Tuesday, September 19, 2017

'Middlemarch' by George Eliot

By the time the novel appeared to tremendous popular and critical acclaim in 1871-2, George Eliot was recognized as England's finest living novelist. It was her ambition to create a world and portray a whole community--tradespeople, middle classes, country gentry--in the rising provincial town of Middlemarch, circa 1830. Vast and crowded, rich in narrative irony and suspense, Middlemarch is richer still in character, in its sense of how individual destinies are shaped by and shape the community, and in the great art that enlarges the reader's sympathy and imagination. It is truly, as Virginia Woolf famously remarked, 'one of the few English novels written for grown-up people'. 

First off, there might be some minor spoilers, because this is like a review/discussion hybrid. But you'll forget them by the time you get stuck into Middlemarch.

When I was 19 and read this classic for Uni, I thought it was the best English novel on the syllabus. Years have passed and now that I've returned to it, I think it might well be the best English novel ever written. My husband said, 'But isn't it just about people living their country lives without much happening?' Some readers might answer yes, which makes the thickness seem incredible. But I love it because it's all about attitude. This book is like a magnifying glass George Eliot holds up to us, because we keep bumping into our own buried attitudes when we see them mirrored in the characters. We can't read it without wanting to make course corrections or set good thinking habits in place.

Basically, two poor marriages take place between couples who go into them assuming that what they see is what they'll get. Young Dorothea Brooke wants to make the world a better place for others, and believes it will be a step in that direction to marry Edward Casaubon, a crusty scholar twice her age, who is working on a comprehensive book in which he hopes to reveal the meaning of life. But instead of being a valuable helper to a great man, she discovers too late that he's a hopeless pedant, snuffling around in research which is already antiquated.

Meanwhile, Tertius Lydgate, the new young medical man, is seduced into marrying local cutie, Rosamond Vincy. He believes she'll support him in his genuine cutting edge research, but discovers too late that she's not remotely interested in any part of his life that doesn't concern herself. Rosamond has simply latched on to Lydgate to boost her own lifestyle. When things don't happen the way she expects, her contagious misery infects him.

Lydgate is the poster boy for those of us who may claim, 'There's no way in the world I'd ever do (fill in the blank)' But until you've tried walking in somebody else's shoes, there's no predicting how you'll react. It's wise not to throw around the word 'never' because you might end up with egg on your face. And while you're at it, it's a hard lesson to learn not to look down on those who do things of which you don't approve. I really loved Lydgate, and reading his humbling experiences was hard.

Casaubon reminds me a bit of Owl from Winnie the Pooh. He tries to project an image of himself as lofty and important, but gets rumpled feathers, because the hardest person to convince is himself. He's middle-aged with the bearing and attitude of an 80-year-old, which finally catches up with him. Lydgate's professional advice shows he's too far gone to be told in effect, 'Hey man, lighten up and smell the roses,' but maybe we readers can take it on board, in case we ever need cobwebs blown off us. Poor dude. Imagine coming to the end of your life with the fear that you might've completely wasted your time. But setting ourselves the task to know absolutely everything is just too big a goal. We can learn the lesson of this guy who tried it.

Rosamond is a princess in the most negative sense of the term. She doesn't realise that her mind filters out anything that doesn't put herself at the centre of everyone else's world. She's too well-bred to throw a complete Veruca Salt style hissy fit, but she's got the passive-aggressive sulk down to a fine art. And every disappointment is magnified to a disaster, because it adds to her challenge to get her own way. Truth be told, I thought back to some of my own melt-downs I remember in the light of Middlemarch and thought, 'Yep, I'm afraid that's Rosamond.' If you can relate too, there's no better incentive to stop the next time you might be tempted to react that way.

Dorothea is like a breath of fresh air, even though she has moments of deep depression, bursts into tears, finds herself stuck in bad moods and sometimes makes dumb decisions. In fact, the mistake she starts off with is a real doozy, but she wins our hearts easily, because her attitude of wanting to relieve the pain and discomfort of others is such a sound compass. She even tells Will, the true love of her life, 'Even if we had lost our own true good, other people's good would remain, and that is worth trying for,' and means every word. You can't get to the end of the book without wanting to adopt Dorothea's habit of seeing the best in everyone. Eliot shows through her intriguing heroine that it's not an attitude of naivety or idealism, but the healthiest way to inoculate yourself against the gossip, cynicism and disillusionment that's all around you.

Virginia Woolf famously called Middlemarch 'a novel for grown-ups.' It's hard to miss this quote if you ever want to read the book, because it's splashed around every discussion, website and on the covers of many editions, without anyone really threshing out what she might have meant. Lest you get the wrong idea, it's not an 'adult' novel as some might understand the word. It's exemplary and squeaky clean without any X-rated content. I think 'grown up' in the sense Woolf meant is more to do with the way we handle disappointments.

'Happily ever afters' are low key in Middlemarch, because characters haven't lived up to what they considered to be their full potential. It's not for lack of investing lots of toil and tears. Hopes and dreams have crashed and burned everywhere,  because the chokers and creepers of real life have strangled them, as they often do.

The wrap-up chapter tells us that both Lydgate and Dorothea considered themselves fall-shorts who never achieved a fraction of what they hoped. Lydgate never makes a major medical discovery, but finds simply paying the bills and providing for his family is a major drain for him. Dorothea never helps bring an amazing book to the public, or start a colony, but she encourages others in all the small, low-key ways she can. She's basically in the gentlewoman's trap. You're technically free to do as you please, but can't do any of the the good things that fall into your head because of society's restrictions.

The novel also has its share of people slogging away at jobs they wouldn't have necessarily chosen, because that's just what we have to do. Mr Farebrother knows he would have made a better biologist than clergyman, but life wasn't designed for a middle-aged man supporting dependent females to make a sea change. Then there's Fred Vincy, who at the start of his working life, grumbles that he would have made a great gentleman of leisure, but has to either pull something out of the bag, or keep sponging off his struggling parents. He decides estate management and agriculture is as good as anything else. (I feel for him because I've got a 'Fred' in my own household right now. It's my elder son, who's almost finished Uni and hasn't a clue what to do next. Even their surnames are similar. Vince or Vincy, you've got to love 'em.)

Mary Garth appeals to me because she understands all this from an early age, putting her in a strong position. We are told, 'She had good reason to believe that things were not likely to be arranged for her peculiar satisfaction, and wasted no time in astonishment or annoyance at the fact.' That helps Mary leap ahead of the entitled Vincy kids in her outlook. She's not one to be taken in by her current versions of the 'whatever you believe you can achieve' sort of messages we still wade through in modern times. I'm sure George Eliot wouldn't be surprised that even by the 21st century, we don't really grow up until we learn to handle disappointment graciously.

I didn't get all this out of Middlemarch the first time through. But back then, I was still the teenager who aspired to write the great Australian novel, earn a fortune and go on world tours. When Farebrother tells Lydgate, 'I have paid twelve or thirteen years more than you for my knowledge of difficulties,' I probably shrugged it off just like Tertius. Virginia Woolf was right, in some ways, this is very much a book for grown-up retrospection.

But even though she gives us this dose of reality, Eliot still presents a world where wonderful surprises can catch us off guard, and refresh us to keep smiling.

