Friday, February 16, 2018

Taking a short break for moving

I'll be back blogging as soon as I can. Meanwhile, here's what we'll be occupied with for the next week or so. This is hard to believe, surrounded by boxes in our old home with cupboards empty, but next time you hear from me, we should be settled into our brand new home.

Looking forward to seeing you on the other side of the chaos here!

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

'Little House on the Prairie' by Laura Ingalls Wilder

This year, I'm hosting a read-along of all of the Little House on the Prairie Books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which you'll find here. We'd love you to read along and share your thoughts, if you feel so inclined. I haven't included a sign-up sheet of any sort, but kept it all very informal. Here we're up to the month of February.

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The adventures continue for Laura Ingalls and her family as they leave their little house in the Big Woods of Wisconsin and set out for the big skies of the Kansas Territory. They travel for many days in their covered wagon until they find the best spot to build their house. Soon they are planting and plowing, hunting wild ducks and turkeys, and gathering grass for their cows. Just when they begin to feel settled, they are caught in the middle of a dangerous conflict.

It's Laura's second book, in which she writes about another year in the life of her family. They are off in their covered wagon to settle in Indian Country, because the Big Woods are now too crowded for Pa. He's lured by the promise of a treeless, level country with thick wildlife, and she describes the fertile openness and solitude of the wide prairie beautifully. Their small family unit gets along well together, savouring the little things. When Ma presses each loaf of cornbread flat for the coals, Pa says he wants no other seasoning than her hand print :) And in return, she calls the comfort of the bed and rocking chair he makes her, 'almost sinful.' Getting squares of glass for their windows is cause for a family celebration, and the girls' joy knows no bounds when they get tin cups, candy canes, little cakes and coins for Christmas.

However, Laura continues her own private quest to match the perfection of Mary. When she feels shown-up, her natural instinct is still to lash out with a slap, but she's learned that's strictly forbidden. (See Little House in the Big Woods.) She decides to muster her willpower to compete instead, but it's a losing battle, because Mary has set the bar so high. For all her good intentions, poor Laura crashes and burns at times, such as the moment she yearns for Pa to bring her a little, black-eyed papoose.

But chinks in Mary's exemplary exterior show through in this book, proving that she's only human like the rest of us. A great example is her tendency to freeze up and become helpless whenever she's scared. Poor Mary.

77767 Heroes show up in the unlikeliest, most remote spots, including men who saved their lives outright. There's Dr Tan, the negro doctor who cured them from malaria, and Soldat du Chene, the tall, French-speaking Indian from the Osage tribe who talked thousands of others out of murdering the settlers. Pa himself always rises to the occasion, such as dragging unconscious Mr Scott from the bottom of the partially completed well. (Perhaps sinking to the occasion is more accurate in that example.) And one of my favourite heroes is Mr Edwards, the bachelor and legend who cared so much about making Christmas special for two little girls that he risked his life to swim across a raging creek to bring them presents from Santa.

But although it's another beautiful family tale, modern readers can't ignore the elephant in the room. The Ingalls family was involved in something pretty dodgy. The government had promised to clear the Indians out of their ancestral land to open it up for settlers, and Pa put up his hand to say, 'Yes please!' Arguably what he should have said was, 'No thanks, being part of something so unethical would hang heavily on my conscience for the rest of my life.'

He does come across as respectful of their culture and optimistic that they could all get along. He probably reasoned that they were all human, but that's like goldfish setting their aquarium among sharks because they're all fish, or canaries nesting among eagles because they're all birds. To imagine that two distinct communities with alien values and poles-apart cognitive habits can suddenly live side by side is a recipe for disaster. Even though Pa is careful to treat them courteously, there's always a sense that he's just waiting to be rid of them. 'Indians are always moved on,' he says. Or, 'They should have the sense to know when they're licked.'

I wonder if he ever considered how he'd feel if the Indians were given a mandate to lob in the middle of the Big Woods of Wisconsin and start pushing his extended family back. But failure to consider somebody else's former claim was characteristic of many nineteenth century settlers.

