed under Anthony Trollope, Classically Challenged, Oxford University Press, Review

Persuasion – Jane Austen

Many of you may know that I have always wavered a little in reading or wanting to read this classics. In my head this conjures up English Literature lessons in school being forced to read the same sections of a book over and over and over, analysing it to death and taking all the fun out for reading. This has lead me to having missed out on many a ‘canon’ author including Jane Austen, and people said a small collection of her early work didn’t count, so when I embarked, with AJ Reads, upon the idea of Classically Challenged she was the first author I wanted to try and thanks to you, and your votes, I did so with ‘Persuasion’. Did it persuade me to read anything else by her though?

Oxford University Press, paperback, 1817 (2008 edition), fiction, 304 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

If they had had the expression ‘middle child syndrome’ in the early 1800’s then I think Anne Elliot, the heroine of ‘Persuasion’, would be a prime example of someone who could suffer it, though being a heroine of course she doesn’t. She has a vain and wealth obsessed father and sisters, elder unmarried Elizabeth and younger married Mary, and so really she is overlooked by most of her family. Fortunately she does have the attention of neighbouring Lady Russell who was her sadly deceased mother’s best friend. However Sir Walter Elliot though obsessed with his position in life and wealth, is lacking in how to keep or make the right amount of money and so has to rent his estate, Kellynch-hall out which in doing so brings a former, rather fortunately unknown, engagement, Captain Wentworth, of Anne’s younger years back into her life and also a whole host of people that change her perception of what life can be and what can indeed be made of it.

I have to say that I really, really enjoyed ‘Persuasion’. I will happily admit that I found the first page to be one of the most mind numbing and off putting pieces of fiction that I have read in some time (which is interestingly the same thing, only for fifty more, that has stopped me getting anywhere with ‘Pride and Prejudice’) as Sir Walter reads about an almost encyclopaedic history of himself and all its pomp, which reads a little woodenly. Yet, just another page on I was suddenly hit with a beaming smile as the wit I had heard Jane Austen has, but didn’t believe she did, smacked me round the chops as Sir Walter’s pomp, causes him to look at everyone else around him, and I found it very funny.

“It sometimes happens, that a woman is handsomer at twenty-nine than she was ten years before; and, generally speaking, if there has been neither ill health nor anxiety, it is a time of life at which scarcely any charm is lost. It was so with Elizabeth; still the same handsome Miss Elliot that she had begun to be thirteen years ago; and Sir Walter might be excused, therefore, in forgetting her age, or, at least, be deemed only half a fool, for thinking himself and Elizabeth as blooming as ever, amidst the wreck of good looks of everybody else; for he could plainly see how old the rest of his family and acquaintance were growing. Anne haggard, Mary coarse, every face in the neighbourhood worsting; and the rapid increase of the crow’s foot about Lady Russell’s temples had long been a distress to him.”

From this point in the book was honestly a real joy. I felt that I actually ‘got’ Jane Austen and the more I read on the more and more I realised that my preconceptions of her were way off the mark. I had imagined this would all be rather twee and sentimental but have the happy ending I was expecting. Here I must say I did guess the ending but firstly I loved the twists that went on throughout and secondly doesn’t the ending have a dark ominous overtone?  What I actually got was a very witty, often a little darkly so, and intelligent and wryly perceptive author who clearly watched and observed and then, in wonderful prose – though it took me a little while to get into the Olde English, writes it almost to a level of pastiche, yet so convincing it never goes too far, for the reader to enjoy.

I must add here that I am never ever letting my editor moan at me about how much I over use comma’s. I shall simply say ‘have you read Jane Austen?’ and leave it at that. I liked the fact we had this in common and as I read on I became more and more sure that had I sat with her, people watching over a pot of Earl Grey tea, I would have very much enjoyed her company and possibly laughed quite a lot as I did throughout the book. I am not sure I was always meant to find everything as hilarious as I did, Louisa’s fall in particular, but I giggled, occasionally wickedly a lot, sometimes at the most subtle of things.

“’There we differ, Mary’ said Anne. ‘I am sure Lady Russell would like him. I think she would be so much pleased with his mind, that she would very soon see no deficiency in his manner.’
 ‘So do I, Anne’ said Charles. ‘I am sure Lady Russell would like him. He is just Lady Russell’s sort. Give him a book, and he will read all day long.’
 ‘Yes, that he will!’ exclaimed Mary, tauntingly. ‘He will sit poring over his book, and not know when a person speaks to him, or when one drops one’s scissors, or anything that happens. Do you think Lady Russell would like that?’”

