Stella Gibbons

Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons

Title: Nightingale Wood
Author: Stella Gibbons
First published in 1938

Plot Summary: Unavailable for decades, Stella Gibbons’s Nightingale Wood is a delightfully modern romance ripe for rediscovery by the many fans of Cold Comfort Farm.

Poor, lovely Viola has been left penniless and alone after her late husband’s demise, and is forced to live with his family in their joy­less home. Its occupants are nearly insufferable: Mr. Withers is a tyrannical old miser; Mrs. Withers dismisses her as a common shop girl; and Viola’s sisters-in-law, Madge and Tina, are too preoccupied with their own troubles to give her much thought. Only the prospect of the upcoming charity ball can lift her spirits-especially as Victor Spring, the local prince charming, will be there. But Victor’s intentions towards the young widow are, in short, not quite honorable.

I have not read Gibbons’s most famous novel, Cold Comfort Farm. One of my goodreads groups focuses on dead authors, and we are doing a genre challenge, so this novel won the poll for our February romance genre group read. I fell in love with the cover, and being completely shallow, I was excited to read.

Nightingale Wood was published in 1938, prior to the beginning of WWII, and is set near the end of the interwar period. It is marketed as a Cinderella-style tale. There are three main female leads: Viola (the Cinderella of this tale), Tina, and Hetty. Viola is the widow of Teddy Wither, who is brother to Tina and the rather awful Madge, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Marge Dursley, from her over-sized, inelegant tweed-clad frame, to her obsession with dogs.

My favorite character is the bookish Hetty, cousin of the charming Victor, who lives at Grasmere. Viola, Tina and Madge all live at the neighboring manse, The Eagles. I really love books set during this time period – it was period of immense social and cultural change, and these changes make for great fiction. The roles of girls and women are in constant flux.

Of the three female leads, Tina has, for me, the most satisfying romance. Lady Chatterly style, she takes up with the chauffeur, Saxon. Saxon is an interesting character – he is ambitions, talented, and quite the up-and-comer. She is a full dozen years older than Saxon, and is both wily and unconventional. The resolution of their story is convincingly lovely, in spite of the obstacles they overcome to find happiness.

Viola is a bit of a wet hen – conventionally dissolving into tears at the drop of the hat. But, she rallies nicely to help out an old friend, and her happy ending is both deserved and pleasing, if not very romantic.

Hetty was my favorite character, but her romance was the least satisfying – volatile and capricious. I would have loved a full length book with Hetty as the main character, and I was not pleased with the way that her story ended.

I enjoyed this one enough to seek out more books by Gibbons.

Muriel Spark

Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark

Title: Loitering with Intent
Author: Muriel Spark
First published in 1981

Summary from Goodreads: “How wonderful to be an artist and a woman in the twentieth century,” Fleur Talbot rejoices. Happily loitering about London, c. 1949, with intent to gather material for her writing, Fleur finds a job “on the grubby edge of the literary world,” as secretary to the peculiar Autobiographical Association. Mad egomaniacs, hilariously writing their memoirs in advance—or poor fools ensnared by a blackmailer? Rich material, in any case. But when its pompous director, Sir Quentin Oliver, steals the manuscript of Fleur’s new novel, fiction begins to appropriate life. The association’s members begin to act out scenes exactly as Fleur herself has already written them in her missing manuscript. And as they meet darkly funny, pre-visioned fates, where does art start or reality end? “A delicious conundrum,” The New Statesman called Loitering with Intent.

I read this one as a Book of the Month for a Goodreads Group. I am pretty sure this is my first Spark – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has definitely been on my radar screen for several years. I have a mental impression of Spark being an acerbic, mid-twentieth century British author who writes along the lines of Stella Gibbon. I don’t yet know if this is an accurate assessment, since I’ve not read enough of either of them to actually make a determination.

I spent probably 20 years reading primarily literary fiction. About five or six years ago – around the same time I joined Goodreads and started my first book blog, I rediscovered the joys of genre fiction, and have read much more of that in the last half decade. I read almost nothing that is considered “literary fiction,” like this book, at this point. Literary fiction can tend to be a bit dire, and literary fiction by men tends to focus so strongly on the sexual agonies of the middle-aged male and his angst over the aging (and the failing) of his penis that I avoid it like the plague because it’s so freaking boring.

However, I do love literary fiction by women – especially British women – that was written from approximately 1915 through the 1960’s. This one was actually published in 1981, when it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, but it is convincingly set in the 1940’s, so it fits nicely into my wheelhouse. The narrator is Fleur Talbot, a young writer who gets mixed up with a very odd group of people at the same time that she is writing her first novel, Warrender Chase.

As Fleur begins working for The Autobiographical Society as a secretary, she begins adding fictionalized, but far more interesting (i.e., salacious), bits to the boring autobiographies that are being submitted. When her boss, Quentin Oliver, realizes that she is not merely a good secretary, but is also a talented writer with significant flair, he concocts a plot that involves the wife of Fleur’s married lover, her publisher, and himself, to steal Fleur’s book. At the same time, Fleur becomes friends with Quentin’s mother, Edwina, who is a riot (remember Estelle Getty, from The Golden Girls. That). She is an elderly woman with zero fucks left to give, who thinks that her son is more or less a total tool, and who constantly torments him and his assistant, the noxious Beryl Tims, by, among other things, peeing on the floor.