A middle-aged vicar, disappointed in love, can help his young rival win the girl's hand, for the sake of her own happiness.

A young man who's been diddled out of two rightful inheritances can keep bitterness at bay, and claim that his goal is to see the good and beautiful in everything. All he wants is good friends and a soft rug to stretch out on. (We love you, Will Ladislaw.)

A couple madly in love can say, 'Stuff this mean codicil, let's get married anyway.'

A wife and mother who's been used to the good life can whip off her bright clothes and jewellery and resolve to stand by her disgraced husband through thick and thin. (Harriet Bulstrode, you're a hero.)

A young doctor who has suffered major blows, including those inflicted by his nearest and dearest, can look in the face of an angelic benefactress who tells him, 'You'd be taking a great burden off my shoulders if you'd accept this hand-out.'

Middlemarch is dense and thick, and sometimes takes lots of concentration, but is well worth the time it takes to read.

5 stars

Friday, September 15, 2017

'Every Job a Parable' by John Van Sloten


A Walmart greeter, a nurse, and an astronaut walk into a church. . . .

They each bring with them their own exhaustions and exasperations, their own uncertainty about whether and how their work matters to God. Good news: All work matters to God, because all work reflects some aspect of the character of God. God created the world so that it runs best when it mirrors Him, and we ourselves find the most fulfillment when we recognize God behind our labor.

John Van Sloten offers a fascinating and innovative reflection on vocation: Our work is a parable of God; as we work, we are icons of grace.

This is a great read for anyone who finds their daily grind a bit of a drag, or can't help thinking of their spiritual self as separate from their daily, nine-to-five self. John Van Sloten believes we can stretch our minds to think of any job or occupation as a parable for the way God works. After all, he's always made himself known through real people doing real work.

First, Van Sloten knocks down the vocational hierarchy we might have all bought into at different times. It simply doesn't exist from a heavenly perspective, where every humble job has its own dignity and significance. Throughout the book, he interviews and observes people in many different professions, and then has fun revealing their essential goodness to them. To mention just a few, there are astronauts, flyer-deliverers, psychologists, residential landlords, cleaners, electricians, automative repairmen, florists, language translators, geophysicists and hairdressers. It's great to think we're all on an equal plane.

We are urged to study God's signature moves, so we can more easily notice the way our jobs reflect them. Then we can pull our attitudes about them back into sync, in case they've been a bit off. There are three roles I've held; cleaner, writer and parent, which many people can probably relate to, and I enjoyed reading the thoughts about them.

Cleaners (including anyone who cleans or regularly tidies up messes) reflect God's heart for people to have clean and healthy lives. We remove unnecessary, used trash to make room for pristine new surroundings, which is what God does on a larger scale. Cleaners everywhere bear witness to his world-restoring power, whenever we leave anything better than how we found it.

As writers, we share God's heart for creativity, and attempt to figure out the way his world works through story telling, and clarity of expression. Pondering how we're going to form our sentences allows us to catch glimpses of God's own thoughts, and spread them, for the things we're passionate enough to write about are often the things he's passionate about too.

And needless to say, as parents we enter into God's heart to care, nurture and love each others with a giving, sacrificial love.

It's a mood-lifting book to read, with plenty of cheerful ways to regard the things we might not feel all that cheerful about naturally. John Van Sloten is aware that in our darker moods, this may all come across a bit platitudinal. He advises us to keep stretching our broader perspective muscles to go with it anyway. I think it really does work, and if you look for your own job, you'll be quite likely to find it in this enthusiastic and comprehensive book.

Thanks to NetGalley and Tyndale House for my review copy.

4 stars

Monday, September 11, 2017

Stories with Mirrors

We all rely on our mirrors, and probably take them for granted. We've got to use them every time we get ready to go out, after all. But in stories, mirrors tend to be a bit spooky. I think they often show us things we'd rather not face about ourselves or the wider world. The idea of having a double, or doppelganger, in some inaccessible plane may also have something to do with it. Or maybe our personal feelings about our reflections help promote the love/hate relationships we sometimes develop with our mirrors. I find it interesting that so many of these fictional mirrors possess at least a tinge of the supernatural. 

1) Snow White
Snow White Her stepmother's magic mirror on the wall caused a whole lot of mischief. Its owner kept wanting the reassurance that she was 'fairest in the land' but mirrors are honest if nothing else. When it informed her that little Snow White had surpassed her in beauty, the jealous lady decided to do away with her stepdaughter. (Also see my list of famous mean girls.)
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Harry Potter, #1)
2) The Mirror of Erised
This penetrating mirror reflects the elusive sight a person most desires to see. Poor Harry Potter sees himself flanked by his loving parents, while his insecure friend Ron sees himself as the recipient of several awards. Professor Dumbledore explains that the mirror has to be isolated because it drives people mad. And when he tells Harry that he himself sees socks, he's not being entirely honest.

Coraline3) Coraline
This young Neil Gaiman heroine has been enjoying the mirror image of her real life in the old house. Everything is better, including the toys and food. But then the alternative mother offers to let her stay, with the condition that she allows buttons to be sewn over her eyes. Coraline finds her real parents trapped behind the mirror, writing, 'Help Us' on the glass. The whole game changes in a flash.

Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There4) Through the Looking Glass
In this second part of Alice's adventures, she starts off wondering what life might be like on the other side of the mirror. To her surprise, she's able to step through and find out. You can be certain that what she finds is weird and surreal, including a wonderful garden and a tubby pair of twins.
The Phantom of the Opera
5) The Phantom of the Opera
The dressing room of the young singer Christine Daae has been set up with a fake mirror. That appears to be a good thing until it's discovered that it allows the phantom to do his mischief. My review is here..

6) Anne of Green Gables
During the traumatic years before the Cuthberts adopted her, Anne Shirley pretended to befriend her own reflection in a mirror, even naming it 'Katie Maurice.' It helped her through some very rough times, but she eventually admits it fell far short of eventual real friends, like Diana, Jane and Ruby.

7) Narcissus
It's no stretch to say the the crystal clear waters of the lake serve the function of a mirror for this mythical hero. The gorgeous young man becomes fixated with his own reflection and wastes away for love of it. (See my list of the greatest narcissists.)

Early this year, I went through a sideshow called the House of Mirrors with my son. He actually started getting disoriented and was relieved to get out. He said he felt like smashing all the mirrors to escape.  

The weird superstition that breaking a mirror results in 13 years of bad luck, proves that I'm not the only one who finds mirror stories a bit creepy. Story book mirrors are just asking to be broken, since they're made of glass. So I'll finish the list with some legendary mirror smashers. 

Dracula8) Dracula 
His shaving mirror gives young solicitor Jonathan Harker the frightening revelation that his host is actually a vampire. Count Dracula comes up behind him while he's shaving, and has no reflection! Yikes! That's one of their key traits, and the count smashes Harker's shaving mirror for giving his game away.
The Picture of Dorian Gray
9) Dorian Gray
The main character is well aware of the phenomenon that's happening. While he keeps his good looks, his portrait grows older and more repulsive looking. To keep track of the changes, Dorian desperately uses a hand mirror to compare his appearance with his picture's. That mirror comes to a smashing end during the course of the story. My review is here.