The other aspect of her writing is how much of an insight it gives into the social state of the country at the time and indeed the plight of women. Firstly there is the fact that all women seem to be failures if they do not marry ‘up’ or, heaven forbid, marry at all. No wonder Anne is disproved of when she turns down Charles, who Mary then marries (awkward much?) and isn’t sure the debonair and seemingly wealthy Mr Elliot is right for her. More interesting for me was the cases of Miss Smith, who I really loved and wanted to look after, illustrated the plight of a widowed woman of no wealth and at the other end of the spectrum was the rather matriarchal Lady Russell who seemed to have it so easy, well apart from the loss of her husband that is. I found this all rather fascinating, the shock of Anne wanting to associate with a woman who couldn’t even afford a servant rather hit me, and also highlighted what a bunch of pompous pests she unfortunately was related to.

This does bring me to my only slight qualm with the book and Austen’s writing. Here we go, get ready for everyone who is sat thinking ‘see we knew you would like her and find her faultless’ to get a little more annoyed, but I want to be honest. In some of the characters, having seen so many adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, whilst not having read it I know, I felt that I had seen them before. There were a few Mrs Bennett’s and indeed a rather Wickham like character which whilst never stopped me enjoying ‘Persuasion’, indeed all the ‘vexing’ is wonderful, did spoil one twist in the tale alas. It made me wonder if all her novels have the same set characters and aim to achieve the same moralistic, yet also rather fairytale like, ends. I shall have to read more to make up my mind.

If you haven’t guessed already I was quite smitten with ‘Persuasion’ and also with its author. I got a whole lot more than I bargained for and indeed had my misconceptions of Austen and her writing have been fully highlighted and I see the error of my assumptions. If all of her novels contain this level of observance, wonderful characters be they good or bad, illustration of the human condition (and amazingly people still behave like this, maybe why it resonates to this day), emotion, humour and wry commentary I could become a hardened fan.

I will definitely be reading much more of Jane Austen’s work in the future, so if you have any recommendations for the next port of call do let me know, in the meantime though I am really excited about reading the rest of the Classically Challenged titles (next is ‘The Warden’ by Anthony Trollope) with AJ, whose thoughts on ‘Persuasion’ will be live here in due course, over the next few months. For now though… what are your thoughts on ‘Persuasion’?

P.S I am so sorry this post is so lengthy, the book gave me so much to write about.

40 Comments

Filed under Books of 2012, Classically Challenged, Jane Austen, Oxford University Press, Review

Classically Challenged Giveaway #1; Persuasion by Jane Austen

So to get Classically Challenged off to a wonderful start officially Oxford University Press have kindly offered to give away three copies of ‘Persuasion’ by Jane Austen on my blog and another three on AJ’s blog too. It is the first read of the series, so with only three and a half weeks to get it to you and let you have time to read it for the first Classically Challenged discussion on Sunday the 28th of October this initial giveaway is UK based only.

So what do you have to do to win one of these gorgeously covered copies of ‘Persuasion’? Well, now that you have asked, you need to do a little persuading for me and for AJ. You see ‘Bleak House’ and ‘Great Expectations’ are neck and neck with votes to be read in December and we would like you to simply recommend one of them in the comments below, and/or in the comments on AJ’s post, telling us why you loved it so much. If you haven’t read either yet then you can simply state which one you would most like to read out of the two. It is that simple.

You have until midnight GMT on Saturday night to enter the draw and the winners will be chosen at random out of a hat and announced on Monday when we announce which Dickensian delight we will be reading from your votes. Good luck and don’t forget to double your chances by visiting AJs blog too!

9 Comments

Filed under Classically Challenged, Give Away, Oxford University Press

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

When I was plotting my Spending Sundays with a Classic’ season I have to admit that ‘The Great Gatsby’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald was a book I put on the list because I thought that it was a book I really ought to have read. Which inevitably then made me a little wary, possibly sulky even, about my having to read it. My Mum then buoyed my spirits by saying ‘you’ll love it and its short’ only then when I mentioned at Book Group last Tuesday I had just started it there were some audible groans from around the table. Add to this that I had read his short story collection ‘Tales of the Jazz Age’ for an old book group and thought it boring and you will see I wasn’t filled with high hopes for ‘The Great Gatsby’ but I was wrong, I actually really rather liked it.

