Tag Archives: Sensation Novels

Gillespie and I – Jane Harris

‘Gillespie and I’, the long awaited second novel by Jane Harris, is both a readers dream and a book thought/reviewers nightmare. You see somehow I am going to have to (no really, you have to) make you read this and yet somehow tell you very little about it. Yes, this is one of those novels that once read you want to talk to anyone and everyone about it. Yet it’s the very mystery, unease, tension and slowly twisting nature and psychology of the novel that means if you gave away any spoilers everything Jane Harris has set out and greatly achieved would be ruined. But here goes anyway…

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From her Bloomsbury home in 1933 aging Harriet Baxter tells us the tale of her beloved friend the artist Ned Gillespie and just how they became friends, after an initial earlier meeting, in May 1888 after saving his mother Elspeth’s life as she chokes on her own dentures at Glasgow’s famous International Exhibition, which Harriet has come to visit after the death of her aunt. Within a few pages of the novel we know that there is tragedy ahead, in fact we know what it is (though I am not telling you here, you need to buy the book) yet we have no idea why it happens or what causes it. You instantly know there is a lot more to this tale than meets the eye, intriguing.

As we read on Harriet slowly but surely gives away hints as to what might be unfolding, there are tensions between members of the family and spouses, secrets between siblings and there is the disturbing nature of Ned’s eldest daughter Sybil. Yet at the same time through Harriet’s narrative and seemingly minor moments, turns of phrase and hazy recollections, Jane Harris starts to make us aware Harriet might not be giving us the whole truth or a slight twist on the events, but why?

“Who, if not me, was dealt that hand? Indeed, one might say, who else is left to tell the tale?”

That is really all I can say on the plot, however if you are a fan of Victorian sensation fiction and those eerie tales from that era then you are going to absolutely love this. Even if you are unfamiliar with that particular genre of book there is so much else to love about ‘Gillespie and I’. One of the things is just how darkly funny the book is. In fact it’s Harriet’s reactions to events both in the 1880’s, one scene involving Ned’s brother Kenneth springs to mind, and in the 1930’s, with a visit to the doctor, which actually had me laughing deeply and rather loudly. Harriet also has a wry, and occasionally literally ‘wicked’, sense of humour and observation. This of course perfectly offsets some of the tension and unease which slowly mounts through the novel.

“’Pteriodomania!’ exclaimed Peden. ‘That dreaded disease.’ He angled his body away from me, in order to address me, sideways, over his shoulder. ‘It seems that when you ladies are weary of novels and gossip and crochet, you find much entertainment in ferns. No doubt you preside over a fern collection, Miss Baxter?’
‘Sadly, no!’ I replied. ‘What with all my novels and gossip and crochet, there’s no time left over for ferns.’
The astute reader will, of course, realise that I was employing irony; but Mr Peden gave a self-satisfied nod – as though I had proven his point.”

I think Harriet Baxter might be one of the most complex narrators I have come across. I think she may also prove to be one of my favourite characters of all time, though what that says about me I am not sure. She is at once hilariously observant and then cruelly witty, she is a complete hypocrite who hates ‘working staff’ because they snoop at the doorways a trait we learn she does often, she is warm and yet slightly cold, she is lonely and needy yet utterly self-obsessed, she is beguiling yet cunning. You’ll come to like her, then wonder if you should, doubt your doubts and then start questioning them again. I think this is masterly writing and I haven’t even started to discuss how vivid and wonderful Jane Harris’ recreations and reimagining’s of Glasgow in the 1880’s and London in the 1930’s are, nor how characters like the devilish seeming Sybil and domineering Elspeth, who laughs whenever she walks into a room for no reason, take hold of the page.

This book will have you guessing the whole way through and just when you think you have figured out how you have been manipulated you realise you are completely wrong. In fact how Jane Harris makes all this happen is beyond me. Like its predecessor, the wonderful ‘The Observations’ (which I am going to have to re-read soon, its one of my favourite books which made me rather nervous about this one), ‘Gillespie and I’ is a book that is all about evoking an atmosphere, wonderful writing, an unforgettable narrator, and those clever twists you never see coming. Yet it is no carbon copy by any stretch of the imagination and stands in its own rite. I loved this book, it’s very easy to find a fault with a book, particularly one at over 500 pages in length, yet there are none I can think of. I would go as far as to say I think ‘Gillespie and I’ could be an almost perfect book and is certainly destined to become one of my favourites. 10/10

This book was kindly sent by the publisher.