10) Richard II
Richard II The moment he's forced to give up his crown, the unfortunate king of England asks for a mirror. He expects to see that he's aged dramatically as a result of the sudden shock and grief. But he looks pretty much the same, and smashes the mirror, so that the shattered shards more accurately reflect his roiling emotions.
The Lady of Shalott
11) The Lady of Shalott
This ravishing beauty from Tennyson's poem is imprisoned in a tower by a mysterious curse, and can't look directly out at the world. She relies on her mirror to reflect the people of Camelot as they pass by, but regards them as mere shadows of the world. When handsome Sir Lancelot rides past, she can't resist the temptation to spin around and look at him directly. Big mistake. It causes the mirror to 'crack from side to side' and Elaine's death is imminent. That Lancelot broke more than just hearts.

12) Cosmo
He is the hero of a story within a story. The tale of Cosmo takes place in Phantastes by Rev George MacDonald. Poor Cosmo falls in love with a beautiful lady who lives on the other side of his bedroom mirror. He begins buying furniture and decorations especially to please her, but one day the mirror is stolen. It leads to an exhausting search in which he carries a hammer, determined to smash the mirror and free her, if he's ever in the position. See my review of Phantastes.

That's just me trying to set up another mirror idea for this blog post. Do any of these mirror stories to want to step in for more? Have I missed any you'd like to add? And finally, what is your own attitude to mirrors? Are they friends, foes, or both?  

Friday, September 8, 2017

'Jamaica Inn' by Daphne du Maurier

Her mother's dying request takes Mary Yellan on a sad journey across the bleak moorland of Cornwall to reach Jamaica Inn, the home of her Aunt Patience. With the coachman's warning echoing in her memory, Mary arrives at a dismal place to find Patience a changed woman, cowering from her overbearing husband, Joss Merlyn. 

Affected by the Inn's brooding power, Mary is thwarted in her attention to reform her aunt, and unwillingly drawn into the dark deeds of Joss and his accomplices. And, as she struggles with events beyond her control, Mary is further thrown by her feelings for a man she dare not trust....

I read this novel years ago in my teens, and decided to find out how it's stood the test of time.

Mary Yellan has agreed to her dying mother's final request. Mrs Yellan wanted her daughter to find a home with her sister at Jamaica Inn, on the lonely Bodmin Moor. But they had no idea what she'd be walking into. On the way, Mary discovers that the place has an evil name, and the coaches normally just hurry straight past. It's all she can do to make the driver stop to let her out.

Her menacing Uncle Joss Merlyn turns out to be a huge thug with swift mood changes, and the formerly merry Aunt Patience cowers before him like a whipped dog. Joss is involved in a smuggling racket that turns out to be far worse than Mary could have imagined, incorporating the infamous wreckers on the Cornish coast. There's a cast of despicable characters, including a nasty peddler who's a bit like Peter Pettigrew from Harry Potter, rat-like description and all.

The setting is the real hero. Cornwall looms everywhere, and it's not just filler. Without it, the story would be nothing. It's always a perfect match for what's going on, ominous, dark and mysterious. The descriptive passages are great to read, because they make the landscape come alive. When we read it, we might as well be in Cornwall, and if we're lucky enough to get a chance to visit, we recognise it instantly from du Maurier's writing, whether or not we've been there before. (I went once, when I was 20.)

I'd forgotten what a lot of walking Mary does. She travels a huge chunk of the story on her own two feet. Nor did I remember what a strong and fearless heroine she is. Events might shock, sicken and disgust Mary, but nothing frightens her or keeps her down for long. It takes looking back from an older age to realise what a bleak predicament she's in for a 23-year-old. This girl has just lost everything. She's an orphan whose mother has recently worked herself to death in a farming lifestyle that never gave her a break.Youthful idealism has been knocked out of Mary, if she ever had any to start with. She has plenty of common sense and a good dose of cynicism, but I feel a bit sad this time round, as if she obtained it too early. Maybe that's why the romance thread is quite intriguing.

In traditional stories, starry-eyed heroines are anxious to embrace romance and fall for men they deem worthy of their affection. In Mary's case, everything's the opposite. She has no romantic ideals at all, yet somehow still manages to fall for a self-confessed loser. How is that even possible? Especially when a repulsive, older version of the man she loves is always throwing his weight around. The deterrent is none other than her uncle Joss Merlyn, and although his younger brother Jem is far more attractive, they share many of the same physical and personality traits.

Jem is a horse thief who's always grubby and broke and admits that his family have never treated their women well. Mary has seen what marriage to Joss has reduced Patience to, yet can't relinquish her feelings for Jem. There are differences. Jem seems more light-hearted, smarter, kinder and undoubtedly better company, but will these things last? As a teenager, I was saying, 'Come on, he's the better man, just go for it.' But as an older person with a teenage daughter of my own, the risks are evident. Do you still say 'Take the chance' when you consider how long 'happily ever after' may turn out to be? Especially when it will include a nomadic lifestyle with no four walls to call home. I can't believe that I didn't even attempt to balance the pros with the cons in my youth, because the cons are so in-your-face. I think every reader will have to make up their own mind whether or not Jem's charms are appealing enough to take the risk.

I remembered the plot twists and revelation of the ultimate baddie in the mystery. I think it did take me by surprise the first time through. It's all tied in with gullibility and what innocent folk will believe. It's quite disturbing really, not the least that Mary could come to such a wrong conclusion, yet still make the choices she did. The last couple of pages possibly polarise people's opinions the most. I'm split in my own mind, and I'm just one person. She faces a choice between two lifestyles which are mutually exclusive. I'm hoping her choice will work out well for her. One thing in her favour is that Mary surely won't be an Aunt Patience, whatever happens!

Here are some quotes.

Cynicism and sentimentality were two extremes to be avoided. (Yet Mary seems to bump back and forth between them at times.)

There was precious little romance in nature, and she would not look for it in her own life. (Sad for such a young woman to reflect.)

I don't want to love like a woman or feel like a woman. There's pain and suffering and misery that can last a lifetime. (Ironic.)

It's power and glory and women and the kingdom of God all rolled into one. (Joss Merlyn, talking about alcohol. What a waste.)

There's never yet been a Merlyn that died peaceful in his bed. (She can't say she wasn't warned. How big a gamble would it be to expect that to change?)

There are things that happen at Jamaica, Mary, that I've never dared breathe. Bad things. Evil things. (Aunt Patience makes a good literary device to thicken the plot.)

Well, there was little use in dreaming. The present situation must be faced, and courageously too, if any good was to come of it. (The ultimate motto perhaps.)

And finally, a bit of dialogue to show why we can't help liking Mary.

Jem: Put you in a fine gown and a pair of high-heeled shoes, and stick a comb in your hair, I daresay you'd pass for a lady even in a big place like Exeter.
Mary: I'm meant to be flattered by that, I suppose. But thanking you very much, I'd rather wear my old clothes and look like myself.
Jem: You could do a lot worse than that, of course.

Here's a photo of the time I got to visit Jamaica Inn for real. This is the place which first gave Daphne du Maurier her inspiration in the 1920s. It's right by the side of the highway now, and the inside includes a few tributes to the novel, including 'Joss' Bar.' I'm sitting out on the stone fence with my Mum. Maybe one day I'll manage to go back somehow, but it's looking like that British holiday was truly the trip of a lifetime. 

