Tag Archives: Oxford University Press

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

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… Part II

So last week I told you of my plans with my friend AJ, of AJ Reads, to start challenging ourselves by reading some of the classic canon authors that are heralded by many as the greatest writers of all time, and yet are a selection of writers which neither of us has read. We chose Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens, Edith Wharton (who I had completely forgotten was American but we are going with it regardless), Thomas Hardy and George Eliot as six authors to focus on over six months but asked you to vote for which title by each author we should read. Well with the exception in the case of George Eliot, as we decided we needed to take on ‘Middlemarch’. Well you responded in your droves, and before I reveal which titles will be read and when, technically on your say so, I wanted to share some exciting news about the project…

The lovely people at Oxford University Press, after a natter with them, are rather thrillingly coming on board with the whole project. Who really could be better with all the Oxford World Classics they print (we have even been talking about doing a European version this time next year with Zola etc)? Now they aren’t sponsoring us or anything but they have kindly offered to help with some special posts and excitingly for all of you (and AJ and I as we have parcels on the way) give away copies of all the books that we will be reading over the next few weeks and months. Starting with a giveaway of the first read today, more on that in another post but that does link into what you voted for!

Both AJ and I were really thrilled with the amounts of votes on both our blogs and on GoodReads and the diversity of titles was quite interesting to see, some neither of us have heard of. Yet the figures have spoken for themselves and AJ has done some magic in making pie charts for each author and how the votes fell. I have made them small so that if you aren’t bothered on anything but the results you can scroll on, if you are more intrigued you should be able to click on them and make them bigger. Anyway, first up Jane Austen…

It seems this October we will be, on the last Sunday of the month as will become the routine, discussing ‘Persuasion’ which was a huge favourite with you all and surprised me as I was almost one hundred percent sure that it would be ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and might have to wade my way through the first fifty pages again. Seems not!

Next up in November will be ‘The Warden’ by Anthony Trollope, I was quite pleased at this because ‘Barchester Towers’ was initially doing really well but, as you may all know, I do like to start a series at the beginning and unlike some of the selections its relatively short.

December will be Dickens. Now here we have a slight problem and so the voting is remaining open, as ‘Bleak House’ and ‘Great Expectations’ are currently in a tie. So we need you all to vote for just one of them and say why. And if you do this in the comments of the post below you can win a copy of ‘Persuasion’ for persuading us, see what I did there?  There will be a second chance to vote again tomorrow with another giveaway.

In January we will be heading to ‘The House of Mirth’ with Edith Wharton which I am rather excited about. I have realised with both Dickens and this title I will get to see Gillian Anderson, who I love, in the adaptations I will watch after, no bad thing that.

February, we will be seeing the spring in with ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’. It was very nearly Thomas Hardy’s ‘Jude the Obscure’ which lots and lots of you said I would really like. Why? I have heard this is the most depressing book on earth, what are you all inferring? Ha!

Finally in March we will be reading the aptly titled ‘Middlemarch’ which by the length of it I won’t be starting in the middle of March but more likely at Christmas and reading it in parts, as it was serialised after all. Phew, that is the lot! If you are a little puzzled as to the chronological order, keep your eyes peeled on the new ‘Classically Challenged’ page on the blog which will be updated with a simpler schedule later.

In the meantime get voting for which Dickens novel we should read in the previous post (and/or on AJ’s post) from ‘Bleak House’ or ‘Great Expectations’ and you could win ‘Persuasion’ with your powers of, erm, persuasion. Also let us know if you might be joining in with any of them with us, we are hoping many of you will.

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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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The Book Buying Ban… The Update (Part II)

Only earlier this week I mentioned that though it was in many ways painful and was taking some serious avoidance my month of no book buying hasn’t been quite as difficult as I thought it would. This is both thanks to ReadItSwapIt and the Library as I mentioned in the earlier post. I also said I had received some lovely parcels from some lovely publishers and would let you know what had arrived and so I thought as its a Saturday and book shopping is so tempting I would tease you with these delights that you could run out and buy; as none of you are doing anything as silly as a self imposed ban like I am hopefully!! First up some classics…