As the book opens in the 1920’s we meet Nick Carraway who has settled near New York, in West Egg around Long Island to be precise, where having fought in the war he now wants to settle and learn the business of bonds and is sponsored for his first year by his father. Knowing no one he reacquaints himself with a second cousin Daisy Buchanan and also her husband Tom, three year old barely mentioned or seen daughter, and their dear friend the female golfer Jordan Baker. He also finds himself in the world of ‘old money’. At their first meeting Jordan makes rather a beeline for Nick and lets him in on the secret that Tom has a mistress in an attempt to ingratiate herself and attract his attention (we soon learn this is Myrtle Wilson the wife of a simple garage owner).

Tom also soon introduces himself to his neighbour, in a rather roundabout way involving a library which I desperately wanted, Jay Gatsby who is very much ‘new money’ at one of his fabulous parties. Here he again sees Jordan Baker who yet again “accidentally” hints at something secret and illicit that links Gatsby, who many people find a mystery and believe ‘he killed a man’, and the Buchanan’s. What that is of course I won’t share here in case it should spoil anything for someone new to the novel, what follows though is not only the demystifying of ‘The Great Gatsby’ but a bleak drama rather filled with tragedy which I really, really wasn’t expecting. I think it was the unexpected high drama that made this book rather an enjoyable read; I’m not quite sure what that says about me.

I really enjoyed F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prose in this novel. Lines like ‘she sparkled like an angry diamond’ and its kind really added something to this book, they seemed to capture the people and place in a sentence. I am left wondering whether its because since reading ‘Tales of the Jazz Age’ I have changed as a reader and so has my reading tastes (I love the 20’s and 30’s now but it’s a recent thing) or if this is simply a much better book, maybe a revisit is in order? I loved Jordan Baker who lets slip all these wonderful secrets here there and everywhere and drives like a lunatic not caring because ‘it takes two to make an accident darling’. Actually looking back on it seems the only fully fleshed out character and maybe that’s where the small glitch came. I realised I would never get a hold on Gatsby until the end as really that’s part of the book, I just wish Daisy and Tom and their motives had seemed less superficial, but then that was really all they were about so maybe that was the point.

I found ‘The Great Gatsby’ a really pleasant surprise mainly because it was full of surprises itself which made it so readable. It’s a short book that slowly unravels and you do have to bear with it as a big cast of characters and intricate plot points start to get thrown at you, in the end though its worth a little struggle and confusion as it pays off with a read that will hit you more than you thought it might. 8/10

I’m now intrigued why so many people have visibly frowned when I have mentioned the title and am hoping some of them will share that today. What have you all made of ‘The Great Gatsby’? It’s funny though as actually despite having enjoyed this novel I am not sure I would rush to pick up another book by F. Scott Fitzgerald and I can’t quite put my finger on why not.  I do love the titles of ‘Tender is the Night’ and particularly ‘The Beautiful and Damned’ as it sounds so dramatic but I feel a little hesitant. Should I be?

40 Comments

Filed under F. Scott Fitzgerald, Oxford University Press, Penguin Books, Penguin Classics, Review

A Study in Scarlet – Arthur Conan Doyle

When I was compiling my three/four books for my Triple Choice Tuesday for Reading Matters a few weeks ago I knew in some shape or form I would have to include a Sherlock Holmes mystery by the marvellous Arthur Conan Doyle. These books, this author and indeed the character have been a big push in my reading life three times, more on that later, and I also realised I rarely do any re-reading. So, along with the vague memory of me saying I would have a Sherlock Holmes-a-thon back when I saw the film, I decided to return to the very first Sherlock Holmes mystery and see if we could get reacquainted.

If you are like me and like to read a series from the start then with Sherlock Holmes you have to start with ‘A Study in Scarlet’. It is actually the book in which Dr Watson, just back from the army after being injured, becomes introduced to the mysterious and slightly odd Sherlock Holmes via a mutual acquaintance as they are both looking for shared digs. You guessed it; this is of course the now infamous address 221B Baker Street.