4.5 stars

Monday, September 4, 2017

The day I was rebuked by Jane Austen

During my recent read of Mansfield Park (review is here), I noticed a curious omission. Although Edmund Bertram is the hero of the story, Jane Austen rarely (if ever) described his appearance. Since it's a fairly thick novel, I started wondering if this was deliberate on her part. Otherwise the occasional accidental reference to his thick hair, bright eyes or sweet smile might have slipped through. After all, she described his party-boy older brother Tom, not to mention the rakish playboy Henry Crawford. But although Edmund made the heroine Fanny Price's heart flutter, it was always for his acts of generosity or statements of moral worth. We get the picture, he's a good man with sound principles.

Yet I'm the sort of person who likes to picture scenes playing out before me, a bit like a movie screen, while I read. I had to give him some sort of presence, because he can't be invisible. Other readers have mentioned that they find Edmund a bit wishy-washy and colourless, and I wonder if it's partly because they've been given nothing to go on when it comes to the space he fills. Since we're left to make up our own minds about his looks, I decided to imagine him fairly cute. After all, two girls were deeply in love with him throughout the whole story.

Then about three quarters through the book, Jane Austen gives us something at last! It's a line from Mary Crawford, in a letter to Fanny. 'Lord Stornaway isn't so very ill-looking, but he will not pass by the side of your cousin Edmund.' Eureka, I was right and Edmund is nice looking. I even cheered softly to myself. Mary Crawford isn't depicted as the most principled character, but we can always rely on her to get to the point many women want to know. Thank you Mary!

But a few pages later, Fanny is ticking Mary off in her thoughts 'for thinking only of his appearance.' Since Fanny is so often the mouthpiece for her author, it's pretty obvious that a ticking off from Fanny is a ticking off from Jane. Ooops, I get it, sorry. Forget my vocal applause from ten minutes ago. It really felt as if our beloved Jane Austen had reached back through the centuries to give me a rap on the knuckles for being shallow. It was a strange sensation that made me laugh, but also feel a bit sheepish.

I remembered several years ago, when I was writing a novel of my own called The Risky Way Home. My editor sometimes scribbled in the margins, 'You're focusing too much on his looks and not enough on his character.' I wonder if Jane Austen was deliberately doing the opposite with Edmund, just to make her point about the most important feature of a person. We can only guess. But I won't forget the way she seemed to speak back through the centuries at that moment to say, 'Get your priorities straight, girl.'

But I'm going to speak up in self defense here, because I have one advantage over Jane Austen. She's been dead since the nineteenth century, so I can have the last word. There are excellent reasons why I think it is important to describe a hero's appearance. As I said above, I like to have some sort of inner reference for the moving picture that plays in my imagination while I'm reading. If the author doesn't give me one, I'll make up my own, because I can't help it.

But more importantly, having an idea of what a character looks like helps us not to be overly swayed by such things. If a writer gives her characters inner beauty which shines through, then we're naturally going to love them whether they're described as attractive or plain featured. And then, we're more likely to approach people out in the real world the same way, regardless of their shape or size. It wouldn't surprise me if readers of fiction, who have come across many different looking faces in the pages of books, are quickest to see through to a person's inner essence. We are most likely not to fall for someone's ravishing appearance until we get to know them, and also most likely to see actual beauty where others might not. So there Jane, maybe in some ways, considering a character's appearance is a sign of depth rather than shallowness.

My advice to authors would always be not to go overboard with physical descriptions as if it's the most important thing, but do give us something to go on, just to help give us a feel for the character. I'd love to know where you stand on the question. How important is it to you that authors describe what their characters look like? And if they don't, do you tend to fill in the blanks?

Friday, September 1, 2017

Back to the Classics Challenge 2017 - Wrap Up

This year, I took part in the Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Books and Chocolate. I love digging into the classics and each of the 12 categories gave it a very nice structure. I did all twelve because I like to go all the way when I bite off a challenge like this, so here's what I chose. 

A Nineteenth Century Classic - The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

A Twentieth Century Classic - The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

A Classic by a Woman - The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West

A Classic in Translation The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

A Classic Published before 1800 - Evelina by Fanny Burney

A Romance Classic - Shirley by Charlotte Bronte

A Gothic Classic - The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

A Classic with a number in the title - Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne

A Classic which includes the name of an animal - The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A Classic set in a place you'd like to visit - Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger (New York)

An Award-winning classic - Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce (Carnegie Medal, 1958)

A Russian Classic - The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

What a wonderful mixed bag it was. Because my reactions to these dozen classics varied so much, I thought I'd like to award medals to my top three picks, counting from the bottom to the top. I could think of a few contenders for wooden spoons too, but won't be that mean. Here are the best in my opinion.

Bronze Medal
 This one goes to The Fountain Overflows, which was a delight from start to finish. We don't need to wonder what living in the Edwardian era must have been like, because the Aubrey family make it very clear and entertaining. Their life wasn't a bed of roses though, as they practically lived off the smell of an oily rag. But the quirkiness of the family members and the resiliency of the human spirit come through loud and clear. 

Silver Medal
I've got to choose The Moonstone, which might be appropriate, since it was a silver gem. Wilkie Collins was so clever and tricky with the setting up of this Gothic mystery. There was no way readers could piece the clues together, although when we look back, the evidence was all there. It's so very dramatic and Victorian too.

Gold Medal
I'm going with The Brothers Karamazov, because it was such an ambitious novel with such a lot of scope. It was the first Russian classic I've ever read, and whetted my appetite for more. It's a murder mystery with a very psychological twist that kept me turning the pages, even though there were so many of them. 

I enjoyed the challenge so much, I might have another go next year and hopefully come across a few more new favourites. I highly recommend working through a list like this. 

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

'Mansfield Park' by Jane Austen

Taken from the poverty of her parents' home, Fanny Price is brought up with her rich cousins at Mansfield Park, acutely aware of her humble rank and with only her cousin Edmund as an ally. When Fanny's uncle is absent in Antigua, Mary Crawford and her brother Henry arrive in the neighbourhood, bringing with them London glamour and a reckless taste for flirtation. As her female cousins vie for Henry's attention, and even Edmund falls for Mary's dazzling charms, only Fanny remains doubtful about the Crawfords' influence and finds herself more isolated than ever. A subtle examination of social position and moral integrity, Mansfield Park is one of Jane Austen's most profound works.

First off, this review may have a few mild plot spoilers. Old classics are fair game.

You rarely hear people call this their favourite Austen novel, although plenty call it their least favourite. Yet it was one Jane Austen claims to have put most heart and soul into, taking 2.5 years to write. As a teenager I found it a bit slow and long-winded, and thought it was high time for a re-read to see if it deserves vindication.

So here's a quick summary. The wealthy Sir Thomas Bertram and his family offer to foster one of his impoverished sister-in-law's children to help lighten her load. That's how shy Fanny Price ends up living at Mansfield Park, where she's treated a bit like a general lackey and can't bond with her privileged girl cousins. Her cousin Edmund is kind to her, and earns her undying devotion. The year Fanny turns 18, a brother and sister named Henry and Mary Crawford move in nearby, and turn everyone's worlds upside down, including their own.

