Tag Archives: Classically Challenged

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

Simon’s Bookish Bits #33

I thought I would take the opportunity, as I am in a weird reading place at the moment, to catch up with you all as I realised I hadn’t for a while. So in the first ‘Bookish Bits’ of 2013 I thought we could catch up how all is going with Gran, a little very local library I have started, the joys and perils of letter writing and who knows I might throw in a cat picture or two along the way, maybe. Sound a plan?

This week has been a week that Gran-wise we have all been on tenterhooks about as we knew we would find out if the radiotherapy had worked. The news was good, if a little bittersweet, as it has worked (hooray) but the secret miracle we were hoping for, that it might make a terminal brain tumour vanish or become operable, hasn’t happened. The wonderful news is of course that we get to have her with us for longer and that it has kept her quality of life really good. So many more exciting times over the next few months with her still, you can see how exciting it is from the picture below (I will probably be disinherited for this, ha) of her and The Beard on one of our many trips…

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Reading wise I have to admit that I am in a bit of a funny old place. Reading by whim has been brilliant but occasionally I feel a little bit adrift, too many books to choose from –not that I am complaining – and so I have been picking up, starting and stopping quite a lot of books. At the same time though I have deadlines on books with Classically Challenged (I haven’t started Tess yet and keep nervously glancing at Middlemarch too) and the Persephone Project. I have noticed that when the deadline is near I automatically go off a book, but I have just started ‘Someone at a Distance’ by Dorothy Whipple, which is Persephone number three, and am hoping that sitting fixedly with a book will, once I have finished, will stick and this picking up then putting off in fickle favour of another book will stop. Any other tips for this?

I have to also admit I still haven’t finished clearing out the TBR and it is mounting up again. I did procrastinate productively though by building a local lending library… for all the apartments in our block. I thought it would be nice to have a place where people can pick up books on a whim (the books in the main are The Beard’s cast offs so please don’t judge me, judge him) and will not be another place I can pop books that I can’t decide if I do or don’t really want to read – honest!

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The other thing I have been doing lately is that almost forgotten art of… letter writing. Nicola Beauman, founder of the aforementioned Persephone books, sent me a really lovely postcard recently and so instead of emailing I sat and wrote back, it was quite relaxing – though when did letter writing become so painful on your wrists, or is that just a sign that I don’t do it enough. Anyway now I am limbering up for an extra special letter as I still, and we are talking almost a year later, have not written to Marieke Hardy, partly as I just think she is so funny and brilliant I am not sure a letter would live up, partly just because the last years been a bit mad. However, I have come up with a way of doing something special and I am planning on making the letter equivalent of Chris Ware’s ‘Building Stories’ which I have just popped on my birthday list. It’s going to be a letter with extras, post cards, book marks, photos, all sorts! For now though I am starting with the basics and getting the blinking letter written.

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I have actually just realised, having stopped to take a breath (and cook and eat a bacon and egg sandwich) that this whole post is rather like a letter. Maybe once a month I should so a kind of Newsletter on here, as I would not have a clue how to set one up online or do a mail out – nor do I think I am interesting enough to warrant one. But a monthly update might be nice maybe?

Oh and finally, before I whizz off to the library via the post office and taking Oscar for a walk (he still loves a lead) I guess it is time for a cat/kitten update. Well… after Millie suddenly went into heat, a rather bizarre and traumatic time for all four of us initially, they are now getting on like a house on fire. There is lots of play, and play fighting, lots of sleeping near each other and above all lots of ganging up with each other against their owners. Fun times! Isn’t Oscar huge now?

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Right, am off. Let me know how you are all doing and what you have been up to! Also let me know your thoughts on a monthly newsletter like post, how you are getting on with what you’re reading and any suggestions to help my weird reading phase. Thanks in advance.

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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

Some Cats Reading & Book Winners…

I thought I would combine announcing the winners of all of the Classically Challenged titles in my giveaways last weekend, which I find can be slightly boring in terms of blog posts, with some pictures of the cats as I haven’t updated you on them for a while (much to the relief of all you feline haters out there, ha).

