Category Archives: 09. Classics Club: Round 1

Dombey and Sons by Charles Dickens

All the way back in 2012, I migrated from Blogger to WP. In that time, I’ve had multiple blogs, with differing themes, I’ve been self-hosted and I’ve used free sites, and I’ve been generally unable to commit to anything. I’ve decided at this point that I want all of my bookish content to live in one place. So, over the next several months, I’ll be republishing posts that have long been published on other blogs, adding reviews to my review index, and then eventually deleting those old posts & blogs for good.

I’m starting with my first classics club project – the OG of reading projects for me – which ran from 2012 through 2015.

Dombey and SonDombey and Son by Charles Dickens
Rating: ★★
Publication Date: July 1, 1848
Pages: 1024
Genre: classic
Project: classics club round 1

Paul Dombey is a heartless London merchant who runs his domestic affairs as he runs his business. In the tight orbit of his daily life there is no room for dealing with emotions because emotion has no market value. In his son he sees the future of his firm and the continuation of his name, while he neglects his affectionate daughter, until he decides to get rid of her beloved, a lowly clerk. But Dombey's weakness is his pride, and he falls prey to the treacherous flattery of others. Combining an intricate plot, vivid language, and Dickens's customary social commentary, Dombey and Son, explores the possibility of moral and emotional redemption through familial love

So, I am almost at the mid-point of my Classics Club challenge, so I’ve been going back over and seeing where I still needed to put up posts about books I’ve read. I read this book a long time ago (like, sometime in 2012, if I recall correctly. If not, in 2013) and I didn’t really like it, so I’ve delayed writing a post to the point that I hardly remember the book.

So, what you are going to get here is basically Christine’s thoughts and impressions about a book that may or may not even be remotely accurate. Here goes.

Dombey and Son is basically the story of a Victorian business man – Paul Dombey. He owns a business in London during the Victorian time, and is therefore a Very Important Businessman and the owner of a Very Important Business. The one thing that will make his life complete is a son whom he can mold into an image of himself, who will then himself become a Very Important Businessman and they can run their Very Important Business together, until Dombey dies and the line will continue unchecked ad infinitum, carrying their miserly and materialistic ways into infinity.

Dombey has a lovely daughter as well. Her name is Mary Sue Florence. Mary Sue Florence is all that is wonderful, a perfect flower of Victorian youthful womanly delight. But, pah, she’s a girl. No penis, no value! Begone from my presence, thou worthless strumpet!

See what I mean? She’s lovely.

At last, Dombey’s greatest dream is realized and he has a son. A choir of angels drops blessings on the House of Dombey. He is named is Paul, Two. See what he did there? Unfortunately for Dombey, he is a character in a Dickens novel, which means that he needs to learn a Very Important Lesson.

Mary Sue Florence, flourishes in her beautifully irrelevant uselessness. She dotes on her father and brother. Pah, she’s a girl. No penis, no value! Begone from my presence, thou worthless strumpet.

Paul, Two, on the other hand, kicks the bucket. Oh, noes. All of Dombey’s hopes and dreams are over.

But wait, says Dombey, I still have a lovely daughter, Mary Sue Florence, and I have spent the last long years ignoring her because she lacks a penis. But, what a silly man I am. I can mold her into a Very Important Businesswoman and we shall run my Very Important Business together because misogyny sucks!

Oh, sorry, I got distracted for a moment.

Back to the real story. Dombey loses all his money, because he is apparently not a Very Smart Businessman. Also, because he takes up with a beautiful, haughty woman who is not a perfect flower of self-abnegating Victorian womanhood and she sort of stole from him, and may have also whored around before she ran off with the man who destroyed his business. Bitch!

And, then, we have the redemptive ending. Which Dickens left way to long to convince me. By the time Dombey realizes that Mary Sue Florence has been there for him and that love is more important than money (this is pretty effing convenient, in my opinion, since he no longer has any money), I just wanted him to a die in a fire. Cold, broken and alone.

I know, it would be unlikely that one could simultaneously burn to death, and remain cold, but hey, it’s my irrational and bloodthirsty desire for justice, so I’m going to go with it. I’m all like “screw that asshole, Mary Sue Florence. He just wants to hang out with you because he’s broke, and you’ve got a son you named Paul. Also, we need to talk about your life choices because what the actual fuck you named your kid after that misogynistic asshole who ignored you and assaulted you?

TL/DR version:

This book is basically A Christmas Carol, with ten times as many pages, and one tenth the charm. Also there are no ghosts. Ghosts would’ve improved the thing.

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope

All the way back in 2012, I migrated from Blogger to WP. In that time, I’ve had multiple blogs, with differing themes, I’ve been self-hosted and I’ve used free sites, and I’ve been generally unable to commit to anything. I’ve decided at this point that I want all of my bookish content to live in one place. So, over the next several months, I’ll be republishing posts that have long been published on other blogs, adding reviews to my review index, and then eventually deleting those old posts & blogs for good.

I’m starting with my first classics club project – the OG of reading projects for me – which ran from 2012 through 2015.

Barchester TowersBarchester Towers by Anthony Trollope
Rating: ★★★★
Series: Chronicles of Barchester #2
Publication Date: November 1, 1857
Pages: 526
Genre: classic
Project: classics club round 1

‘I never saw anything like you clergymen … you are always thinking of fighting each other’

After the death of old Dr Grantly, a bitter struggle begins over who will succeed him as Bishop of Barchester. And when the decision is finally made to appoint the evangelical Dr Proudie, rather than the son of the old bishop, Archdeacon Grantly, resentment and suspicion threaten to cause deep divisions within the diocese. Trollope’s masterly depiction of the plotting and back-stabbing that ensues lies at the heart of one of the most vivid and comic of his Barsetshire novels, peopled by such very different figures as the saintly Warden of Hiram’s Hospital, Septimus Harding, the ineffectual but well-meaning new bishop and his terrifying wife, and the oily chaplain Mr Slope who has designs both on Mr Harding’s daughter and the fascinating would-be femme fatale Signora Vesey-Neroni.