I guess the big question is, 'Are you a Fanny fan?' because your enjoyment of the novel may hinge on that. In a way, I take criticisms of Fanny to heart, since they're like digs at me too. She's been tagged an INFP (see here.) which is my Myer Briggs personality type. People like me and Fanny tend to have a tough time involving ourselves in whatever's going on, because our minds go blank in social situations, although they may be teeming at other moments. And because we conceal such a lot under the surface, people don't really get us. They may assume we're open books, but it's not strictly true. We need to make peace with being sidelined or misunderstood, because that's just a side-effect of how we're wired. Since we're not naturally forthcoming enough to give others much idea of who we are, we can't expect them to work it out intuitively. Maybe it takes one INFP to recognise another, and  refreshing characters like Fanny Price help me to embrace my own style. That's why I am a Fanny fan on the whole.

I can understand how both she and Edmund may get on readers' nerves though. They tend to stay on their high horses, and sometimes remind me of the type of people you find on social media who write, 'I find that highly offensive,' while you blink and say, 'Huh... why?' There's something a bit moralistic about the pair of them hanging back, whispering together about the shortcomings of others. Fanny's snap judgments would surely amaze those they were directed at. Poor Mary Crawford had no idea of all the harsh things meek little Fanny was thinking about her. And although Edmund was in love with Mary, he was so set in his lofty position that he expected her to do all the changing to make their relationship work. To use an Austenesque phrase, everyone who doesn't agree with Edmund and Fanny has a 'perversion of mind'.

In her book The Spirituality of Jane Austen, Paula Hollingsworth suggests that Fanny takes on the role of Old Testament prophet. She's the only one who clearly perceives the moral corruption which is simmering under the surface at Mansfield Park, yet she's the least esteemed. If you agree with this opinion, you may well love the novel. Yet if you think she too often crosses the line to sanctimoniousness and priggishness, you might hate it! I could see both sides, which is perhaps why I strongly like but not love it.

One character who always evokes strong emotion from me is the mean old aunt, Mrs Norris! She's got the Dolores Umbridge type of nastiness. She's a big talker who never backs up her claims of goodness with action, although she's convinced herself they're all true. What's more, she's a stingy person who genuinely thinks she deserves a reputation for generosity. Mrs Norris makes it sound as if she pushed for the Bertrams to take Fanny so they could do her good, but she really wants to use Fanny to do good for them. She forever keeps Fanny in her place with cruel put-down comments to remind her where she came from. As I said, it's Dolores Umbridge style hypocrisy. How I wish there'd been some centaurs to rush her off into the forest.

Now for the Crawford siblings - whoa! They're a couple of the most likeable anti-heroes you might find, and some readers prefer them over Edmund and Fanny. They're bright and cheerful with keen senses of humour and spades of charisma. But Jane Austen clearly never intended us to get too fond of them. Henry was a playboy who liked toying with the affections of hard-to-get women for fun, and Mary was a shallow, ambitious girl who was flippant about truly good things. But they weren't truly hardened baddies. They got burned in the games they were playing too, which makes it impossible for me to regard them as real villains.

Oh Henry, what a duffer you were! I think part of the sad aftertaste of Mansfield Park was that it was he who kept playing on my mind rather than Edmund. He keeps making me imagine that the ending had been different. What if Henry had won Fanny? Would she have reformed him into the type of straitlaced man she admired, or would he have helped her to lighten up a bit? Is he really incapable of staying true to one individual woman? I'd love to see a girl like Fanny attempt to find out. My guess is that he'd possibly get restless, itchy feet after a few years of marriage to her, but maybe not. The alternative ending of their marriage has a dash more romance than the Fanny and Edmund one.

Since Edmund always regarded himself as such a big brother, that's how I saw him too! I can't force my mind to grasp how he'd ever change his to the extent of thinking of her as a wife, even though the narration calls it inevitable. But it's enough to make my imagination recoil a bit. As for Mary, maybe she did well to miss out on Edmund. Who wants a guy who'd discuss the weak side of your character with his female cousin? (Incidentally, have you ever noticed how Austen never described his looks with great detail? There's more on that here where I discuss the day Jane Austen rebuked me.)

I think on the whole, there's a lot of good in this story to balance the bit of bad. Sure, Edmund and Fanny aren't the greatest romance in literature, but as a social commentary and family saga it's great. And certainly Fanny may come across a bit passive and wimpish to some, but don't forget the courage she showed in persisting to refuse a proposal of a man she wasn't in love with, when every intimidating member of her family was practically ordering her to accept.

It's one of those books that whether people say, 'I love it' or 'I hate it', I might be able to see where they're coming from. If you've read Mansfield Park, I'd love to know which side of the fence you stand on.

Some good quotes

There are not so many men of large fortune in the world as there are pretty women to deserve them (Nothing's changed)

Maria and Julia's vanity was in such good order that they seemed to be quite free from it.

Fanny's mind had scarcely known a pause in alarm or embarrassment.

'As the clergy are or are not what they ought to be, so are the rest of the nation' (Edmund)

'A large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of'' (Mary)

'If we have been kind to her, she is now quite as necessary to us' (Sir Thomas)

4.5 stars

Friday, August 25, 2017

Stories with Gold

Gold has fascinated people from ancient times. It draws attention to itself by its wonderful lustre and sheer weight. On holiday with my family, we visited a quarry where we got to hold a small solid gold ingot. It felt so heavy in my hand! It was a thrill to hold the stuff that legends are made of. We all know that if we manage to make it to the end of a rainbow, there might be a pot of gold, and that the streets of heaven are paved with it. It's always been regarded as the celebrity of all gems, and the following stories show what people were willing to risk to get their hands on some. I think gold represented ultimate prosperity and the chance to relax in times when you had to almost work until you dropped just to keep from starving. Some of these stories are hundreds of years old.    

Rumplestiltskin (Faerie Tale Collection, #3)1) Rumplestiltskin
A poor girl suffers for her silly father's deception. He claims that she can spin straw into gold, so the greedy king locks her up until she can prove her father's boast to be true. And if she can't, it'll be off with her head. An opportunistic little imp who can perform this feat of alchemy comes along to save the day. He exacts a harsh penalty for his help, demanding her first born child, but when the time comes, she manages to outsmart him.
Jack and the Beanstalk
2) Jack and the Beanstalk
After nearly getting himself served up in a giant's casserole, you might think our hero would consider himself lucky to have escaped with his life. Jack is made of tougher stuff though, and knows that this giant has something that would keep his mother and himself prosperous all their lives. That's the goose the lays the golden eggs. That bird was almost worth getting himself skewered again to run back for.

Tales from the Arabian Nights3) Ali-Baba and the 40 Thieves
He's a poor woodcutter who discovers that the simple phrase, 'Open Sesame' will allow him to enter the opulence and splendour of a thieves' den. Ali-Baba instantly sets about robbing the robbers. (The heroes in the Tales of the Arabian Nights weren't necessarily honest or nice guys.) His exploits almost get him murdered, and cause the death of his nasty older brother Cassim. But with the help of his clever female servant, Ali-Baba wriggles out of trouble and enjoys the benefits of that gold for the rest of his life.
Jason and the Golden Fleece (The Argonautica)
4) Jason and the Golden Fleece
The fleece belonged to a winged ram who surely must've had trouble walking or flying beneath its weight. Jason is challenged by his wicked uncle Pelias to get hold of the fleece, if he hopes to win back his father's throne. Pelias thinks it'll be an impossible, maybe suicidal quest. But with the help of his awesome team of heroes (the Argonauts) Jason survives several potentially fatal adventures to bring that golden fleece home.