You see I asked Millie if she would pick any of the winners out of a hat and alas she was far too busy frankly…

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Then I asked Oscar and I am afraid it was the same for him as he was otherwise engaged…

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So in the end I used an online random number generator and the winners of the books are as follows! The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton goes to Rhonda Reads, Lisa Jacobs and Jenny Snell. Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy goes to Joan Wilson, The Bronte Sister and Tracey Chick. And finally, Middlemarch by George Eliot goes to Joan Wilson (twice lucky), Elizabeth and June Seghni – you three brave souls. Could winners please email me their addresses to savidgereads@gmail.com with the title of the book you have won in the subject of the email, or I may never find it. If you haven’t won then do not fear as I believe AJ is giving these books away over the next few hours/days on his blog so pop and have a lucky dip there too. Good luck.

I’m off to do more reading with the cats…

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Classically Challenged Giveaway #6; Middlemarch – George Eliot

9780199536757_450So today is a day of book giveaways and the first, in conjuncture with Classically Challenged and lovely Oxford University Press, is ‘Middlemarch’ by George Eliot, which aptly we are reading in March but you might want to start reading like a serial now, I will be. Those lovely people at OUP (Kirsty and Chloe you are lovely) are kindly giving away three copies of the each Classically Challenged choice! Now normally I set some big crazy question but today, whilst I am busy culling my own TBR and adding to yours, I thought I would leave it very simple…

All you need to do is leave a comment of ‘yes please’ below this post and you will be plucked at random by The Beard, or maybe Oscar or Millie, sometime on early Monday morning, it is that easy!

You have until just before midnight tomorrow night to enter the draw (so basically 23.59 GMT on Sunday the 6th of January 2013). Good luck!

P.S AJ will also be giving three copies of these books away on his blog, so fear not if you don’t win you have twice the chances. Alas he seems to have been really ill over Christmas and gone AWOL but I will let you know when I hear back from him.

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Classically Challenged Giveaway #5; Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy

9780199537051_450So today is a day of book giveaways and the first, in conjuncture with Classically Challenged and lovely Oxford University Press, is ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ by Thomas Hardy, who you may have heard of. Those lovely people at OUP (Kirsty and Chloe you are lovely) are kindly giving away three copies of the each Classically Challenged choice! Now normally I set some big crazy question but today, whilst I am busy culling my own TBR and adding to yours, I thought I would leave it very simple…

All you need to do is leave a comment of ‘yes please’ below this post and you will be plucked at random by The Beard, or maybe Oscar or Millie, sometime on early Monday morning, it is that easy!

You have until just before midnight tomorrow night to enter the draw (so basically 23.59 GMT on Sunday the 6th of January 2013). Good luck!

P.S AJ will also be giving three copies of these books away on his blog, so fear not if you don’t win you have twice the chances. Alas he seems to have been really ill over Christmas and gone AWOL but I will let you know when I hear back from him.

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Classically Challenged Giveaway #4; The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton

9780199538102_450So today is a day of book giveaways and the first, in conjuncture with Classically Challenged and the lovely Oxford University Press, is ‘The House of Mirth’ by Edith Wharton. The lovely people (Kirsty and Chloe you are lovely) at OUP are kindly giving away three copies of the each Classically Challenged choice! Now normally I set some big crazy question but today, whilst I am busy culling my own TBR and adding to yours, I thought I would leave it very simple…

All you need to do is leave a comment of ‘yes please’ below this post and you will be plucked at random by The Beard, or maybe Oscar or Millie, sometime on early Monday morning, it is that easy!

You have until just before midnight tomorrow night to enter the draw (so basically 23.59 GMT on Sunday the 6th of January 2013). Good luck!

P.S AJ will also be giving three copies of these books away on his blog, so fear not if you don’t win you have twice the chances. Alas he seems to have been really ill over Christmas and gone AWOL but I will let you know when I hear back from him.

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