Barchester Towers is a bigger novel than The Warden in every way. Its scope is more sweeping, it’s characterizations even richer (and more satirical) and its cast of characters has grown significantly. I enjoyed The Warden a lot. I adored Barchester Towers.

I am a sucker for huge Victorian novels, peopled by legions of occasionally hilariously named characters. Dickens has nothing on Trollope in his naming facility. From Mr. and Mrs. Quiverful (the cleric with 14 children, of course) through Mrs. Proudie (activist wife of the new, low church bishop who becomes embroiled in a major power struggle) and Obadiah Slope – a nametag nearly as evocative as Uriah Heep, whom he resembles in more than just the sound of his name – Trollope has given us a whole society to enjoy.

The basic premise of Barchester Towers is simple. The bishop, father of the Archdeacon Grantley, has died, leaving the bishopric open and available. When the Prime Minister chooses the evangelical Dr. Proudie to fill his position, rather than the High Church archdeacon, all hell rather breaks loose in Barchester, with normally quiet, retiring clerics jockeying for better positions, more prestige, and new opportunities.

In addition, poor Eleanor Bold, whose romantic travails were a centerpiece of The Warden has, sadly, been widowed after giving birth to a child. She has been left rather well-off in widowhood and becomes the marital target of three disparate men – Mr. Slope (played by the always excellent Alan Rickman in the BBC special), who is frankly after her money and is greasy, obsequious perfection (he makes Austen’s Mr. Collins look like the picture of unboastful humility), Dr. Stanhope, who is also after her money, and is more of the bluff, hearty type, and the brilliant Francis Arabin, who is high church, and is summoned in effort to combat the low church fellows who are taking over Barchester.

The weirdly sorta hot Obadiah Slope, as performed by a young Alan Rickman

One begins to wonder if Trollope plans to successively marry and widow poor Eleanor in every installment. And one further notes that Trollope clearly never envisioned Mr. Slope being played by Alan Rickman. Because, yeah, he’s bizarrely appealing.

In any event, Barchester Towers is awesome. It is a romp, full of satire, and humor, and puncturing self-importance. Trollope is delightfully subversive and biting. Obadiah Slope is one of those characters we love to hate, with all of his wily and duplicitous scheming. And even the most “unwordly” of clergymen are always engaged in manipulation to improve their positions, which they would attribute to their desire to direct their flock, but we know better because Trollope tells us so: it’s nearly always self-interest at the core.

And when Trollope asks: “[i]s it not a pity that people who are bright and clever should so often be exceedingly improper? and that those who are never improper should so often be dull and heavy?” I answer with a resounding “Yes!”

“There is no happiness in love except at the end of an English novel. But in wealth, money, houses, lands, goods and chattels, in the good things of this world, yes, in them there is something tangible, something that can be retained and enjoyed.”

Trollope, you clever, diverting, amazing, awesome, and exceedingly delightfully improper old cynic. I can’t wait to read the next installment.

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

All the way back in 2012, I migrated from Blogger to WP. In that time, I’ve had multiple blogs, with differing themes, I’ve been self-hosted and I’ve used free sites, and I’ve been generally unable to commit to anything. I’ve decided at this point that I want all of my bookish content to live in one place. So, over the next several months, I’ll be republishing posts that have long been published on other blogs, adding reviews to my review index, and then eventually deleting those old posts & blogs for good.

I’m starting with my first classics club project – the OG of reading projects for me – which ran from 2012 through 2015.

The WardenThe Warden by Anthony Trollope
Rating: ★★★★½
Series: Chronicles of Barchester #1
Publication Date: March 1, 1855
Pages: 201
Genre: classic
Project: classics club round 1

"The Warden" centers on Mr. Harding, a clergyman of great personal integrity who is nevertheless in possession of an income from a charity far in excess of the sum devoted to the purposes of the foundation. On discovering this, young John Bold turns his reforming zeal to exposing what he regards as an abuse of privilege, despite the fact that he is in love with Mr. Harding's daughter Eleanor. It was a highly topical novel (a case regarding the misapplication of church funds was the scandalous subject of contemporary debate), but like other great Victorian novelists, Trollope uses the specific case to explore and illuminate the universal complexities of human motivation and social morality

This slender book is the first volume in Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire. It is one of Trollope’s shorter works (if not the shortest), and provides the reader with a brief but delightful introduction into the characters and setting of Trollope’s ecclesiastical series.

I have not read a lot of Trollope. The only other of his novels that I have read is the stand-alone “The Way We Live Now,” which I read a number of years ago – long enough ago that if I were to try to review it, I would need to reread it. I remember distinctly enjoying it. Trollope is a student of human nature, and explores human behavior in a way that is really compelling. The Warden is a slice of life book centered around Mr. Harding, the warden of a hospital for poor men (the bedesmen), who becomes the subject of a dispute between his son-in-law, Dr. Grantly, and a reformer, John Bold. Mr. Bold attempts to make the case that Mr. Harding’s salary – which is rather generous – should, by rights, go to the bedesmen for whom he provides spiritual succor and physical care.