The voice of westernisation may be best expressed by their neighbour Mrs Scott. 'They won't do anything with the country themselves but roam around in it. It belongs to folks that'll farm it. That's only common sense and justice.' Even her assumption that farming is better for land over time than leaving it in its lush natural state is pure colonialism. It's easy to see why the Native Americans were incensed by this form of 'justice.'

So there's an ominous thread running through the whole story, all because the white settlers didn't 'Do unto others', although it never occurred to them that they should. The Ingalls' are living in the land of their fondest dreams, but have to put up with an Indian path running close by their house. Poor Jack the bulldog has to be permanently chained to the house, and Ma must get used to interlopers casually wandering into her home to steal whatever they please. Keeping important supplies in a padlocked cupboard is just a band-aid solution for the deeper, more sinister problem. There's always a sense that the uneasy truce won't last forever.

How frightening it was when the Indians' antagonism reached boiling point. The vulnerable Ingalls family sat in their tiny house surrounded by savage war cries, knowing full well how defenseless they'd be against a crowd of warriors bent on massacre. Six-year-old Laura remembered it like this. 'A nightmare is not so terrible as that night was. A nightmare is only a dream, and when it is worst you wake up. But this was real and Laura could not wake up.' She, Mary and Carrie would have been the most innocent victims had the worst occurred, as they were brought unwittingly to live there by the parents they trusted.

My heart ached for the terrible blow inflicted on Pa and Ma, when they were compelled to leave their nice little home with its freshly planted garden behind. For a man whose mottoes included, 'Better to be safe than sorry,' perhaps moving there in the first place wasn't one of Pa's finest ideas. But I'm sure they were well aware how lucky they were to have escaped with their lives. And their natural optimism is still shown to be firmly intact at the end.

Ma: A whole year gone, Charles.
Pa: What's a year amount to? We have all the time there is.

Next up will be On the Banks of Plum Creek. 


Wednesday, February 7, 2018

'Children of the New Forest' by Captain Frederick Marryat

In The Children of the New Forest, Marryat describes the trials and triumphs of the four Beverley children, orphaned during the English Civil War and forced to take refuge with a poor woodsman in the New Forest. This is the first annotated edition of a great children's classic, which has retained its popularity since 1847.

I chose this title to fit into the category called a re-read of your favourite classic, for the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge. I adored this book when I was in Year 9 at High School. I read it through several times, daydreamed about it, recommended it to others, and even tried to draw pictures of the main characters. But I never read it to my own kids since they strongly objected to the title and cover design. (More about their assumptions here. Throughout this review, I'll share several alternative covers I found, but I'm sure none of them would have impressed my fussy mob any more.) So this was my first read since childhood. It made me a bit nervous, as it's a sad let-down when things don't live up to our rosy memories. But I was relieved. Whew!

8134754It begins with a huge event that draws us right in. The time period is the English Civil War, and the king's troops, known as the Cavaliers are fighting against Parliament and the supporters of Oliver Cromwell who want to overthrow the monarchy. An old park ranger named Jacob Armitage overhears a plot to burn down a gracious old mansion named Arnwood, where the fugitive King Charles is suspected to be hiding. It was the home of a deceased war hero named Colonel Beverley, whose young children will surely burn to death if nobody intervenes. Jacob sneaks them out that very night, with a plan to bring them up as his own grandchildren. So Edward, Humphrey, Alice and Edith must learn to live a rustic lifestyle and fend for themselves in the New Forest, since Jacob believes it's far too dangerous to reveal their true identities.

The bulk of the book is all about how they manage to get along after Jacob's death. It includes defending themselves against scoundrels and cutthroats, and concealing their identities when Parliament hijacks the running of the forest, which hurts their royalist hearts. The oldest boy Edward chafes against the lie he's compelled to live, and longs to strike a few blows for the king on his own behalf. It's easy to feel his frustration as he and the others grow into their latter teens.

7746113My biggest turn-about is the brother I most admired. When I was a teenager, the restless and adventurous Edward stole my heart. But this time round, I noticed how he seems to walk around with his head in the clouds, dreaming of being a hero, while Humphrey is busy making practical improvements in the short term to keep them all alive. The younger bro seems by far the more intelligent, humble and creative of the pair. He gets ideas from books and improvises with whatever's on hand. In fact, lack of resources is just a fun challenge for him. He revolutionises the cottage, figuring things out from personal observation, trial and error. And above all, he's content to be overshadowed by his brother, and not the sort to be seduced by promises of glory. Humphrey, I've got to say, you're the man!