5) The Ark of the Covenant
Both the Holy Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant were crafted with some of the best materials the earth could offer, including plenty of gold. Not only was this most sacred chest made of gold, but contained among other things, a gold pot of manna. Searches for the historical item of such significance have become legendary, but I sure wouldn't want to be the one to find it. When the Philistines captured it during Samuel's time, they experienced such bad luck that they sent it home. And remember what happened to poor Uzzah, when he stretched out his hand to steady it while it was being transported on an oxen cart under King David's orders. It's extreme holiness was not to be taken lightly.

6) The Baby Jesus
A stash of gold was among the gifts the Magi brought across the desert to present the baby they knew would grow up to be the Messiah and King. It was a mark of their highest respect. Do you ever wonder what Joseph and Mary did with it? Shouldn't it have helped transform their economic status, along with the frankincense and myrrh? Perhaps they needed it to finance their flight across Egypt and later setting up a carpentry business in Galilee. They never came across exceptionally wealthy at any stage.

In a spiritual sense, some stories contain the sober reminder that the love of all treasure, including gold, may even be corrupting. Here are some tales which show the negative side of the emotions gold may elicit, including greed and covetousness. 

King Midas and the Golden Touch7) King Midas
He was the man who was granted what many others might have longed for. Everything he touched turned to gold. But poor Midas soon discovers the down side to this incredible gift, when he accidentally transforms several things he would've preferred to keep in their natural state, including beloved family members. His sad plight is meant to remind us that some of the blessings we all enjoy every day are far more valuable than gold.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Chronicles of Narnia, #3)
8) The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
On one of the islands explored by the crew, a solid gold statue lies at the bottom of a clear lake. They realise in the nick of time that the water turns whatever it touches to gold. The poor chap had jumped in for a swim. Caspian and Edmund almost fall victim to the greedy thoughts this lake stirs up, but come to their senses when Lucy tells them off.

In the same book, poor Eustace chances upon a dragon's cave while walking by himself. He puts a gold bracelet on his wrist and falls asleep making plans to return for more plunder. But when he wakes up, he's turned into a dragon. The narrator puts it this way. 'Sleeping on a dragon's hoard, with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself.' It could only happen in Narnia.

Silas Marner9) Silas Marner
For 15 years, the lonely miser brooded over his crock of gold sovereigns, counting and caressing each coin. Then one evening, it's stolen from him while he's out of the house. Silas suffers a huge wrench as his gold was his whole life, heart and soul. But when a living gift appears by his hearth, he comes to realise that his gold held a position in his life which it shouldn't have. My review is here.

10) The Golden Calf
Not all biblical incidents regarding gold are positive. There was an unfortunate event in the wilderness years when the High Priest Aaron caved in to people's demand for something to worship. He asked for all their gold jewellery to melt down, and formed it into the image of a golden calf which fitted their criteria. When Moses came down from talking to God on the mountain, he was furious, and forced the people to eat the re-melted gold as part of their punishment. It proves what a mighty leader he was. Imagine one man forcing a crowd of that size to swallow gold.

11) The Australian Goldrush Era
My country has its own colourful history, when a whole lot of folk desperate to improve their quality of life went wild for gold in the mid nineteenth century. Men from all walks of life became miners overnight, crossing the Victorian borders in search of the elusive nuggets. Towns such as Ballarat, Bendigo and Ararat were built up around the gold industry. While fortune smiled upon some, others remained destitute. Novels set in this time period are interesting. Clara Morison was written by an author who actually lived during the time period, Catherine Helen Spence. And Ellenvale Gold, by my friend Amanda Deed, is a great read. When gold is discovered on Miss Penny Worthington's property, it brings out all that's inside the hearts of various characters, whether it be greed, sneakiness, helpfulness or heroism.

Do you have any other gold stories to add to the list? Or any favourites, which may even be from mine above? Have you had a chance to get up close and personal with gold yourself? My kids used to love visiting Sovereign Hill in Ballarat, where they did some gold panning. We were told it might still flow in those streams, and did see a glimmer or two in the pans :) 

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

'The Sacrament of Happy' by Lisa Harper


Imagine hearing your physician tell you that chips and queso contain more nutritional benefits than kale and quinoa. Or opening an envelope that looks like just another bill, and unfolding instead an official document declaring you the sole beneficiary of an anonymous billionaire’s estate.

In her new book, The Sacrament of Happy: Surprised by the Secret of Genuine Joy, Lisa Harper unveils a similarly extravagant, unexpected surprise, declaring that happiness—just plain feeling happy—is a gift from God that you can unashamedly enjoy.

I enjoy reading and reviewing the occasional book about happiness theories, as there's always a lot to get out of them. This one's sound premise attracted me. In years gone by, happiness got a bad wrap from dour Christians who thought it was based on shallow, swinging emotions, but in reality, God actually wants us to be happy. It may even be one of his major purposes for us. Lisa Harper reminds us that there are thousands of direct or closely related references to happiness in the Bible, which suggests that it might be our calling.

However, her style of writing frequently caused me to lose her thread. She begins sections with interesting questions, such as, 'How do we cultivate happy?' or 'How can we recover our happy?' or 'Can happy change the world?' Then she launches into long, humorous personal anecdotes that tend to ramble off on tangents. Reading the book became an exercise of seeing how she could wind her stories back to the points she was trying to make. In fact sometimes they went on for so long that I had to keep flipping back to remind myself what the initial question even was.

Harper doesn't always make allowances for different temperaments either. 'How does happiness express itself?' is a good example. Her self-proclaimed temperament is different from mine. Harper is energetic, loud and sanguine, and some of her advice seems crafted for people who are similarly wired. Those of us who enjoy more low-key styles of happiness can find good points in the book too, though. And some advice is great across the board, such as regularly frisking our thoughts, making sure we keep moving, and exercising intentional gratitude.

I could imagine this author being a stand-up comedian and getting crowds laughing, which I'm sure she does. Overall, it's not a bad book, although you may find some parts more relevant than others for you.

Thanks to B&H Publishing Group and NetGalley for my review copy.

3 stars

Monday, August 21, 2017

'The Picture of Dorian Gray' by Oscar Wilde

Written in his distinctively dazzling manner, Oscar Wilde’s story of a fashionable young man who sells his soul for eternal youth and beauty is the author’s most popular work. The tale of Dorian Gray’s moral disintegration caused a scandal when it first appeared in 1890, but though Wilde was attacked for the novel’s corrupting influence, he responded that there is, in fact, “a terrible moral in Dorian Gray.” Just a few years later, the book and the aesthetic/moral dilemma it presented became issues in the trials occasioned by Wilde’s homosexual liaisons, which resulted in his imprisonment. Of Dorian Gray’s relationship to autobiography, Wilde noted in a letter, “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps.”

Wow, there are lots of flowers in this story. Lovely scents and perfumes are everywhere. Our hero always seems to be either sniffing or arranging them. Maybe it's all part of his fixation on the transience of beauty, which is partly what this story is all about.