As the two slowly get to learn more about each others habits Dr Watson soon discovers that Sherlock Holmes is indeed an amateur detective, though only in terms that it is not under an official capacity as the police come to him for help. It is then little time before Watson ends up on the trail with Sherlock for a murderer in on of the most baffling mysteries London has seen in some time. That of the unscathed dead man, found in a derelict house in Brixton, who is surrounded by blood that is not his own and the word ‘Rache’ written in blood on the wall!

Naturally being a Sherlock Holmes mystery you can expect the unexpected and an impossible sounding case that by the end Sherlock Holmes will have made seem easier than playing chess against a five year old. You can also expect horse cab chases, a sight into the Victorian underbelly, dead ends and twists through the London streets. If you love a good mystery or a great Victorian book then this is definitely for you. I still think there is yet to be a detective or a series that betters Sherlock Holmes.

The one thing I had forgotten about ‘A Study in Scarlet’ since reading it many, many moons ago was that it’s a book of two halves. The first is working out who the murderer is, the second takes us to foreign shores and looks at how the case ended up where it did and the aftermath. This half has a very different tone, the first being told by Watson and has the gloom of London, the second being set in sunnier climates told like an adventure story (which Conan Doyle was also very famous for) involving love that cannot be and the Latter Day Saints. (That is all I will say on the plot.) Initially I was a little cross as I wanted more Holmes and he features little in the second half, but then as a whole book it has more impact, you only realise just how much cleverer Sherlock is than you could even think. I thoroughly enjoyed this and read it in two sittings. 7.5/10

I mentioned that Arthur Conan Doyle, his tales and his characters have had a very big impact on me as a reader. When I used to go on walking holidays with Granny Savidge, my Grandad plus her brother, my Great Uncle Derek, and his wife Pat we could walk up to and sometimes over ten miles a day. Uncle Derek would memorise Conan Doyle stories, not all Sherlock, to tell me as we went. I then learnt there were books and became addicted. After I stopped reading from about the age of 17 – 23 (I know shocking) what was the very first book I bought? A delightful 70’s edition of The Hound of The Baskervilles of course. When my Granddad died and I feared I could never read again, sounds dramatic but I honestly though it was the case, which series managed to hold my attention? Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘Tales of Adventure’ and ‘Tales of the Supernatural’ of course! So in many ways these books go past a comfort read (not that they are by any means cosy) and are a nostalgic read and mean a lot to me.

Do you have any nostalgic reads? Have you ever read any Sherlock Holmes, and if you have which have you loved the most (no plot spoilers)? Have you yet to read a word of Conan Doyle, and if not why not? Which other of his non-Sherlock works have any of you tried?

Oh and I have included the covers of both Penguin’s edition and Oxford University Press as I have both… and about three different editions from the 60’s – 80’s at my Mums!!! Oops!

21 Comments

Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Oxford University Press, Penguin Books, Penguin Classics, Review

The Castle of Otranto – Horace Walpole

I am really glad that I started doing the ‘Do I Want To Read’ posts because you have been marvellous at letting me know some of your thoughts on some of the books I have been umming and ahhhing over, or as I like to call it ‘quibbling about’, of late. One such book was ‘The Castle of Otranto’ by Horace Walpole which I had never heard of before Novel Insights mentioned it and then many of you said was the original ‘gothic’ story.

If I was just to write a one word review for this novel then I think it would have to be ‘bonkers’.  As the book opens you meet Manfred, the owner of ‘The Castle of Otranto’, his wife Hippolita and their children Conrad and Matilda. Manfred is obsessed about keeping the family line alive yet Hippolita has only managed to give him a rather sickly heir in Conrad. As the book opens Manfred has arranged a marriage between a young girl Isabella and Conrad in order that a new male heir may be in the family as soon as possible. Only on the big day a giant helmet with plumed feathers falls from the sky and crushes Conrad. See I told you it was bonkers.

From this point on Manfred goes almost mad for fear of a prophecy ‘that the castle and the lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large from it’, no it doesn’t make sense but it’s a great plot device for Manfred to then decide he wants to marry Isabella and disown Hippolita whether they like it or not. Though Manfred didn’t expect the arrival of a stranger in the village that fate seems to throw in his path at every turn. A tale of secrets passages, mysteries, knights, giants, trysts and death then ensues with lashings of drama.