I was still fond of Edward though, because in all his crusader's zeal and getting people's backs up, he's so human. A couple of other reviewers commented that he's a bit of an idiot at times, which is fair enough, since even his best friends agreed. They expressed it a bit less bluntly though.

'You have been more bold than prudent, Edward.'
Or, 'For these times, you are much too frank and impetuous. This is not the time for people to give vent to their feelings and opinions.'
Or, 'Do you not see you do your cause more harm than good?'
Or, 'Be no longer rash and careless in avowing your opinion.'

In Edward's defense though, he isn't arrogant, and is quick to recognise wise advice and take it on board, even when it comes from younger siblings or men supposedly on the other side of the political spectrum. It's written so that even if you think he's an idiot, he grows on you, and you still want the best for him. (And you can't go past the girl he falls in love with for foolishness, notably in a decision she makes towards the end. I felt like shaking her. But she's a product of her time.)

A couple of other characters they met along the way were among my favourites. The kids accidentally trap a gypsy boy named Pablo, who proves to be a staunch friend and honorary family member, and adds comic relief with his matter-of-fact comments and occasional efforts to shirk intense labour. But one of the best characters by far is Mr Heatherstone, the Parliamentarian who's been appointed superintendant of the forest. Edward and the others must learn to trust him as a friend, even though he presents as an enemy. But Heatherstone is playing a most daring and clever double agent game. It's worthy of Severus Snape, and he grows really fond of Edward as a bonus :)

18875909I noticed that some of the most critical reviewers dissed this book based on 21st century ethics, which we could hardly expect an author from Captain Marryat's era to share. Sure, the girls tend to be sidelined by the boys, and there seems to be a fixed mindset that the quality of a person corresponds with the class into which he's born. ('Edward appeared as he was, a gentleman born, and that could not be concealed under a forester's garb.') Yet I believe it's unfair to label the author as a chauvinist or social snob, when he was probably one of the most open-hearted, generous and liberal thinkers of his time. I think the best way to get the most out of this book is to suspend our modern scruples and approach it as an eye-opening step back in time when people thought differently. Then there's all sorts of treasures to pick up. 

The courteousness of everyday speech is a highlight for me. I love it that these teenagers throw around such cool words in normal conversation as importunity, assiduity and inimical, and it flows so naturally without seeming at all forced. Even when they're insulting their enemies or teasing each other, the language is just beautiful. It made me a bit sad for the woeful deterioration of young people's vocabularies. Maybe it takes reading a book like this to show how low it's sunk.

I love the simple faith of their time and place. There was evidently no church service, but Jacob's first thought was, 'I can't teach them much, but I can teach them how to fear God. We must get on how we can, and put our trust in Him who is father to the fatherless.' And the Beverley kids keep up their private devotions after his death, remaining devout in their youthful way, without being overly pious.

1730414The parts about the four of them adapting to their rural lifestyle are fun, interesting, and arguably the best thing that could have happened to them. Learning to be self-sufficient rather than waited on by servants for all things is a great advantage. For Humphrey and Alice in particular, being self-taught opens up a whole range of fantastic talents they might never have tapped into in their old lives. The lifestyle is described in one place as 'Arcadian.' In our fast-paced digital age, reading about four teens who live a hidden, quiet life, mainly concerned with subsisting adds a perspective that's probably good for us.

There's a bit too much about acquiring venison for my personal taste. I'd obviously forgotten how many times deer and other animals were simply wounded rather than killed outright :( But overall, I couldn't put the book down when it came to the last few chapters, which is the sign of a great storyteller in any era. If a conventional handsome, strong, ambitious and plain-spoken main character like Edward isn't enough to tempt you, I'd encourage you to read it for the sake of the hidden heroes, Humphrey, Pablo and Heatherstone.


Now, I can't resist adding a few good quotes.

Edward: You certainly were not born to be secluded in this forest.
Humphrey: I rather think I have found that I was born for it.