I have been making a concerted effort to read more classics and two publishers you cant go wrong with are Vintage Classics and Oxford University Press. When a rather large thud resounded through the building from the letterbox I came down and found ‘The Bronte Collection’ which includes Wuthering Heights, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Villette and Jane Eyre. I will admit I didnt love Wuthering Heights but after reading The Taste of Sorrow by Jude Morgan which is all about the sisters earlier this year I think a Bronte-Binge is on the way and the season after New Year seems perfect for this don’t you think? Might be a good Xmas pressie for relatives this Christmas maybe. (Hang on did I just mention the C word before December starts – I should be ashammed!) They also sent The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever and a huge collection of his letters. I havent read any Cheever but am thrilled about these two delights. Oxford University Press kindly sent the last of the Sensation Season novels (don’t cry they may be back again next year) in the form of Charles Dickens ‘Great Expectations’ along with George Moore’s ‘Esther Waters’ which hit my attention waves on BBC Radio 4’s Open Book show when they looked at neglected classics. Be warned – the neglected classics are dangerous list of books which could lead to a huge spree.

From the people at Harper arrived a very diverse collection of books in one big parcel, the postman is not a fan of this address – his arms certainly aren’t, quite an eclectic mix indeed. Two of the books are from thier new imprint Blue Door ‘The Ballad of Trench Mouth Taggart’ (great title) by M Glenn Taylor and Mots d’Heures: Gousses, Rames by Luis d’Antin Van Rooten the latter can only be described by a post on their new blog. Sounds bizarre but will give it a go. They also sent me Snow Hill a thriller by Mark Sanderson, who has written a memoir so heartbreaking I have owned it for years and never able to read, Mark will be doing a Savidge Reads Grills very soon. Last but not least by any means as actually this is one of the books I have been most excited about in weeks (as you know I am having an Agatha Christie binge) is ‘Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks’ compiled by John Curran, I had to stop myself reading it as soon as it arrived. It’s a treat for a very lazy Sunday.

Now in a few weeks I will be doing a piece on the books to look forward to over the next year, you can see the predictions I made for this year here should you wish. Already some are coming through the letter box and Sceptre have done some very clever marketing with a collection of three books and three characters “you simply must meet in 2010”. They are called Nevis Gow, Lindiwe Bishop and Jack Rosenblum and I shall tell you more about them in the forthcoming weeks. I just love how they have packaged it all, no titles or authors on the cover, intriguing.  Books already out arrived too and they are The Sorrows of an American by Siri Hustvedt, which I think has a stunning cover, and Incendiary by Chris Cleave and you all know how I loved The Other Hand.

Another massive parcel has arrived from Orion. I have succumbed to the latest in the Twilight Saga and it seems more Vampire delights await me with the first two of Charlaine Harris’ series about Sookie Stackhouse (great name) which have become the incredibly successful True Blood tv series. I haven’t heard much on the blogosphere on these but am very much intrigued by them as have seen tonnes on the tube.  The final tome that you can see is one thats not out until June next year but I have been priviledged enough to be asjed to take a very early look at. ‘The Passage’ by Justin Cronin is massive, comes with very little, though intriguing blurb and has already had the film rites bought by Ridley Scott, more on that soon too as I think this is going to be huge (and not just in size) next year. And finally…

It’s always nice when a publisher emails you be they big or small. I have to admit I hadn’t heard too much about Honno Press when they emailed me asking if they could send me a catalogue. Honno Press is an independent publisher of Welsh Women’s fiction (so a bit like a welsh version of Persephone if you are a fan) and they have a wonderful selection of books, they also go the extra mile as they went through my blog and picked three books they thought I would love. A welsh sensation novel ‘A Burglary’ by Amy Dillwyn, a book where “each generation looks back into the tragic past, loves, secrets and lies are hauled into the open with surprising consequences for all” in ‘Hector’s Talent for Miracles’ by Kitty Harri and finally a collection of witty, wry and sharply observed stories about women with ‘Stranger Within The Gates’ by Bertha Thomas. Sounds like they have got me spot on!!!

Blimey. Now over to you… are Bronte’s and other classics the perfect pressies for Christmas and reading as Spring… erm… springs up? Who has read the Charlaine Harris books, are they like Twilight? Who has tried Honno Press and what did you think?  What will you be curling up with this weekend? What books have you accumulated of late?

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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’.

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