I liked it, I am not sure I could or would say it was my favourite book ever. I found the lack of space between the characters speech really confusing but that was how they wrote then so is me the reader that is at fault not the book or the author. I liked the craziness of it all and yet it worked against it for me. There’s too many unexplained random moments and turns of events that you suddenly have no idea where you are in the story or who is who. I will say you do carry on because it’s quite short and Walpole keeps the pace and momentum up. You do occasionally think ‘not another revelation’ but that’s all part of the fun. An interesting short read if you want something truly classic, its was originally published in 1764, fancy trying a truly Gothic book (I have heard that this being the first it suffers from then having been bettered later a little) and don’t mind a completely barmy plot that can go off at any tangent at any moment.

I liked this as a bizarre and enjoyable romp between some other books, I do think it may have suffered somewhat because I read it after ‘Skin Lane’ and ‘The Loved One’ which having been such wonderful, wonderful reads meant any book I read after would have to blow my bookish socks of. ‘The Castle of Otranto’ didn’t do that, it did give me a delightful escape into a world of fiction I hadn’t tried before but I definitely want to read much more gothic works in the future and I am very glad I started with what is deemed the first. It also took me out of my comfort zone which is always a bonus. Where should I go gothically next I wonder?

28 Comments

Filed under Horace Walpole, Oxford University Press, Review

Flush – Virginia Woolf

You might just be wondering why on earth after my poor success with both ‘Mrs Dalloway’ and ‘To The Lighthouse’ today I am once more writing about Virginia Woolf. While a lot of bloggers will be talking about ‘Orlando’ over here I decided that I would do something a little different and yet still in keeping with ‘Woolf in Winter’ by reading ‘Flush’ and trying once again to see if I can get to grips with good old Ginny.

The premise of Flush in many ways I thought would mean that it really wouldn’t work for me. First of all it’s a biography and second of all the subject of the biography is indeed a dog called Flush. Though this is quite an important dog who originally belonging to the writer Mary Mitford (not of the famous Mitford’s, well I don’t think so) and then to the writer Elizabeth Barrett Browning when Mary was poor and Elizabeth was sick. This could have possibly been an utter write off and Ginny and I could have parted ways forever.

Odd then that I really, really enjoyed this book isn’t it? From the very opening paragraphs that take us through the history of the spaniel, which could have easily been a dull read but in some ways became a mini-historical adventure, I was enjoying myself and I hadn’t even met the delightful main character yet. Flush is a wonderful character indeed, he is one of life’s enthusiasts, a bit of a rogue (he is a father before you could even credit it), loyally to the point of fearlessly protective and in his own way very democratic. The fact that he almost becomes human though always clearly a dog is a credit to Woolf and her writing (which I have previously admired though never really ‘got’).

This isn’t just a book about a delightful dog though. Through her subject and using extracts of letters from Mitford and Barrett Browning we see parts of the lives, though in the main the latter, of two wonderful writers. You gain insights into the lives of a Victorian country woman with no money forced to sell her precious pooch and then get whisked into the world of a bed ridden well to do woman on the cusp of love which proves a life changing event for both herself and her beloved dog. (The scenes between Flush and Elizabeth’s suitor are wonderfully written.) Flush is of course the star of this tale and rightly so as clearly both of his mistresses loved him dearly and I dare say any reader of this book will become an instant fan of Flush too.

Though I don’t think I am ready for ‘The Waves’ in two weeks time, I am now much more positive about future Woolf reading and have another Woolf read lined up for a fortnight instead. I am pleased I gave her another shot and just goes to show why even after two books you should never write a writer off!

If you have been reading ‘Orlando’ then do pop over here to where the discussion is going on. First though have you any other Woolf books that are slightly off the well beaten Woolf-ish track? Which authors have you tried and failed with and then tried and fallen in love a little with (their writing rather than the author ha, ha)? Have you read Flush?

27 Comments

Filed under Oxford University Press, Persephone Books, Review, Virginia Woolf

Les Liaisons Dangereuses – Choderlos de Laclos

For this months Riverside Readers book group choice (which was last night) Polly of Novel Insights had chosen the classic novel ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ by Choderlos de Laclos. Having seen the film quite a few times but not for a few years I was intrigued to see if the book would be as good as the film. I know normally we all worry that a film will not be as good as a book but Dangerous Liaisons is one amazing film. If you haven’t seen it then you really must. Back to the book…

