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?)

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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…

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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.

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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?

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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!

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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?

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