This is without doubt my favourite book of 2011 so far. It was one of my most highly anticipated after loving ‘The Observations’ so much and therefore one I was also the most nervous about but its exceeded my expectations. You simply have to read it, and when you have (or if you have already), do come and tell me what you thought. It’s a book I am dying to discuss; it’s also one that after turning the last page I started all over again. What was the last book that you did that with?

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Filed under Books of 2011, Faber & Faber, Jane Harris, Review

The Moonstone – Wilkie Collins

The Moonstone is the final Wilkie Collins read of the season (though thankfully I have still many Wilkie books to go or I would possibly be in despair). This is possibly one of the most famous of Wilkie Collins novels and so telling you all about it and my thoughts on it might really be preaching to the converted.

The book opens in 1799 when during a siege of the Indian town of Seringapatam when Colonel John Herncastle steals ‘The Moonstone’ from a religious statue not knowing that the stone is cursed. He comes back to be ostracised by his family and so in an act of revenge disguised in giving kindness he leaves the stone to his niece Rachel in the hope the curse passes onto her. However her cousin Franklin Blake finds out the secrets of stone and the real reason for its inheritance when he brings it to Rachel. It is when she receives it that after years of keeping the stone protected and hidden she merely leaves it in her bedroom cabinet where of course it disappears during the night. What follows is one of the greatest detection novels in history, and one that I think it would be wrong to give anything more away about, other than stating that it is brilliant.

The book is just as filled with wonderful characters as ever such as the reticent Rachel, the mysterious Rosanna Spearman, the brilliant Sergeant Cuff (who steps in after the police are all inept) and my favourite ‘Limping Lucy’. However characterisation isn’t really the point of The Moonstone, it is clearly plotting that is and unlike other sensation fiction we aren’t looking at bigamy, murder and social mysteries this is a full on mystery of theft. Naturally as a Collins novel you can expect many thrills, red herrings and as much suspense as you could wish for.  

In many ways this book is very different in terms of his other sensation fiction, in fact really I would say this was much more a full on adventure romp than sensation. Being the first proper detective novel (and look what it spawned) it caused quite some sensation at the time. It does share a theme with the other books however, as it does look at social attitudes and, in a way, looks at how people of colour were treated in England at the time through three Indians who appear in the book. I also think that Collins made a concerted effort through his strong female characters in particular Rachel (who I wondered if inspired Du Maurier’s ‘My Cousin Rachel) he tried not to make this too much of a boys book and I think as ever he succeeded. This book is absolutely brilliant; I don’t think I can say more than that.

I cannot believe that we are already at the penultimate Sensation Season read. I am especially sad that this is the last Wilkie read I will have for a while, like I said before though at least I have made sure I have many more of his works left for the future. It’s all gone a little too fast with only one more to go as we see the New Year in which is Charles Dickens ‘Great Expectations’ in two weeks. I hope you will all join in. So who out there has read The Moonstone and what did you think? Remember no plot spoilers please, though am not sure there are many people who haven’t read this are there?

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Filed under Books of 2009, Penguin Classics, Review, Sensation Novels, Wilkie Collins

East Lynne – Ellen Wood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another Sensational Shuffle

You may have noticed that yesterday I didn’t do a Sensation Sunday as part of the Sensation Season. Well blame The Converted One! It’s not as dramatic as it sounds but with the big ‘three o’ for The Converted One being today the weekend was a surprise party and who knew just how much time and cunning that would take organising. Fortunately it all went fabulously and I wasn’t killed for organising something that The Converted One didn’t initially want to celebrate. So oddly enough book reading went a little out the window.