Dangerous Liaisons (or Les Liaisons Dangereuses as my title was) is really a tale of love, hate, and lavish deviousness. From their separate abodes, or indeed the abodes of others, two bored aristocrats use the people they know as pawns in a game of deceit. The Marquis de Merteuil writes to her former lover the Vicomte de Valmont as she has decided to ruin the soon to be bride of Comte de Gercourt. This is a man she has a bone to pick with and so sets up spoiling his future young bride, a fifteen year old by the name of Cecile Volanges, in any way she can and wants Valmont’s help and also you get the feeling she wants him to be in awe of her wickedness which she is no doubt the better at. However Valmont is currently planning his greatest scandal yet the ruin of Presidente de Tourvel, the wife of a judge and a highly religious women. Valmont is decided he will make her fall in love with him, sleep with her and then leave her. There are much more debauched things going on but I wouldn’t want to give to many of these wicked acts away.

As the book continues the lives of these two marvellously cunning scoundrels draw in a whole cast of other characters who become embroiled in their web of plots and lies, from Cecile’s piano teacher Danceny, who she becomes besotted with, to her mother Madame de Volanges a friend and confident of both Merteuil and Tourvel. As the letters fly back and forth between this collection of characters Laclos creates an amazing plot which constantly twists and darkens as the dastardly duo of Valmont and Merteuil try to complicate things for one another and better each other in acts of their cunning.

I don’t know if you can tell yet that I absolutely adored this book. I thought it was wonderful and wish Laclos had written so much more. I did have a small gripe with the book which was that the middle does go on for quite sometime whereas the ending is very sudden and swift and I would have quite liked it to have been more drawn out. I thought the way Laclos wrote women was spectacular particularly the fact that all the women involved are so very different. His characters were all incredibly well constructed, Merteuil in particular is just a marvellously wicked complex woman, I did find Denceny quite wet and irritating but that also makes him slightly amusing. Every single one different even the way they wrote letters you always knew who was corresponding to who even if you had to put the book down mid-letter to make a cup of tea.

I hadn’t noticed until book group that scene setting isn’t really something Laclos does. You never get much description of where you are.But then as readers we all have to use our imaginiation don’t we?  Personally for me it wasn’t an issue as I didn’t notice because this book is very much about the internal mind games of two people. You do also get a real impression of society at that point in the history of France through the actions of the characters and the way they react to certain events as the story goes. It’s a marvellous tale that is wickedly entertaining and delightfully depraved. I urge you to read this book if you haven’t. If you have read it what did you think?

You can find other members of the book groups thoughts at Novel Insights, Reading Matters, Paperback Reader and Farmlanebooks

28 Comments

Filed under Book Group, Choderlos de Laclos, Oxford University Press, Review

East Lynne – Ellen Wood

I mentioned the other day that out of all the sensation season reading material so far Ellen Wood’s (or Mrs Henry Wood) ‘East Lynne’ has been by far the most complex and difficult to get through. I want to make it clear that I don’t mean that in a bad way. In fact the main reason it’s quite a book to get through is because of a whole host of characters (initially a village full) and a whole host of plots. This isn’t for those of you who are looking for a throw away sensational read you have to dive in and just go for it. Once you have read the final page though you will be left in no doubt that this is a masterpiece and may, as many say, be the mother of all sensation novels.

East Lynne is a grand old house not to far from the village of West Lynne, you will learn to love the village and all of its wonderful (even if some are downright evil) characters. From the first chapter we are introduced to the main character of the book Isabel Vane or as the first chapter is called ‘The Lady Isabel’ who lives in East Lynne with her father not knowing he has sold the house to local solicitor Archibald Carlyle. We join them as they first meet and naturally Carlyle falls in love with her one site, as one must this is after all a sensation novel.

The very same night Lady Isabel meets Captain Francis Levison a charming man who she instantly falls in love with though he proves a real rogue. Isabel’s father dies shortly after and Isabel finds herself left with a not so nice member of the family before accepting Archibald Carlyle’s hand in marriage admitting to him she doesn’t love him but one day she may. Throw in a possessive half sister, the wonderfully named Cornelia Carlyle, a local girl Barbara Hare who is clearly in love with Archibald and keeps meeting him in secret (though its actually because her brother is wanted for a murder he didn’t commit – see lots of stray storylines) send the delicate Isabel to France for respite where she meets Captain Levison again and you have the perfect recipe for one hell of a sensational novel… and that is not even half of the story. I can’t give away anymore and no one should as it would spoil such a wonderful, wonderful book.