Poor Mr. Harding, who is a genuinely honorable man, ends up being tugged like a bone between two dogs when Mr. Bold files a lawsuit to oust Mr. Harding and give the bedesmen the money from a trust that is in place to care for them. The men have varying reactions to this plan. Some of them think it is a grand idea. One of them thinks that they are likely to not really benefit in the end, and is loyal to Mr. Harding:

“Law!” said Bunce, with all the scorn he knew how to command—”law! Did ye ever know a poor man yet was the better for law, or for a lawyer?

I’ll let you guess who was right.

As if this dispute isn’t ugly enough, Mr. Harding’s younger daughter, Eleanor, is also in love with John Bold, and is therefore, herself, engaged an emotional tug-of-war between her filial love and respect for her father and her romantic love for Mr. Bold.

“Mr Bold,” said she, “you may be sure of one thing; I shall always judge my father to be right, and those who oppose him I shall judge to be wrong. If those who do not know him oppose him, I shall have charity enough to believe that they are wrong, through error of judgment; but should I see him attacked by those who ought to know him, and to love him, and revere him, of such I shall be constrained to form a different opinion.” And then curtseying low she sailed on, leaving her lover in anything but a happy state of mind.

And, to top off this rather convoluted family pentagon, Mr. Harding’s other daughter, Susan, is married to Dr. Grantly. Lots of Victorian family drama ensues, ending in the resignation of Mr. Harding from his position, and the marriage of John Bold and Eleanor Harding.

One of my favorite things about this book is the believability of it. This is how families act, even modern families, when disputes are allowed to fester, and people take sides, and grudges are held. There is always a peacemaker. In this case, the peacemaker ends up being Mr. Harding, who is a simply lovely character. He is genuinely good, and it horrifies him when he is confronted with the position that he has been being paid at the expense of his charges. He displays no sense of entitlement – he is hurt, not angry, not defensive. Once he decides on his course of action, he pursues it single-mindedly and selflessly.

“I cannot boast of my conscience, when it required the violence of a public newspaper to awaken it; but, now that it is awake, I must obey it.”

I want to say a quick few words about Trollope’s women. All three of them – Susan (wife of Dr. Grantly/daughter of Mr. Harding), Mary (sister of John Bold) and Eleanor (daughter of Mr. Harding/sister of Susan/friend of Mary) were fully realized and complex characters. Eleanor was a bit too good to be true, but didn’t I just love her nonetheless.

In the end, of course, the bedesmen end up much worse off than they were before the reformer decided to try to help them. They have the same (small) apportionment of money, and no Mr. Harding. The position of Warden goes unfilled because the bishop cannot be prevailed upon to offer it to anyone other than Dr. Harding, who continues to refuse to return to the position through the end of The Warden.

This was a simply wonderful read. It is followed by Barchester Towers, which is the sequel to The Warden and takes up about two years after the resignation of Mr. Harding and the marriage of John and Eleanor.

The Haunting of Hill House

All the way back in 2012, I migrated from Blogger to WP. In that time, I’ve had multiple blogs, with differing themes, I’ve been self-hosted and I’ve used free sites, and I’ve been generally unable to commit to anything. I’ve decided at this point that I want all of my bookish content to live in one place. So, over the next several months, I’ll be republishing posts that have long been published on other blogs, adding reviews to my review index, and then eventually deleting those old posts & blogs for good.

I’m starting with my first classics club project – the OG of reading projects for me – which ran from 2012 through 2015.

The Haunting of Hill HouseThe Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Rating: ★★★★★
Publication Date: October 16, 1959
Pages: 182
Genre: classic, horror
Project: classics club round 1

It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a "haunting"; Theodora, the lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.

Shirley Jackson wrote and published The Haunting of Hill House in 1959. A classic ghost story, it owes a debt to the Victorian antiquarian ghost stories of writers like M.R. James, but approaches the genre from a totally different style. Rather than indulging in flowery, gothic, Victorian prose, Jackson is a stripped-down writer of great emotional engagement. The spareness of her prose is what gives her work its authority and power.

The book has a very limited cast, and is written on a small scale. There are the four primary characters – Professor Montague, Luke, Theodora and Eleanor. Eleanor develops as the primary narrator, and the primary focus of Hill House itself. A young woman with a history of psychic sensitivity, she is an unreliable narrator, and there are questions that are never resolved. She arrived first at Hill House – was the haunting a projection of her psychic sensitivity? Why was she the primary focus of Hill House? Was there a single ghost, or multiple spirits, or is it the house itself that is a malevolent presence seeking companionship?

In addition to this primary quartet, there are two characters who are the “help,” who come and go from Hill House without interference, and, late in the book, the Professor’s oddly cheerful wife shows up with a side kick. It is her plan to gently guide – or possibly to force – the spirits to pass from earthly discontent into heavenly peacefulness. Mrs. Montague is an archetypal character, the managing female who interferes with the work to be done by the men. This is the point at which the book, and the house, seem to take a turn into even deeper darkness, as though a battle for the soul of Hill House has commenced, and Eleanor’s narration slips further and further into confusion.

One overriding theme of Hill House is that of movement toward an unknown destination. She uses the word “journey” over and over again, in discussing Eleanor’s trip toward Hill House, early in the book, and then between the four characters once they have arrived. At the beginning all is hopeful, optimistic, Eleanor drives her car toward Hill House with a sense of the possible.

“Just this once,” the mother said. She put down the glass of milk and touched the little girl gently on the hand. “Eat your ice cream,” she said.