In attempting to free ourselves from what we considered despotism, we have created for ourselves a worse despotism, and one that is less endurable. It is to be hoped that what has passed will make not only kings but subjects wiser than they have been.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Stories with Libraries and Librarians

Libraries are among my favourite places to visit. They may be quiet and leisurely on the surface, but what can be more exciting to a bookworm than thousands of tantalising spines on shelves, whose titles all seem to cry, 'Choose me'? And what could hold more compressed fun and wisdom from generations of thinkers? In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis imagines them as places where the anxious ghosts of dead authors hover to see if people are still reading their books. I wouldn't be at all surprised. Anyway, I believe a library probably has more potential to change an individual's life than a therapist's office.  

Here are some of the best libraries I've come across in the pages of books. The sample I've chosen is very appealing (except for the scary ones!) and will hopefully bust the stereotype of librarians as cross little old ladies with tight buns who always say, 'Shush.'    

I'll start my list with a few impressive, historical and literary libraries.

1) The Great Library of Alexandria
Julius Caesar was the bad guy in this true story. This wonderful centre of knowledge stood in Egypt in the 3rd century BC. It was one of the most significant libraries in the world, dedicated to the Muses and full of papyrus scrolls. Perhaps that's why it caught fire so easily, when the Roman army set their torches to it. Even though it hasn't existed for centuries, this library is one of the most famous symbols of the pointless destruction of culture, making future generations of readers and scholars groan.

2) The Name of the Rose
Any reader of this medieval whodunit would fancy a jaunt through this library. It sits in a fortified tower of the Abbey in the form of an impossible labyrinth which only the librarian and his assistant may enter. Other monks must send requests for the books they wish to read, which are only granted if the librarian thinks they're justified. Needless to say, he wields quite a bit of klout.

But libraries from fantasy stories may be some of the most appealing to our curiosity and wonder.

3) Phantastes
This library in George MacDonald's wordy classic is one I'd love to visit if I could be sure to get hold of the right books. The hero, Anados, discovers that they draw you into their pages so that all of your five senses feel as if they're experiencing exactly what you're reading about. That takes interactive books to whole new level. (Click for more about this classic)

4) The Hogwarts Library
15881It's located off a corridor on the first floor, and contains thousands of shelves of magic books for students to borrow, under the watchful eyes of Madam Pince. Only the Restricted Section is off bounds, especially to younger students, with the rare and dangerous secret knowledge it holds. It's the only spot in school which ever tempts Hermione Granger to break the rules, which she does whenever something really important needs to be researched. Anyone sneaking around in there without permission needs to handle the books very carefully, since some of them are jinxed with spells that might make them snap or scream.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
5) Mr Norrell's Library
The wily old owner of this library has made sure it's one of a kind. Determined to be Britain's only magician, Mr Norrell has taken pains to acquire all the out-of-print old books of magic he can get his greedy hands on. There are thousands of rare gems, and nobody else can even find their way to his library, let alone read anything, since he's jinxed the route with several false passages. Norrell's frustrated former student Jonathan Strange gets his own back in a fit of temper by re-arranging the passages so that for one terrifying hour, Norrell can't find his way to his own library. (Here is my review.)

6) The Library at Mount Char
It's a sinister tale in which a ragtag group of vulnerable orphans are adopted by a formidable being known to them as 'The Father.' His library holds the secret to his power, and he forces the children to become specialist librarians, each mastering one particular area of knowledge.

7) Library of Souls
24120519It's not books stored in this creepy subterranean library but human souls in jars, for other Peculiars to borrow in their time of need. The evil megalomaniac Caul wants nothing more than to get his hands on them all for himself, and forces our hero Jacob Portman into the library with him, since Jacob's special gift means he's the only one able to see the jars. (My review is here.)

8) The Librarian
Perpetual student Flynn Carsen has no idea what he's in for when he applies for a job at the Metropolitan Public Library. He's hired to protect several magical and historical artifacts such as Pandora's Box and Excalibur. It's perhaps your ultimate responsible job. A serious theft has left Flynn dashing desperately across the world, relying on his extensive book knowledge to save the day.

9) The Time-Traveler's Wife
Henry deTamble is a librarian who has a genetic condition which forces him to travel to different stages of his own life, leaving just a pile of the clothes he was wearing behind him. Luckily for him it never seemed to happen in the library while he was making a presentation to special interest groups. (Here is my review.)