Gorgeous young Dorian Gray has just had his portrait painted by artist Basil Hallward. The charismatic Lord Henry Wotton advises Dorian to enjoy his good looks while he still has them, since they'll start to fade some day. Henry believes physical beauty is the only thing worth having. In a rash moment, Dorian vows that he'd give his own soul if only he could swap places with the portrait and remain stunning, while his image grows old and decrepit instead. To his shock, that's exactly what begins to happen. While Dorian retains his sultry, innocent appearance, the picture bears not only the passing years but the impact of his hard living, bad choices and sinful nature too.

It's sort of a chilling parable, urging readers to give at least a passing thought to the state of our own souls. Dorian understandably hides his painting away from prying eyes, down in the old schoolroom behind a heavy curtain. He's knows it's a visible gauge of what's going on with the state of his inner man. Even though ours aren't as in-your-face as Dorian's, Oscar Wilde's novel challenges us to question whether or not we're concealing nasty secrets of our own. What if our inner lives were made plain to all on some other plane? Could we stand seeing them without flinching? It's not entirely comfortable stuff.

The book is also about true happiness and satisfaction. Henry and Dorian, who become best buddies, live decadent and hedonistic lifestyles, denying themselves nothing. Their basic motto would have to be, 'If it feels good, do it.' FOMO (fear of missing out) seems to drive them. If anything may be rumoured to offer a whiff of pleasure, these guys are out chasing it! While still underage, Dorian wants his guardians to understand that 'unnecessary things are his only necessity.' Yet I wonder if their eventual jadedness and disillusionment have echoes of Oscar Wilde's own. It's pretty clear from the tone of the story that he must have been on the same wavelength as them. He was a celebrity of his time, not only for his writing but for being at the forefront of the Victorian 'dandy' movement in London. Was it all it was cracked up to be?

He mentions 'tedium vitae' which is Latin for the weariness of life that comes on those to whom life denies nothing. Few of us get the chance to live as if time or money are no object, so it's probably a revealing experience to wallow from time to time in the lives of those who can. (And 'wallowing' is an apt word for getting into Henry's and Dorian's head spaces. You don't want to spend too long there, believe me. Their luxury and leisure are appealing up to a point, but we soon want out.)

The nature of a bad influence got me pondering. Plenty of innocent folk are corrupted during the course of this novel. From the start, Henry quickly steers Dorian to an unsavoury, self-indulgent lifestyle. In turn, the beautiful and fascinating Dorian Gray gains a reputation for ruining the lives of anyone who gets close to him. Of course, both Henry and Dorian deny that they have such power. They believe there must be some latent evil in the souls of the others in the first place, to be led astray. 'Like responds to like,' is how they explain the phenomenon. It does beg the question of whether some people are more corruption proof than others. In a way, blaming Henry and Dorian may be a cop-out for not taking responsibility for their own poor decisions. But on the other hand, there definitely was a pattern. It seems hanging out with those two was really putting the strength of a person's moral integrity to the test. Maybe the book says something about the fragility of human nature. Wilde was asking, 'Are you sure your high principles are rock solid?'

Henry and Dorian enjoy an enduring friendship, yet I wouldn't want them on my list of best literary bromances. There's something a bit creepy and corrupt about it. In the first place, Henry wanted to get his unscrupulous clutches into Dorian, to discover to what extent he could influence him. Even well into their relationship when he admires him intensely, there's something self-congratulatory about his feelings. Henry has created a monster, albeit a very nice looking one.

I couldn't forget the author as I was reading his book. Reading Dorian Gray makes me feel very sorry for what Oscar Wilde was forced to endure in his prison years. To go from sliding out of satin sheets after midday to two years of intense physical labour would have to be rough. No wonder it contributed to his early death.

I always like to finish off with some quotes, and as Oscar Wilde was a renowned wit, there are plenty to choose from.  But you've got to take them tongue-in-cheek in a story like this. We get plenty of dodgy, questionable advice from Lord Henry Wotton, but most times it's nothing readers should really take on board. Dorian did to his peril.

Henry: There's only one thing worse than being talked about, and that's not being talked about. (From what we know of Oscar Wilde, this was one of his own personal mottoes too.)

Henry: To get back my youth I'd do anything in the world, except take exercise, get up early and be respectable.

Henry: One should never make one's debut with a scandal. Save it to be interesting in your old age.

Henry: Murder is always a mistake. One should never do anything that one cannot talk about after dinner. (Maybe some of his advice is pretty sound, on rare occasions.)

Overall, if you think it doesn't matter what's bubbling away under the surface, as long as you look good, think again. The proverb not to judge a book by its cover is really brought home in this particular book. It's also an interesting glimpse of the decadent movement in what they used to call the 'naughty nineties.'

The Picture of Dorian Gray is also on my lists of Stories that Feature Beautiful Portraits and Greatest Narcissists if you'd like to check them out.

4 stars

Thursday, August 17, 2017

A wise but illiterate woman

Her name is Dolly Winthrop and she's from Silas Marner by George Eliot. She's a simple, hardworking village mother. One of the salt-of-the-earth type who manged a large household and family when times were not easy. Dolly was always ready to lend a helping hand, and took it upon herself to befriend the lonely weaver Silas Marner and the little girl he'd just adopted.

I was wondering why Dolly appeals to me so much. I think it's partly because she's everything I used to train myself not to be. Her homespun wisdom comes straight from her own head and heart, because she's never even learned to read. We get no re-hashed book wisdom from Dolly. She doesn't even know any big words, let alone try to impress people by using them. We can be certain that she gives only what she's pondered through her own personal observations of life, human nature and changing seasons. Such a refreshing lady is hard to find for real, especially in the 21st century.

As I said, I was way different to her. Studying English at Uni in my youth scared me away from the classics for several years. A lot of the academic waffle and jargon soared over my head. It gave me a sinking feeling that the enlightened beings behind the podium must be higher mortals than the rest of us. I think I developed some sort of imposter's syndrome for even being there. So I started trying to impress each of the professors and tutors by writing the sort of essays I imagined they'd most like to read. I listened carefully to opinions they expressed in lectures and started doubting my own impressions as too simplistic, if not totally off the page. Without consciously realising I was doing any such thing, I started trying to figure out smart people's opinions to take them on board as my own. One day I realised, 'I don't know whether I'm thinking as myself, my tutors, or my text book. Will the real me please stand up?'

I knew it was time to stop regarding others as models of how to think. It took ages to train myself back to thinking for myself, which I assume is what we're born doing. I can't even say for sure that I totally succeeded, but I've been trying. An education is a great thing, but that might be one of its down sides. We aren't doing ourselves any favours by blindly trusting and admiring the self-proclaimed learned beings. That's why I loved Dolly Winthrop's way of going off to think for herself, and then putting her impressions into her own words.

There's her simple reason for going to church.
 'I feel so set up and comfortable as niver was, when I've been and heard the prayers and singing to the praise and glory o' God, and if a bit o' trouble comes, I feel I can put up wi' it for I've looked to help i' the right quarter and gev myself up to Them as we must all give ourselves up to at the last; and if we'n done our part, it isn't to be believed as Them as are above us 'ull be worse nor we are, and come short o' Theirn.'

Then there's her feelings about the seasons and cycles.
'It's like the night and the morning, and the sleeping and the waking, and the rain and the harvest. One goes and the other comes, and we know not how nor where. We may strive and scrat and fend but it's little we can do arter all, the big things come and go with no striving of our'n.