When they left, the little girl waved good-by to Eleanor, and Eleanor waved back, sitting in joyful loneliness to finish her coffee while the gay stream tumbled along below her. I have not very much farther to go, Eleanor thought; I am more than halfway there. Journey’s end, she thought, and far back in her mind, sparkling like the little stream, a tag end of a tune danced through her head, bringing distantly a word or so;

“In delay there lies no plenty,” she thought, “in delay there lies no plenty.” She nearly stopped forever just outside Ashton, because she came to a tiny cottage buried in a garden. I could live there all alone, she thought, slowing the car to look down the winding garden path to the small blue front door with, perfectly, a white cat on the step. No one would ever find me there, either, behind all those roses, and just to make sure I would plant oleanders by the road. I will light a fire in the cool evenings and toast apples at my own hearth. I will raise white cats and sew white curtains for the windows and sometimes come out of my door to go to the store to buy cinnamon and tea and thread. People will come to me to have their fortunes told, and I will brew love potions for sad maidens; I will have a robin. . . . But the cottage was far behind, and it was time to look for her new road, so carefully charted by Dr. Montague.”

Jackson repeatedly uses the phrase “journeys end in lovers meeting,” fourteen times by count of my kindle. The phrase comes from Twelfth Night, Act II, a song sung by Feste, a jester:

O Mistress mine, where are you roaming?
O, stay and hear! Your true love’s coming,
That can sing both high and low.
Trip no further, pretty sweeting;
Journeys end in lovers meeting,
Every wise man’s son doth know.
What is love? ‘Tis not hereafter.
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What’s to come is still unsure.
In delay there lies no plenty,
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty.
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

The first time the phrase is used is by Eleanor, in reference to her arrival at Hill House:

“It was an act of moral strength to lift her foot and set it on the bottom step, and she thought that her deep unwillingness to touch Hill House for the first time came directly from the vivid feeling that it was waiting for her, evil, but patient. Journeys end in lovers meeting, she thought, remembering her song at last, and laughed, standing on the steps of Hill House, journeys end in lovers meeting, and she put her feet down firmly and went up to the veranda and the door. Hill House came around her in a rush; she was enshadowed, and the sound of her feet on the wood of the veranda was an outrage in the utter silence, as though it had been a very long time since feet stamped across the boards of Hill House.”

The other characters use it as well, repeatedly, to describe the gathering at Hill House. It is used by Theodora, in potentially jealous reference to Eleanor’s relationship to Luke, it is used by Eleanor in reference to her own ambiguously sexual/romantic relationship with Theodora, and it is used, generally, in reference to the ending of Eleanor’s journey at Hill House.

Hill House, itself, looms over the book, a dark presence, pregnant with dread and malevolence. Jackson’s ability to describe the oddities of the house – the doors that won’t stay open, the angles that aren’t quite right, the rooms that don’t fit together in a way that is quite consistent with architecture and physics, is remarkable. Hill House takes on a character of its own, and overwhelms the characters themselves. In a battle of wills, Hill House wins.

“Hill House has a reputation for insistent hospitality; it seemingly dislikes letting its guests get away.”

This is a perfect book for October, when the sun turns on its journey away from us, and brings with it darkness. Suspenseful without being gory, never devolving into melodrama, it is a near perfect example of the haunted house novel. If you can only choose one Jackson novel to read, I would slightly more highly recommend the other well-known book by her – We Have Always Lived in the Castle. But why would a reader limit him or herself to only one? Read them both – always in autumn.

“Hill House itself, not sane, stood against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, its walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

We Have Always Lived In The Castle

All the way back in 2012, I migrated from Blogger to WP. In that time, I’ve had multiple blogs, with differing themes, I’ve been self-hosted and I’ve used free sites, and I’ve been generally unable to commit to anything. I’ve decided at this point that I want all of my bookish content to live in one place. So, over the next several months, I’ll be republishing posts that have long been published on other blogs, adding reviews to my review index, and then eventually deleting those old posts & blogs for good.

I’m starting with my first classics club project – the OG of reading projects for me – which ran from 2012 through 2015.

We Have Always Lived in the CastleWe Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Rating: ★★★★★
Publication Date: September 21, 1962
Pages: 146
Genre: classic, horror
Project: classics club round 1

Visitors call seldom at Blackwood House. Taking tea at the scene of a multiple poisoning, with a suspected murderess as one's host, is a perilous business. For a start, the talk tends to turn to arsenic. "It happened in this very room, and we still have our dinner in here every night," explains Uncle Julian, continually rehearsing the details of the fatal family meal. "My sister made these this morning," says Merricat, politely proffering a plate of rum cakes, fresh from the poisoner's kitchen. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson's 1962 novel, is full of a macabre and sinister humor, and Merricat herself, its amiable narrator, is one of the great unhinged heroines of literature. "What place would be better for us than this?" she asks, of the neat, secluded realm she shares with her uncle and with her beloved older sister, Constance. "Who wants us, outside? The world is full of terrible people." Merricat has developed an idiosyncratic system of rules and protective magic, burying talismanic objects beneath the family estate, nailing them to trees, ritually revisiting them. She has made "a powerful taut web which never loosened, but held fast to guard us" against the distrust and hostility of neighboring villagers.

Or so she believes. But at last the magic fails. A stranger arrives -- cousin Charles, with his eye on the Blackwood fortune. He disturbs the sisters' careful habits, installing himself at the head of the family table, unearthing Merricat's treasures, talking privately to Constance about "normal lives" and "boy friends." Unable to drive him away by either polite or occult means, Merricat adopts more desperate methods. The result is crisis and tragedy, the revelation of a terrible secret, the convergence of the villagers upon the house, and a spectacular unleashing of collective spite.