Here's a couple of appealing stories that feature quite normal libraries, and the impact they have on the characters. Some of them are more obscure stories which I've enjoyed.

2250448110) Beyond all Dreams
This is a sensitive story about a research librarian named Anna, who archives maps. She notices some inconsistencies in a document about a shipwreck on which her father supposedly drowned. Making a report turns out to open a tinder box of nasty facts which people in high places would have preferred to keep hushed up. Anna's experience proves that on rare occasions, a librarian may actually be a hazardous occupation. (I've reviewed it here)

11) Wonderland Creek
10329441Another heroine who made a similar discovery was Alice, a timid bookworm who hated taking risks. But when her library job forces her to deliver some boxes of donated books to a tiny hillbilly community, she's roped into being a mobile librarian who must visit potentially cutthroat and dangerous places on her rounds.

12) Pollyanna's Western Adventure
It's one of the charming adventures of glad girl Pollyanna which has sadly gone out of print, but there are probably still a few old volumes floating around. One is in my bookshelf, since my mother owned it as a girl. Pollyanna's little family is forced to go and live out in the sticks for her husband Jimmy's job as an engineer. She gets the opportunity to set up a lending library from the books she brings from home. The locals are always glad to see her coming, and no wonder. A smiling, friendly face combined with a load of books would have to be a winning combination.

13) The Ladies of Ivy Hill
In this village chronicle, a small lending library is set up by Miss Rachel Ashcroft. She's never been a reader, but all her father has left her in his will is his huge collection of books, so she feels forced to make the best of an undesirable situation. Of course we book lovers know that having lots of books around isn't a bad thing at all, and wait for her to find out too. (See here for here.)

14) All of a Kind Family
This vintage kids' series is about five young sisters ranging in age from 4 to 12. When Sarah, the middle girl, loses a library book, she and her sisters go cringing to the librarian, expecting her to be a dragon who will severely punish them. Instead, they're relieved by her kindness and come out with a renewed zeal to borrow books.

29748925I've saved one of my favourites until last, because it pulls together such a lot of elements that make library stories so great. It's a fantasy novel which makes the benefits of a good library clear for anyone who has the curiosity and nous to use it well. 

15) Strange the Dreamer
The hero is surely one of the cutest young librarians to be found in any story. Lazlo Strange was a 13-year-old war orphan apprenticed to work at the Great Library in the Kingdom of Zosma, which is described as a haven for poets, astronomers and every shade of thinker between. The wise senior librarian Master Hyrrokkin said, 'The library knows its own mind. When it steals a boy we let it keep him.' A few years later when he's grown up, the sweet little bookworm must convince a mighty warrior that his own nerdy, bookish knowledge will come in handy for a great expedition. (And here is my review.)

I know my list of literary libraries is probably just scratching the surface, so if I've overlooked any good ones you can think of, please add them in the comments. 

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' by Susanna Clarke

Sophisticated, witty, and ingeniously convincing, Susanna Clarke's magisterial novel weaves magic into a flawlessly detailed vision of historical England. She has created a world so thoroughly enchanting that eight hundred pages leave readers longing for more.

English magicians were once the wonder of the known world, with fairy servants at their beck and call; they could command winds, mountains, and woods. But by the early 1800s they have long since lost the ability to perform magic. They can only write long, dull papers about it, while fairy servants are nothing but a fading memory.

People say that every new author needs a fresh voice. Clarke surely has one, but part of her uniqueness comes from closely copying long gone masters of the Victorian genre, as contradictory as that sounds. She has Jane Austen's witty conversations and wise social satire down pat. And she's also nailed Charles Dickens' enormous community scope and wide range of characters. It's a bit like reading either one of those two, but on top of that, there's amazing fantasy!

Clarke presents England in the Napoleonic Wars just as it was, with appearances from the Duke of Wellington, Lord Byron and mad King George III. But history gets an alternative twist with the addition of two magicians who are highly valued contributors to the war effort. They are both trying hard to raise the public profile of magic so it's on a par with the army, church or politics as a potential occupation.