The faults that I have seen reported in other thoughts on this book are that it’s too far fetched and yes in a way the plot is quite implausible… but this is sensation fiction (and fiction in general does this Nineteen Eighty-Four anyone?) and that in part is what its about. Though, if you research it, actually at the time divorce was becoming available in society. This book does look at the social history of the time along with the sanctity of ‘family’ in that period as step mothers who were from second marriages, not from the death of the first wife but of divorce instead, started to appear more things for women were changing again as naturally divorces were always in favour of the male party.

Enough of the social history and back to the book… I just thought the characters were wonderful. I loved the delicate, often flighty and slightly idiotic Isabel. She isn’t calculating just rash and fanciful and in a way her story is quite a tragic one and shows the lengths some people could go to for family, I can’t give anything more away than that. I though the bubbly Barbara Hare was a very interesting character with hidden depths. Naturally it was for me the icy, sister in law spinster Cornelia Carlyle who just for me walked off every page of the book as if she was in the room filling it with her (often wrong or prejudiced) opinions and thoughts. A magnificent character, in fact a magnificent set of characters. Throw in all of the plots, back stories and twists and I was left quite breathless by its brilliance.

This book has not only made me want to read everything that Ellen Wood (or Mrs Henry Wood) has ever written it has in many ways opened me up more to the idea of reading many more books that have such a grand scale and are so filled with several plots and characters which is giving me hope for reading Dickens in the future. I can certainly see why everyone at the time bought this book in their droves; it’s just a shame that they don’t do that now. I am hoping this will help, I will make sure I pop and say thank you to Ellen Wood every time I pass her at Highgate, she deserves more recognition.

If you are wondering why I haven’t used the most famous quote in the book, and it is very famous, it’s because it gives away quite a lot when you know some of the plot, so don’t go searching for it. So who else has read this? If you haven’t why on earth not you must run out and get it now.

13 Comments

Filed under Books of 2009, Ellen Wood, Mrs Henry Wood, Oxford University Press, Review, Sensation Novels

Aurora Floyd – Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Aurora Floyd by Mary Elizabeth Braddon is the eight novel I have been reading for my Sensation Season. I didn’t notice until today that I am well over half way through and I know I will miss it when it’s done and dusted. It’s actually made me feel much happier that I chose to reduce the amount and have several sensation novels to read in the future other wise I would feel quite bereft. It’s been a season of much Wilkie Collins, who has fared better and better officially becoming one of my favourite authors. Mary Elizabeth Braddon wrote another of my favourite books of all time; will Braddon become one of my favourite authors after reading another of her novels?

Aurora Floyd confused me slightly at the start until I realised the opening chapter wasn’t actually about our heroine, though whether that’s a justifiable label for her is debatable during the book, and is in fact about her mother. Once the tale of Aurora herself starts we head into sensation territory with a big secret that Aurora carries.

Now though the blurb on the back of the book gives everything away (why do publishers do this), I don’t want to. Suffice to say that once happily married, after quite a turbulent set of proposals and suitors, the past comes back to haunt Aurora as she nestles happily married to John Mellish, a character I adored, and becomes a lady of the country. What the blurb doesn’t give away is though the secret becomes revealed a murder takes place leaving a wonderful whodunit suddenly and the whole feel of the book changes once more. I am saying no more but its brilliantly written and amateur detectives amongst you will revel in it like I did.

I will admit that I did struggle with this book to start of. Whilst by the end I understood the need for Aurora’s heritage to be shown, at the beginning it seemed an irrelevant chapter and I wont lie it did throw me into a small confusion, in fact the first few chapters did as everything gets set up very quickly before a hundred and fifty pages of gentle hinting and romantic interludes which didn’t thrill me. It was the last 170 pages or so that made the wait worthwhile as the twists and turns I wasn’t expecting suddenly came to light and then I could barely put the book down.

I will also admit that the plot in many ways isn’t too differential from what you may have already read in Braddon’s earlier sensation classic Lady Audley’s Secret although this novel has more of a whodunit feel in many ways. I do think that Braddon’s writing improved with this novel, I didn’t think it was bad before as you know I loved it, but the characters seemed to walk off the page that much more with this one. The evilness of Mrs Powell and Steven ‘Softy’ Hargreaves was wonderful and the fact she actually went into their heads as well as Aurora’s made for fascinating reading and touched on social stigmas too.