The sisters are propelled further into seclusion and solipsism, abandoning "time and the orderly pattern of our old days" in favor of an ever-narrowing circuit of ritual and shadow. They have themselves become talismans, to be alternately demonized and propitiated, darkly, with gifts. Jackson's novel emerges less as a study in eccentricity and more -- like some of her other fictions -- as a powerful critique of the anxious, ruthless processes involved in the maintenance of normality itself. "Poor strangers," says Merricat contentedly at last, studying trespassers from the darkness behind the barricaded Blackwood windows. "They have so much to be afraid of."

A slender book, only 148 pages long, that packs an outsized punch. Prior to reading it, I’d heard a lot about it, as well as a lot about Shirley Jackson, who is best known for her short story that launched a thousand anthologies: The Lottery. I vaguely remember reading The Lottery in high school, and finding it more than a little disturbing.

And it is my general sense that “more than a little disturbing” pretty much describes Shirley Jackson to a T.

In any event, I participate in a blog event every year called R.I.P. (Readers Imbibing Peril) that is hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings. It is a lot of fun, and is an opportunity to read books that are on the chiller/thriller/horror end of the spectrum. This was one of my R.I.P. reads for 2013.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a brief tale of two sisters: Merrikat and Constance, who live in their family home after someone has murdered every other member of the family (with the exception of their crazy uncle) using poisoned sugar six years earlier. Merrikat is 18, although she perpetually seems to be about 12, and Constance is her older sister, who was acquitted of the murders. The unsolved mass homicide hangs like a pall over the house, and over the village in which Merrikat and Constance live.

It is a fast read, a page turner, propelling me forward with a sense of vague unease and discomfort. I highly recommend it to anyone who is looking for a little psychological horror. It is a remarkable book.

As an aside, I read The Haunting of Hill House earlier this year (well after reading this one – this review was long-delayed on my blog) and I actually prefer this one. Take that for what you will!

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

All the way back in 2012, I migrated from Blogger to WP. In that time, I’ve had multiple blogs, with differing themes, I’ve been self-hosted and I’ve used free sites, and I’ve been generally unable to commit to anything. I’ve decided at this point that I want all of my bookish content to live in one place. So, over the next several months, I’ll be republishing posts that have long been published on other blogs, adding reviews to my review index, and then eventually deleting those old posts & blogs for good.

I’m starting with my first classics club project – the OG of reading projects for me – which ran from 2012 through 2015.

The Woman in WhiteThe Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
Rating: ★★★½
Publication Date: November 26, 1859
Pages: 672
Genre: classic
Project: classics club round 1

'In one moment, every drop of blood in my body was brought to a stop... There, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth, stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white'

The Woman in White famously opens with Walter Hartright's eerie encounter on a moonlit London road. Engaged as a drawing master to the beautiful Laura Fairlie, Walter becomes embroiled in the sinister intrigues of Sir Percival Glyde and his 'charming' friend Count Fosco, who has a taste for white mice, vanilla bonbons, and poison. Pursuing questions of identity and insanity along the paths and corridors of English country houses and the madhouse, The Woman in White is the first and most influential of the Victorian genre that combined Gothic horror with psychological realism.

Matthew Sweet's introduction explores the phenomenon of Victorian 'sensation' fiction, and discusses Wilkie Collins's biographical and societal influences. Included in this edition are appendices on theatrical adaptations of the novel and its serialisation history

This is my second Wilkie Collins, although he wrote and published this book before The Moonstone. The Woman in White is described as a Victorian “sensation” novel, and was written with many twists and turns to keep the reader guessing. It shared the same narrative technique as The Moonstone – that of alternating first person narratives written and provided by different characters. In this book, as in The Moonstone, there was a central female character – Laura Fairlie here, Rachel Verinder in The Moonstone – from whom the reader never directly hears.

I love the alternating narrative format. It provides the reader with excellent insight into what happened through the eyes of the different characters. In this book, my favorite character, by far, was Marian Halcombe, a woman who lacks many of the desirable characteristics of Victorian womanhood. I was surprised by Walter Hartright. I expected a certain type of weak male character, and, instead, was impressed with his fortitude, resilience and intellect.

As in The Moonstone, the female heroine is disappointing. Lady Laurie Fairley is not merely weak, she is also weak-minded and childlike. Her resemblance to the harrowed Anne Catherick ends up being much greater than I would have supposed. She lacked the core of strength that I would have liked to see in a book of this sort.

Nonetheless, this book does entertain. It is swift moving, despite it’s length of over 600 pages, and fairly action packed. Collins strove to keep his readership off balance, and I believe that he succeeded. There are several events throughout the course of the book that do surprise the reader.

There are foreshadowings in this book of many different modern tropes, including: the investigation by the private individual where the public investigators fail. I don’t want to spoil the book for any prospective readers, because this is the sort of book that should be read without spoilers. Overall, though, I very much enjoyed the book, particularly Marian’s character. Collins may not have intended for her to be the books true heroine, but in my opinion, that is exactly what she was.

One of Ours by Willa Cather

All the way back in 2012, I migrated from Blogger to WP. In that time, I’ve had multiple blogs, with differing themes, I’ve been self-hosted and I’ve used free sites, and I’ve been generally unable to commit to anything. I’ve decided at this point that I want all of my bookish content to live in one place. So, over the next several months, I’ll be republishing posts that have long been published on other blogs, adding reviews to my review index, and then eventually deleting those old posts & blogs for good.

I’m starting with my first classics club project – the OG of reading projects for me – which ran from 2012 through 2015.