Mr Gilbert Norrell is a pedantic old scholar who's addicted to hoarding knowledge, because he can't trust others to wield such a powerful tool. In reality he's a control freak with a compulsion to stay on top of what's going on. For years his main hobby has been buying valuable, out-of-print books of magic to hide in his own personal library so nobody else can read them.

Jonathan Strange is a capricious and impulsive young man who's always found it hard to settle down to anything, but discovers a sudden genius for magic which impresses Norrell as the real deal. Norrell offers to be his tutor so he can control Strange's talent and direct it to suitable channels.

Their utterly different learning styles really appealed to my homeschooling heart. Norrell considers a decade of study to be merely scratching the surface, while Strange whips off articles the night before they're due. Norrell wants to wrap his intellect around the ins and outs of everything, while Strange isn't afraid to follow his instincts and see what happens. Norrell is careful to handle with kid gloves things he only partially understands, while Strange longs to dive right in for the same reason. The discord makes an excellent read, especially since Strange knows very well that there are thousands of books Norrell is withholding from him, choosing to keep a tight rein over the nuggets of knowledge he chooses to dispense.

There are strong dangers of dabbling around in the murky supernatural. Even though Strange and Norrell are devoted fanatics, they unleash perils of which they are both oblivious and almost destroy the lives of certain other characters. This is particularly true when it comes to enlisting the help of the fairy kingdom.

People are fascinated with elusive fairies and the possibility of winning their favour or servitude. Yet fairies prove to be a malicious and loathsome race, devoid of human empathy. Especially one manipulative character who is mostly referred to as 'the gentleman with the thistledown hair.' Totally self-interested and calculating, he reminds me of folklore villains like Rumplestiltskin, with his, 'What's in it for me?' attitude. We have to find out whether Strange and Norrell can eventually foil him, since they've no idea what's going on beneath their own noses. He's so much more cluey than either of them in many ways, it would seem that if they do, it'd have to be by accident. I found this guy really nasty, but also sort of cool.

Anyone who attempts to read the book will quickly discover its main quirk, which is all the footnotes! They basically tell the history of English magic from the world Susanna Clarke has made up especially for this novel. Sure, they distract from the flow of the story, but you can't possibly skip them without sacrificing what's so precious to Strange and Norrell, including the hazy, centuries old legends about John Uskglass, an ancient magician and monarch known as The Raven King. Some of them are weird and whacky enough to make novels of their own. So much ingenuity has gone into them, if you love the book you've got to love the footnotes. (Although I admit my heart sometimes failed me when I turned a page and saw the size of one to come.)

My final verdict is that it's dense, brain-bending and long enough, at almost 900 pages, to feel we've been sucked into Faerie ourselves, and wonder when we'll emerge. There are dazzling enchantments and many episodes as circuitous as the passages to Norrell's library which turn out to be mainly scene setters, or to keep the tantalising real action at bay. But all this makes it the sort of book we can be proud of ourselves for finishing. On the whole it's rewarding enough to make up for its brick-like quality, since there are at least a couple of things to grin at on every page. When you add them all together, that's a lot of smiles :)

And I'll finish off with some quotes from my new favourite, Jonathan Strange.

Lord Wellington: Can a magician kill a man by magic?
Strange: I suppose a magician might. But a gentleman could not.

Jonathan Strange (to the king): Though Great Britain may desert us, we have no right to desert Great Britain. She may have need of us yet.


Friday, January 26, 2018

The Stories make the Aussie

It's Australia Day, and I've been reflecting about those brave and daring ancestors who first settled our country. Several years ago, my father was researching his genealogy and writing it out by hand. He managed to delve back a long way and there were hundreds of pages, which he asked me to type for him and maybe give a bit of polish as I went. It turned out to be a really interesting experience. For example, one of his British grandfathers in the late 1700s (I forget how many 'greats') always wrote down his profession as 'auctioneer' and it turned out the commodity he dealt in was slaves.

I must be a thorough Aussie girl because ancestors from both sides of my family seemed to be arriving thick and fast as far back as the 1830s and 1840s, when South Australia was first settled. There were devout German Christians on my mother's side, who needed to escape religious persecution in their homeland. They were among the first to settle in the Adelaide Hills. And on my Dad's side were all sorts of respectable tradespeople from Britain who were finding it impossible to make ends meet in the old country and were lured by the stunning advertisements about the Great Southland which sounded too good to be true. Okay, there may have also been a few dodgier characters too, like that 'auctioneer' I mentioned.