Reading this back I sound like I am disappointed with this book and that’s not the case. I don’t think it packs the punch that Lady Audley’s Secret did as after a flurried start it goes very calm before the climatic ending which could put people off. I wavered a few times in the middle and had some ‘oh this is hard work’ moments but never enough to give up reading to the end and thank goodness for that. It just goes to show how and ending or the last 100 or so pages can utterly change your opinion of a book and I am thoroughly glad I persevered. I am looking forward to reading more Braddon with ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ in a few weeks time, I must read Madame Bovary first though as apparently there are parallels! Next week it is the infamous Wilkie Collins classic, and one of my favourite novels, ‘The Woman in White’.

10 Comments

Filed under Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Oxford University Press, Review, Sensation Novels

The Dead Secret – Wilkie Collins

So now it is time for me to divulge all of my thoughts on the latest Sensation Sunday read. I was tempted to call this post ‘a sensationally sick Sunday’ as I have been hit by some bug that’s made me feel unbelievably tired, throaty and nauseous hence why the post is a bit late… have been doing a lot of Sunday snoozing! Something must be going around, though I do find it most unfair that it has chosen a time when I am relaxing with a few weeks off to make me feel so rubbish. Hopefully is just a twenty four hour thing and will be back in my stride tomorrow. I have noticed though that since I had swine flu my immune system has been really poor. Anyway, enough about me lets move onto more about my latest foray into another fictional world of Wilkie Collins.

The Dead Secret is one of the Wilkie Collins novels that I have been looking forward to the most and not just because of the wonderful title. I have been really looking forward to it because people in the know, from many Wilkie Collins sites, say that this book is an incredibly important book in his career as it was the first book published for the purpose of serialisation and was in many ways the book that influenced his style in the future on the following novel he wrote which happens to be the legendary ‘Woman in White’ which is also one of my very favourite books. Also one of the main characters, a tragic servant figure, in this book then appears in ‘The Moonstone’. This is why I have started to do my research on books as I read them as its fascinating but what of the actual plot and book itself.

It is a scene on a death bed that aptly opens this novel as Mrs Treverton dictates her own (you guessed it) deadly secret onto her maid whom she also implicates in whatever the secret may be. I would tell you all but then what would be the point of the book as though in typical Wilkie style you are given some big clues, and plenty of red herrings, nothing is fully revealed until much later on or why would anyone read it? The maid against her mistresses’ wishes does not pass on the secret to Mr Treverton instead hiding it in the disused part of the Treverton’s home, the dark, wonderfully rambling and mysterious Porthgenna Tower in the knowledge no one will find it.

Fifteen years later though Porthgenna Tower has been sold on Mrs Treverton’s daughter Rosamond becomes the new mistress. On her way back to become mistress of her childhood home fate intervenes, through Rosamond’s giving birth, and a last minute nurse imparts the message ‘when you go to Porthgenna, keep out of the Myrtle Room’. Naturally and given to the fact that Rosamond is a wonderfully flighty yet headstrong character she resolves that that is the very thing she will do, but what is The Dead Secret she will uncover?

How Wilkie Collins does all this in just over 350 pages (one of his shortest novels) is quite amazing. This book is filled with mystery from the start and shows the true meaning of ‘page turning’ and cliff-hanger chapter endings which Collins became so famous for. I was utterly gripped from the gothic death bed opening scene until the final word of the last chapter. What this book also has in abundance, which so far in the sensation season I hadn’t noticed so strongly, is quirky and wonderful characters which even if are only used for a chapter are drawn in such depth you would read about every single one. Be they the leads character such as Rosamond or the hilarious and slightly irritating hypochondriac and whittler Mr Phippen, the sneaky deviousness of Mr Shrowl, the indignant Mrs Norbury or the ever happy Miss Sturch. This book has everything and I think shows exactly why Wilkie Collins not only became one of the great and most popular writers of his time and over 100 years on has become one of my most favoured writers. A must read if ever there was one.  

The next Sensation Season read is Aurora Floyd by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, which I am already looking forward to, and will be next Sunday. I am now off to find some comfort reading though what my exact ‘comfort reading’ is I am never quite sure. What’s the latest sensation book you have read, will you be adding this to the TBR? I do hope so.

14 Comments

Filed under Books of 2009, Oxford University Press, Review, Sensation Novels, Wilkie Collins