One of OursOne of Ours by Willa Cather
Rating: ★★★★½
Publication Date: February 1, 1922
Pages: 371
Genre: fiction
Project: classics club round 1

Claude Wheeler, the sensitive, aspiring protagonist of this beautifully modulated novel, resembles the youngest son of a peculiarly American fairy tale. His fortune is ready-made for him, but he refuses to settle for it. Alienated from his crass father and pious mother, all but rejected by a wife who reserves her ardor for missionary work, and dissatisfied with farming, Claude is an idealist without an ideal to cling to. It is only when his country enters the First World War that Claude finds what he has been searching for all his life.

In One of Ours Willa Cather explores the destiny of a grandchild of the pioneers, a young Nebraskan whose yearning impels him toward a frontier bloodier and more distant than the one that vanished before his birth. In doing so, she creates a canny and extraordinarily vital portrait of an American psyche at once skeptical and romantic, restless and heroic

I love Willa Cather – I was born in Nebraska, and her books really resonate with me.

One of Ours did not end up a Cather favorite – that title goes to The Song of the Lark. Nonetheless, am glad that I read it. I’ve read a fair amount of reviews that say that the section set in Nebraska that describes the experience of an American farmer viewing the war from a distance is the best part of the book. Having finished the book, I would certainly agree that the first section is superior to the second. She describes the early 20th century farm experience masterfully, and, as reader, I really admired the way that she brought the news of the war into the story as something that emotionally impacted the characters without affecting them in any substantive way.

Claude Wheeler, the main character, is based on her cousin, G.P. Cather, who died in 1918 in Cantigny France. This is a 1916 photograph of a group of young Nebraskan men who fought. Cather is the young man behind the sign that says 1916.

One afternoon in the first week of September Mrs. Wheeler was in the kitchen making cucumber pickles, when she heard Claude’s car coming back from Frankfort. In a moment he entered, letting the screen door slam behind him, and threw a bundle of mail on the table. “What do you, think, Mother? The French have moved the seat of government to Bordeaux!

I really love the juxtaposition here of Mrs. Wheeler making cucumber pickles with the news about the war. It is so remote, and homely, and illustrates how life goes on, even in wartime, in the places that are distant from the war. All during WWI, women must have made pickles, which seems sort of crazy from where I sit, looking backwards, like the entire world should have stopped for that four years, and just watched, holding their breath, what was happening in France and the other war fronts.

Claude joins the military in order to escape from Nebraska, and from a terribly failed marriage. He is a young man who spends most of the beginning sections of the book in the midst of a great existential crisis. He doesn’t fit in with the people around him. He has doubts about Christianity, he is an intellectual who doesn’t have a lot of opportunities to participate in intellectual life or debate. Briefly, while he is in college in Lincoln, he begins to blossom into someone with greater self-confidence and becomes more comfortable with who he is and the doubts that he has.

Now he dismissed all Christian theology as something too full of evasions and sophistries to be reasoned about. The men who made it, he felt sure, were like the men who taught it. The noblest could be damned, according to their theory, while almost any mean-spirited parasite could be saved by faith.

Perhaps I identified with this aspect of Claude’s personality because THIS is the very struggle that I experience when I think about Christianity.

Returning home to the farm, Claude falls in love with Enid, a childhood friend and girl from a neighboring farm, and persuades her to marry him although she is deeply religious and wants to go to China as a missionary. In another time, Enid probably would not have married. In this time, she appears to have married him not because she loves him and wants to build a life with him but because he is her mission – she is to bring him back to God. It’s the worst sort of self-abnegation on her part because she is going to fail, and they are both going to be miserable.

In the depths of this lassitude the thought of Enid would start up like a sweet, burning pain, and he would drift out into the darkness upon sensations he could neither prevent nor control. So long as he could plough, pitch hay, or break his back in the wheatfield, he had been master; but now he was overtaken by himself. Enid was meant for him and she had come for him; he would never let her go. She should never know how much he longed for her. She would be slow to feel even a little of what he was feeling; he knew that. It would take a long while. But he would be infinitely patient, infinitely tender of her. It should be he who suffered, not she. Even in his dreams he never wakened her, but loved her while she was still and unconscious like a statue. He would shed love upon her until she warmed and changed without knowing why.

This section is beautiful and heart-breaking because we know that Claude is going to be disappointed, and that Enid isn’t going to be much of a participant in the marriage. Even her father knows that this decision is going to be bad, that the marriage will be a failure. “What he wanted to do was to hold up life as he had found it, like a picture, to his young friend; to warn him, without explanation, against certain heart-breaking disappointments. It could not be done, he saw. The dead might as well try to speak to the living as the old to the young.”

Cather is at her best when she is writing about her characters, picking out tiny moments and events and thoughts and using the most ephemeral minutia to illuminate them, bathe them in light, as an artist adds light to a painting to highlight something she wants the viewer to see, to notice. Cather is respectful of her characters, even when they are foolish or self-centered or misguided.

When Claude joins the military, Cather writes:

He believed that he was going abroad with an expeditionary force that would make war without rage, with uncompromising generosity and chivalry.

According to wikipedia, Cather learned of G.P.’s death reading a newspaper in a hair salon. She said this about it:

From that on, he was in my mind. The too-personal-ness, the embarrassment of kinship, was gone. But he was in my mind so much that I couldn’t get through him to other things … some of me was buried with him in France, and some of him was left alive in me.

The section which deals directly with Claude’s experiences in WWI is well-done, but lacks the emotional heart of the Nebraska section. The book is ineffably sad, though, and reminds the reader how devastating The Great War was for the generations that lived through it.

Rose in Bloom by Louisa May Alcott

All the way back in 2012, I migrated from Blogger to WP. In that time, I’ve had multiple blogs, with differing themes, I’ve been self-hosted and I’ve used free sites, and I’ve been generally unable to commit to anything. I’ve decided at this point that I want all of my bookish content to live in one place. So, over the next several months, I’ll be republishing posts that have long been published on other blogs, adding reviews to my review index, and then eventually deleting those old posts & blogs for good.