Once I took my younger children to look through Adelaide's Migration Museum, which turned out to be a fascinating experience. On the wall was an old poster singing the praises of South Australia's open countryside and warm climate. Even then, it proudly advertised the place as the only convict-free state. I stood reading it, knowing that many of my direct ancestors had been desperate enough to accept the challenge.

One of the ancestors Dad had plenty of info about was a nineteen-year-old named George Peter Hammond, who'd read those adverts and decided he fitted the bill they were looking for; young, fit, able-bodied and willing to work. He booked himself passage and said goodbye to his parents and younger siblings, intending to write and let them know if the place looked any good, so they could consider coming too. Dad ended up with many details about his ship journey down south to the other side of the world, including the sharks the crew caught for everyone on board to eat.

As I typed it out for him, I had this thought occur to me. That young man probably considered that he was acting independently, doing something off his own bat that affected just himself. Yet I wonder if he had the foresight to realise that his personal decision would end up shaping and molding the lives of literally hundreds of people still to come. I am one of them. So is my husband. So are my children and their future spouses. If that young adventurer hadn't decided to book himself passage to check out the new land, I wouldn't be an Aussie girl at all. As it turned out, the rest of his family did decide to join him down the track. And the rest of their story, for me, is now history.

When I was 20, I took a break from Uni and traveled with my parents for a driving tour around Britain. I felt a link and affinity with it, considering it our Motherland even after the passing of more than a century. It was wonderful to travel around, seeing landmarks where historical events had taken place, visiting the homes of great writers such as my beloved Bronte sisters and Jane Austen, and finding where our own ancestors had lived. But by the time our months there were over, I was happy to return to Heathrow Airport to head for home again. Because of the God-guided decisions of many people before me, something out of my control had been set in motion for me long before I was born. It is that in spite of all that ancient Prussian and Anglo Saxon blood flowing in my veins, I am an Aussie.

I wish every Aussie a great Australia Day, as you may even take the opportunity to stop and reflect on the events that led to you being an Aussie too. Remember that the settlers who came were bold and resilient, so we have that in our DNA. And if you are an international reader, spare us a thought on January 26th and consider reading some of the Australian books I've either written, helped write, or recommended on this blog over the years.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

'Wives and Daughters' by Elizabeth Gaskell

Set in English society before the 1832 Reform Bill, Wives and Daughters centres on the story of youthful Molly Gibson, brought up from childhood by her father. When he remarries, a new step-sister enters Molly's quiet life – lovable, but worldly and troubling, Cynthia. The narrative traces the development of the two girls into womanhood within the gossiping and watchful society of Hollingford.

Wives and Daughters is far more than a nostalgic evocation of village life; it offers an ironic critique of mid-Victorian society. 'No nineteenth-century novel contains a more devastating rejection than this of the Victorian male assumption of moral authority', writes Pam Morris in her introduction to this new edition, in which she explores the novel's main themes – the role of women, Darwinism and the concept of Englishness – and its literary and social context.

This is my choice for the 'Classic by a Woman' category of the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge.

Wow, the events in the village of Hollingford have gripped my attention for the past few weeks, and I'm still trying to figure out why. It's essentially just the story of a blended family from the Victorian era. But what makes this one so special is that Elizabeth Gaskell gets us to spread our love evenly between so many different characters.

Molly Gibson is a sweet 17-year-old whose beloved father, the village doctor, has announced his shock engagement to a former governess with a daughter of her own. These four completely different people are forced to get to know each other by living under the same roof from the outset. Although Molly's world has been turned upside down, she resolves to curb her childhood temper and make no ripples.

But her stepmother, Hyacinth Clare Fitzpatrick Gibson, is all about impression management. Not only does she always get her own way, but she's creative and crafty enough to put the best spin on how she sets about it, aiming to be admired even more when she gets what she wants. Everything around her is calculated to show her off in the best light, including her family members. There's nothing in her life that's not done for show. How she would have enjoyed social media, had she lived in our era. Mrs Gibson is like a Facebook pro long before there ever was such a thing. She's really hilarious.