Add to this the fact that East Lynne is utterly, utterly marvellous it does also have the whole of West Lynne village in it’s cast and about twelve plots going all at once and I just couldn’t read it as quickly as I thought I would be able to. I also didn’t want to rush something I am enjoying so much and so have been reading it as the people in the late 1800’s would and have been serialising the amount I read each day and its delightful. I now know every character much better and their motives and plots are much more apparent. I am not saying you can’t read it any other way, nor am I saying I should have read the previous sensation novels this way, I am just using my circumstances to try something a bit different. I also don’t want to stop enjoying one of my favourite forms of fiction and have even postponed another sensation novel until sometime in 2010.

The fact that I pass Ellen Wood, or Mrs Henry Wood, everytime I am in Highgate (so once a week or every other week) has instilled the thought that I must respect this book even more. It seems to me that she is a much forgotten author and though having scouted on certain sites have seen there are a lot more of her works out there they arent as available as ‘East Lynne’ which in its own way is a forgotten classic. So when you are next in Highgate do ask the guides (unless its me) to point her out as I think she should get much more attention than she does… in so many ways.

East Lynne will be up for discussion next Sunday when Granny Savidge Reads will also be in town. So much to look forward to at the weekend already, makes Monday so easier. Well that and the fact have today off for celebrating someone’s 30th – oh am not supposed to have mentioned that am I?!?

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The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins

It is always a slight worry that if you re-read a favourite novel, and The Woman in White is indeed one of my favourites, then you may just not love it as much as you did the first time and in fact all that you found charming and wonderful about it in the first place is dashed to pieces on a second read. The Sensation Season has already seen me re-read Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon and fortunately I loved it once more, would I feel the same way about this classic? The answer is of course YES, it is Wilkie Collins after all and so far, though there is still time, he hasn’t written a word wrong in my mind.

The Woman in White opens with a slightly spooky encounter on Hampstead Heath when our hero of the novel drawing master Walter Hartright comes across a mysterious ‘woman in white’ who is in apparent distress, he then finds she has escaped from an Asylum. Leaving London the next day he thinks no more of it until he meets his new students at Limmeridge House Laura Fairlie and her half sister Marian Halcombe. He finds Laura bears a startling resemblance to the ‘woman in white’ and he then discovers that there may be a link between the women he has met through such a coincidence.

You see this shows why Collins is such a genius as there are lots of other intermingling plots going on that it hard to try and explain them all. I won’t apart from the fact Laura and Walter naturally fall in love but she is already betrothed to Sir Percival Glyde so Collins throws in some romantic drama in for good measure too. It is after their honeymoon when Sir Percival and Lady Laura Glyde return to Limmeridge House with a guest Count Fosco and dastardly things start to happen. I won’t say anymore for fear of spoiling it by letting you all know too much which would ruin it if you haven’t read it.

Suffice to say being a Sensation Novel and being Wilkie Collins there are lots of dark deeds and dubious doings going on with many plot twists to keep you turning the pages to the very end. I also loved the fact that this was narrated by different characters, you felt like you were playing detective with Walter and yet had one up on him as you were getting more clues than he was. It also makes for very interesting reading getting into all the different characters minds.

As I mentioned before this is the second time that I have had the joy of reading The Woman in White and I got just as hooked as the first time and actually I think (as I will admit I last read it in my early twenties) responded to it more this time around. I had forgotten all the twists and turns when they fall. I found Fosco just as brilliantly dark and was much more charmed by Marian this time around and her gutsy attitude. I think also with the last read I didn’t really think of the literary aspect of it just that it was a good mystery, so good in fact it has stuck with me ever since. This time it was how the plotting and scene was set that impressed me just as much as well as all the characters and their strengths and flaws. All in all a wonderful, wonderful read that I personally think should be compulsory.

Next in the Sensation Sunday reads is East Lynne by Ellen Wood and is the mother of all Sensation Novels according to some sensation experts. I might pop up the road and see her this afternoon as when you read this I will be doing my volunteering at Highgate Cemetery. Anyway back to today’s sensation read… who else has read The Woman in White, what were your thoughts? What other books have you re-read and then found just as good if not better on the second reading?

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Filed under Books of 2009, Penguin Classics, Review, Sensation Novels, Wilkie Collins

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

The Dead Secret – Wilkie Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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