I’m starting with my first classics club project – the OG of reading projects for me – which ran from 2012 through 2015.

Rose In BloomRose In Bloom by Louisa May Alcott
Series: Eight Cousins #2
Publication Date: September 1, 1876
Pages: 336
Genre: classic, YA
Project: classics club round 1

In this sequel to Eight Cousins, Rose Campbell returns to the "Aunt Hill" after two years of traveling around the world. Suddenly, she is surrounded by male admirers, all expecting her to marry them. But before she marries anyone, Rose is determined to establish herself as an independent young woman. Besides, she suspects that some of her friends like her more for her money than for herself.

Rose in Bloom covers a relatively brief period in the life of Rose Campbell. It picks up, not right after Eight Cousins ends, but between a year and eighteen months later. The time that is left unnarrated involved a lengthy trip to Europe taken by Rose, Uncle Alec and Phebe, Rose’s maid-and-unofficially-adopted-sister.

Rose has grown up during her time away from the Aunt Hill, coming of age as a young woman preparing to be launched into society and into marriage. Phebe, as well, has become an accomplished singer during the time in Europe, and has also blossomed into a beauty.

Most of Rose in Bloom concerns the nineteenth century process of finding a husband and wild oats sowing. Upon arrival home, Rose is – accidentally – informed by the youngest and bluntest of the boys that she is intended for one of her cousins to keep her money in the family. She is a bit put off by this, but appears to acquiesce to the family plans to marry her off to Charlie, the second oldest, handsomest, wildest, and most spoiled of the Campbell males.

So, this book. It is, in my opinion, neither as charming nor as enjoyable as Eight Cousins. Louisa May and her preachiness cannot be contained. Also, the whole first cousins marrying thing is a bit squicky. Apparently Alcott did not feel this way, but I do.

So, approaching Rose in Bloom with an eye toward the time in which it was written is absolutely necessary to enjoy the book at all. Otherwise, it is not possible to refrain from violent eye-rolling at the expectations placed upon poor Rose and her magical virtue which will somehow turn drunkards and animals into young gentlemen. Also, straying from the path of righteousness is definitely going to kill you.

But, it is Alcott, and it was the nineteenth century, and, well, Rose in Bloom is actually really, really sweet. And the actual romance between Rose and her ultimate suitor is adorable. And Rose herself remains good-hearted and honest and pretty immune to nonsense. She does stand up for herself when she must and she refuses to be sacrificed to save her cousin. And good for her, because there was no substance there, just empty charm and looks.

There is also a charming side story about Phebe and Archie falling in love.

Eight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott

All the way back in 2012, I migrated from Blogger to WP. In that time, I’ve had multiple blogs, with differing themes, I’ve been self-hosted and I’ve used free sites, and I’ve been generally unable to commit to anything. I’ve decided at this point that I want all of my bookish content to live in one place. So, over the next several months, I’ll be republishing posts that have long been published on other blogs, adding reviews to my review index, and then eventually deleting those old posts & blogs for good.

I’m starting with my first classics club project – the OG of reading projects for me – which ran from 2012 through 2015.

Eight CousinsEight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott
Series: Eight Cousins #1
Publication Date: September 1, 1874
Pages: 299
Genre: classic, YA
Project: classics club round 1

Rose Campbell, tired and ill, has come to live at "The Aunt Hill" after the death of her beloved father. Six aunts fussing and fretting over her are bad enough, but what is a quiet 13-year-old girl to do with seven boisterous boy cousins?

Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom make up the duology of books about the main character Rose Campbell. These are two of my favorite Alcott books, which I recently re-read for the Alcott event and also for my ongoing series on children’s classics.

Of the two, I prefer Eight Cousins, which is the story of young Rose, who is orphaned and sent to live at the Aunt Hill, with her two great-aunts. Both Aunt Plenty and Aunt Peace are rather elderly spinsters. Rose has lived with her father, George, apart from the rest of the Campbell clan, which consists of five other Campbell brothers and their wives and offspring.

When Eight Cousins begins, Rose is 13 years old. This part of the story takes us through Rose’s 16th-ish birthday. Rose is the only girl of her generation, with 7 male cousins from age 16 (Archie) through 6 (Jamie).

Rose is sweet-natured, and ends up being raised by her bachelor Uncle Alec, a seafaring doctor who has “ideas” about child-rearing that mostly relate to girls being treated more like boys, and encouraged to read good books, take lots of exercise, and not wear corsets. Rose is a rather sickly child when she arrives at the Aunt Hill and is rapidly restored to health by dint of a large waistband, fresh milk, fresh air, and lots less sighing over girly stuff. This could be annoying, but it really isn’t, since the treatment of girl-children during this era was mostly ridiculous and Rose’s raising is much more consistent with how I personally think girls should be raised (with lovely things like access to books and education) versus how they were actually raised.

Alcott’s father, Bronson, was a well-known educational reformer, and Alcott’s stories are full of themes about equality of education for women. Rose is not eligible to attend actual school (being a girl and all), but Uncle Alec makes sure that she has access to resources to allow for some self-education.

There is some of Alcott’s trademark moralizing, but it isn’t as heavy-handed in the first volume of the Rose Campbell story as it becomes in the next. Rose is raised to be, and is generally, thoughtful, modest, honest and generous. She spends a lot of time caring for her sick cousin, Mac, who is the studious one of the lot, and is two years older than Rose.