Challenged by Silas, she has a serious ponder about why things happen the way they do.
'It come to me clear as daylight, but whether I've got hold on it now, or can anyways bring it to my tongue's end, that I don't know. It come into my head that Them above has got a deal tenderer heart nor what I've got, for I can't be anyways better nor Them as made me, and if anything looks hard to me, it's because there's things I don't know on; for it's little as I know. That's all as ever I can be sure on, and everything else is a big puzzle to me when I think of it. Eh, there's trouble i' this world, and there's things as we can niver make out the right on. And all as we've got to do is to trusten, Master Marner, to do the right thing as far as we know, and to trusten. For if us as knows so little can see a bit o' good and rights, we may be sure as there's a good and a rights bigger nor what we can know. I feel it i' my own inside as it must be so. And if you could but ha' gone on trustening, you wouldn't ha' run away from your fellow craturs and been so lone.'

Finally, here's her attitude about things we may never understand, no matter how hard we may try to figure them out.
It's the will o' Them above as a many things should be dark to us; but there's some thing as I've never felt i' the dark about, and they're mostly what comes i' the day's work. You were hard done by that once, Master Marner, and it seems as you'll never know the right of it; but that doesn't hinder there being a rights, Master Marner, for all it's dark to you and me.

So Dolly is one of the literary women I greatly admire. Anybody who desires to think through the big questions, then comes up with solutions which put their hearts to rest deserves all the serenity they get. She even has a word of her own about trying to take the opinion of learned folk on board. 'It'd mayhap take the parson to tell us some things, and he could only tell us in big words.' So rather than trying to fathom them, she makes her own sensible conclusions. Good on her.

Monday, August 14, 2017

'Evelina' by Frances Burney

Frances Burney's first and most enduringly popular novel is a vivid, satirical, and seductive account of the pleasures and dangers of fashionable life in late eighteenth-century London. 

As she describes her heroine's entry into society, womanhood and, inevitably, love, Burney exposes the vulnerability of female innocence in an image-conscious and often cruel world where social snobbery and sexual aggression are played out in the public arenas of pleasure-gardens, theatre visits, and balls. But Evelina's innocence also makes her a shrewd commentator on the excesses and absurdities of manners and social ambitions--as well as attracting the attention of the eminently eligible Lord Orville. 

Evelina, comic and shrewd, is at once a guide to fashionable London, a satirical attack on the new consumerism, an investigation of women's position in the late eighteenth century, and a love story. 


I chose this novel as my Pre-1800 choice in the 2017 Back to the Classics challenge, since it was published way back in 1778. Frances Burney wrote Evelina anonymously at a time when novel writing (and reading) was frowned upon. I was thinking, 'I'll bet this was the sort of novel young girls were warned not to read.' I can guess how parents of that time might have found it time wasting. Burney's language has old fashioned charm, but her subject matter is pretty lightweight. Even when I'd got a few hundred pages into it, the storyline seemed to be nothing but socialising and trying to dodge the attention of annoying dudes. Several times I almost didn't finish. Not only was nothing much happening, but none of the characters grabbed my sympathy or liking. In fact, several of them were incredibly obnoxious.

Here's a quick summary. Evelina has been brought up by the elderly Reverend Arthur Villars, because her mother died giving birth and her father disowned her. She should have been an heiress of two fortunes, but instead, she's an unknown country rustic. However, family connections want Evelina to make her entrance into the world. Her French grandmother plans to win her fortune on her father's side by proving that the bounder was indeed married to her daughter. Evelina, who's been sheltered and innocent, has no idea about the predators and potential corrupting influences she'll find in the big city. The story is told in letters, mostly from her to her beloved guardian.

We're told part of her problem was 'too much beauty to escape notice, but too little wealth to be sought.' I've got to say, most of the men are depicted as complete shallow twits. They all fall head over heels in love with Evelina at first sight because she's pretty, without knowing or caring what sort of person she is. There are bullies, misogynists, philanderers, creeps and crashing bores. Fanny Burney sure knew how to create unflattering male characters, but I'm not sure that's a good recommendation for her book. These days, Evelina could get a restraining order against a pain in the neck like Sir Clement Willoughby.

One shining exception is Lord Orville, who Evelina thought could do no wrong. She had a huge crush on him from the very start, and called him, 'one who seems formed as a pattern for his fellow creatures.' Whoa, that's strong praise. Would you give your husband or boyfriend such a sweeping compliment? In Orville's case, perhaps it was true though, when you consider his competition.

The eighteenth century would have been a tough time to be alive, because everything had to be a certain way. It was a real cookie cutter generation. You probably wouldn't hear any advice to 'be true to yourself.' They'd be more likely to say, 'Do what she's doing.' You were obliged to be feminine or masculine, according to your gender, and the rules were unbending. Both Evelina and Villars find Mrs Selwyn's tendency to use sarcasm and satire too forward and manly, whereas nowadays, we'd be more likely to accept that this is just her nature.

It seems you didn't have to step too far out of line to be considered low-bred or vulgar. Both Evelina and Orville were disgusted when three young men had a conversation about eating, including their extensive knowledge of sauces and dressings. To them, they came across as gluttons and epicures. To me, they might have been discussing a reality cooking show on TV, and I might've even joined in.

And then there's Evelina's newfound cousins, the Branghton siblings, who she cringed to be seen with. She was anxious to get rid of Sir Clement, yet still ashamed to have him see her with them. Okay, here's my confession. They didn't seem bad enough to warrant that sort of snobbery. If you've ever read this book, haven't you come across far worse people than the Branghtons? But Evelina knew the Regency social cues and I don't. If I managed to catch a time machine to that era, I'd probably be an outcast in a flash.

If you make it to the end, the story turns into a sudden soap opera with all sorts of stunning family revelations I thought were hilarious. For any other book I'd say, 'Come on, no way!' For this one though, my reaction was, 'Something's happening at last.' I'm not overly impressed with Fanny Burney's work based on Evelina, which is said to be her best. She might've been revived for a few reasons. The age of the book alone gives it a sort of hallowed charm, and she's also someone Jane Austen used to read. It's probably a sort of second hand fame, but I'd rather stick to Jane from now on. One thing I took from this book is that long, rambling small talk you can't escape from was just as tedious in the eighteenth century as it is in the twenty-first.

But to finish off with, here are some quotes. As there were so many pests, I'll grab a couple from them just to show what Evelina had to put up with.

Sir Clement Willoughby: I'm no advocate for hats. Where there is beauty, they only serve to shade it, and where there is none, they excite a most unavailing curiosity.

If you think that's bad, how about this one, from his friend?

Lord Merton: I don't know what the devil a woman lives for, after thirty. She is only in other folks' way.

Okay, let's mix it up with a few nicer ones.

Evelina: My intentions are never willfully blameable, yet I err perpetually. (There's one thing I have in common with her.)

Villars: A youthful mind is seldom totally free from ambition; to curb that is the first step to contentment, since to diminish expectation is to increase enjoyment. (That's probably the best line in the whole book, and it was over within the first few pages.)

I felt inclined to give it three stars just because it's the oldest book by a female author I've ever read, but no, I've got to stick true to my ranking criteria, and I really felt like giving up many, many times.

2 stars