So we have a gorgeous young heroine who genuinely longs to put others' needs first, stuck with a micro-managing new authority figure, who only wants to put herself first. How will it all work out, without Molly either snapping or becoming a doormat? That's what we read to find out, because it would seem something has to give. Our girl really does have a mind of her own, and a lot to put up with. And if there's one thing she's inherited from her matter-of-fact father, it's her blunt honesty.

The plot thickens even more when Molly's step-sister Cynthia arrives. Cynthia has charisma! She knows how to use her beauty and communication skills to turn men's heads, but has the sort of character to make her abuse her power. After a sad and neglected childhood, she values being loved by others above loving people herself. In fact, Cynthia isn't even sure she knows how to love, calling herself a 'moral kangaroo.' Her convincing shows of esteem are really just attempts to win hearts for herself, and there's always a string of guys in her wake, thinking they're the only ones. So even though she sees through her mother's artifice, Cynthia is just as much of an actor in her own way.

Dr Gibson, the father, is a great character for displaying the wisdom of his times. During Molly's childhood, he never wanted her to be 'over-educated' because he didn't believe it was beneficial for a girl to know too much. It's written with the sense that he thinks she'll be spoiled with education, like over-whipped cream. An unflappable sort of guy himself, his occupation has helped him believe that excessive displays of emotion are detrimental to people's health. Since the most significant deaths in the novel happen to be highly-strung, finely-tuned sort of people, his observation seemed to be correct, at least in Gaskell's opinion :)

The Gibson family alone are complex enough to keep us reading, but nearby lives the Hamley family, another awesome foursome who all turn out to be heart-stealers too. There's the outspoken and bluff old squire, his refined invalid wife, and their two grown-up sons. Osborne is attractive, artistic and the pride of his parents, while his younger brother Roger comes across more stodgy, plodding, and often overlooked. While Osborne is into classical literature and poetry, Roger has a knack for science, maths and the world around him. If the term 'geek' had been coined then, that's what he would have been called.

The main romance is written with a light touch, and easy to get caught up in. The bird's-eye readers' view allows us to poke into everyone's secret thoughts, and reveals from the start that Molly and Roger are perfect for each other. They're still so very young, but both humble, principled, sensitive and kind. But that same vantage point shows that they don't consider the other to be their type.

Before she even meets the boys, Molly's all primed to fall for his handsome and brilliant older brother Osborne because of his sentimental poetry and his reputation. She is initially repelled by Roger's plain appearance and apparent awkwardness. Her gradual falling for him is all to do with his adorable character, but meanwhile is he immune from the charms of the fatal Cynthia? 

383206There's also a host of great minor characters, although the aristocratic Cumnor family would hate to hear themselves called 'minor.' They move around with all the pomp they think is entitled to them. And in the village live the two spinster Browning sisters, who are always up with any gossip and drop lots of cool lines, such as Miss Phoebe telling her sister, 'Oh, don't call them lies, it's such a strong, ugly word. Please call them tallydiddles.'

Finally, it'd be unfair not to mention the abrupt ending. Elizabeth Gaskell died of a heart-attack with just one chapter left to write, which would have been the romantic culmination we'd all been waiting for! Although I'd been warned, my reaction when I got there was still, 'Nooooo!' Time is a strange thing when a sad event from 1866 becomes a fresh tragedy to me in 2018. But we've got to pick ourselves up and carry on :) Her editor wrapped up the book with some broad hints of where Gaskell had intended to take that final chapter. And since I love to imagine future scenes whenever I finish a book, I just get a chance to do it earlier than usual this time.

Since it's still January, this will be a good benchmark for the year. It's a perfect example of the sort of domestic Victorian drama I love. Elizabeth Gaskell balanced her pathos with some terrific humour. I've also watched the BBC TV series on Netflix, which I highly recommend for readers of the novel. It has really wonderful casting and authenticity, and sticks close to the book. (I have more about Wives and Daughters coming, so stay tuned.) After learning the sudden fate of the poor author, a quote from Molly sits strongly in my mind. 'Life is too short to be troubled much about anything.'