The boys are a boisterous, rowdy crew. The Campbells are obviously quite affluent, and Alcott’s theories, as well, about the obligation of the rich to care for the poor are mostly shown through Rose’s charitable activities. Rose is quite an heiress, and decides early that she wishes to be a philanthropist and to help others with her fortune. She is a bit of a Mary Sue, but she’s so darned charming about it that it works.

This is a classic for a reason. It is probably much too quiet and modest a story to appeal to modern girls. Which is too bad, really.

The sequel to Eight Cousins is Rose in Bloom.

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Post previously published on August 29, 2015

North and SouthNorth and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
Publication Date: January 1, 1854
Pages: 462
Genre: classic
Project: classics club round 1

'How am I to dress up in my finery, and go off and away to smart parties, after the sorrow I have seen today?'

When her father leaves the Church in a crisis of conscience, Margaret Hale is uprooted from her comfortable home in Hampshire to move with her family to the north of England. Initially repulsed by the ugliness of her new surroundings in the industrial town of Milton, Margaret becomes aware of the poverty and suffering of the local mill-workers and develops a passionate sense of social justice. This is intensified by her tempestuous relationship with the mill-owner and self-made man John Thornton, as their fierce opposition over his treatment of his employees masks a deeper attraction. In North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell skillfully fused individual feeling with social concern, and in Margaret Hale created one of the most original heroines of Victorian literature.

In her introduction, Patricia Ingham examines geographical, economic and class differences, and male and female roles in North and South. This edition also includes a list for further reading, notes and a glossary.

I read this all the way back in January, and I loved it so much and I had so much to say that I never managed to say any of it. So, settle in. Because this is my favorite Victorian novel of all time. I adore Middlemarch, which comes close, but nothing by Dickens or Collins or Hardy or Trollope can approach the love that I feel for North and South. I can’t believe that I’d never read it.

If I must make full confession, I have to admit that this:

May have something to do with my love for John Thornton. Yes, I’m shallow.

But Richard Armitage isn’t the only reason that I fell in love with North and South. The reasons are numerous:

First, I love the fact that it is set in the industrial north of England, which is a change from much Victorian literature that is set in London. Added to that, the fact that some of the characters are “working class” was a tremendous treat. Nicholas Higgins was a complex character who was treated respectfully by Gaskell, which delighted me. Uneducated though he was, and a bit of a political firebrand, he was willing to humble himself in an effort to get his job back when he took on the obligation of supporting the children of a fellow mill worker who had died.

Second, Mrs. Thornton was a bad ass Victorian lady. After John Thornton’s father speculated badly and lost his money, committing suicide in despair, she was left to raise two children basically by her wits alone. Her son, hardworking and ambitious, is ultimately able to buy the mill and become the owner. He says about his mother:

“My mother managed so that I put by three out of these fifteen shillings regularly. This made the beginning; this taught me self-denial. Now that I am able to afford my mother such comforts as her age, rather than her own wish, requires, I thank her silently on each occasion for the early training she gave me.”

When I take a moment to reflect on how difficult it would have been for a woman like Mrs. Thornton to not merely survive, but to thrive and remain unbowed and unbroken, I am even more impressed by Mrs. Gaskell. Mrs. Thornton has a backbone of steel – talk about strong female characters. In addition, though, she is complex and flawed, which makes her even more compelling.

Finally, the romance between John Thornton and Margaret Hale brings out the best in both of them – eventually. Margaret begins the book haughty, upset at being moved to Milton, missing the sophisticated society of southern England. She is out of her element in the industrial north, and looks down on the working class mill workers. Over time, however, she begins to see the value in their lack of sophistication, plain speech and work ethic.

This same transition occurs with her opinion of Mr. Thornton who proves himself to be more than worthy of Margaret. It is a reversal of the Lizzie Bennett/Mr. Darcy conflict. As Darcy must come to recognize that Lizzie is his equal in spite of her lack of fortune and crazy family, so must Margaret come to the conclusion that Mr. Thornton is her equal, even if he is in trade. He proves again and again that a gentleman is not born, but is made – including when he initially proposes to her, and she rejects summarily rejects him, rather than responding with anger, he takes a different approach:

“Miss Hale might love another — was indifferent and contemptuous to him — but he would yet do her faithful acts of service of which she should never know. He might despise her, but the woman whom he had once loved should be kept from shame; and shame it would be to pledge herself to a lie in a public court, or otherwise to stand and acknowledge her reason for desiring darkness rather than light.”

It takes many months for her to realize that she has fallen in love with him, as he has fallen in love with her.

“At that third call she turned her face, still covered with her small white hands, towards him, and laid it on his shoulder, hiding it even there; and it was too delicious to feel her soft cheek against his, for him to wish to see either deep blushes or loving eyes. He clasped her close. But they both kept silence.

At length she murmured in a broken voice: ‘Oh, Mr. Thornton, I am not good enough!’ ‘Not good enough! Don’t mock my own deep feeling of unworthiness.’”

And she’s right, really – society will think she is marrying down, but it is Thornton who has proven himself to be the more noble person. In the end, they both stand up to their families and declare their love for one another

‘How shall I ever tell Aunt Shaw?’ she whispered, after some time of delicious silence. ‘Let me speak to her.’ ‘Oh, no! I owe to her, — but what will she say?’

‘I can guess. Her first exclamation will be, “That man!”‘

‘Hush!’ said Margaret, ‘or I shall try and show you your mother’s indignant tones as she says, “That woman!”‘

Overall, I highly recommend this book to fans of Austen or Eliot. It is a novel of manners, but tackles significant themes as well: the struggle between modernity and tradition, the plight of the working class, appearance of virtue versus appearance of vice, and other things. I predict that it will turn out to be one of those books that I reread frequently.