My mental picture of Edwina Oliver

Anyway, things get pretty madcap, with break-ins and thefts and extortion. Fleur’s narration is darkly comic and the characterizations are sharp and unsparing. Overall, it’s a charming, if slight, piece of fiction about a frank, funny young woman in the 1940’s London publishing world.

Gladys Mitchell

The Devil at Saxon Wall by Gladys Mitchell

Title: The Devil at Saxon Wall
Author: Gladys Mitchell
First published in 1935

Plot Summary from Goodreads: The quaint, cozy village of Saxon Wall is hiding a dark, sinister reality. When fiction author Hannibal Jones retires to Saxon Wall in hopes of reinvigorating his writing career, he instead finds himself in the midst of an increasingly puzzling and dangerous situation. Eccentric villagers and stories of curses, demons, and blood sacrifices abound. A devastating drought and imposing vicar escalate the pervasive fear until Hannibal Jones feels compelled to call in his good friend and detective, Mrs. Beatrice Lestrange Bradley. An alarming tale of a missing baby and suspicious deaths comes to light. And soon Bradley and Jones are at the center of a mystery wrought with conspiracy, murder…and witchcraft.

This classic caper promises to entertain, frighten, and intrigue as you revel in the antics of the gloriously unorthodox sleuth Mrs. Bradley.

This was my second Mrs. Bradley mystery, after The Saltmarsh Mystery, and I think that I can say at this point that Mrs. Bradley is quite unlike any of the other golden age mystery series that I’ve read so far. The book begins with a long preliminary tale about the ill-fated Constance who marries the enigmatic, possibly psychotic, Hanley Middleton. The first section of the book is identified as “First Manifestation: Domestic Interior,” which describes the abusive marriage of Constance and Hanley, and the ultimate death of Constance in child birth after she returns to her home in Saxon Wall, having previously fled back to her parents. Hanley follows Constance in death a short time later.

The second section of the book is titled “Second Manifestation: Conversation Piece“. I have no idea why it’s called this, actually, because there is precious little intelligent conversation in this book, and a whole lot of garbled confusion. At the beginning of the section, we are introduced to the main character of the book, one Hannibal Jones, described thus:

Hannibal Jones had earned a dishonest livelihood for seventeen years by writing sentimental novels. It was the less excusable in Jones to get his living this way in that he knew—none better, since he had lectured in Abnormal Psychology for a year or two in an American university before taking up his rather more nefarious career as author—that such novels as he wrote tended to encourage morbid daydreaming on the part of their readers, and that cooks and dressmakers, mothers of families, spinsters in all walks of life—even his own female relatives—were developing, because of him and his works, a Cinderella-complex of the most devitalising, time-consuming type.

Hannibal, who is quite rich as a result of his success as a writer, has some sort of a nervous breakdown when he accepts a large publishers advance for a book he doesn’t really want to write. He consults Mrs. Bradley, and she gives him advice to “get out your third-best car and travel until you find a sufficiently interesting and secluded village. Make yourself part of it. Study the people, but resolve never to write about them in a novel. Love them. Quarrel with them. Begin a lawsuit. Play village cricket.”

Somehow, he has the misfortune to end up in Saxon Wall, which must be the most terrible place in all of England, full of villagers who are downright creepy, baby-switchers, a psychotic vicar, and a drought which means that they are all, apparently, going to die of dehydration. Jones realizes that he is in the middle of some kind of devilish psychodrama and invites Mrs. Bradley in to help him solve the crimes, of which there are many.

The plot of this book made almost no sense. It was so convoluted that I couldn’t follow the thread at all, much less unravel it. Saxon Wall is a singularly horrible place, and the denizens of Saxon Wall are singularly horrible people. There wasn’t a single non-horrible person living there. Jones himself was confounding – why he didn’t just get in his car and drive the hell out of that place I cannot begin to imagine. Mitchell brings in witchcraft, folklore, and beer to add to the altogether strange tale. Mrs. Bradley shows up at about the 505 mark to untangle the skeins of the mystery, but even at the end I was left somewhat puzzled by everyone’s behavior.

“The temperament,” repeated Mrs. Bradley. “Yes, child. As good psychologists, we ought not to lose sight of that important item. The temperament for murder—an inexhaustibly interesting subject. I have it, you have it, the vicar has it. Mrs. Tebbutt has it, Doctor Mortmain has it. To how many other people in Saxon Wall would you say it has been vouchsafed?”

Everyone, dear reader. Everyone.

The third section contains some brief End Notes, which try to explain the book. They clear up a few things. But only a few things.

One of the most curious and interesting features of the general mentality, if such a term is permissible, of the inhabitants of Saxon Wall, was a noticeable inability to distinguish between essential good and essential evil.

I can’t say that I really enjoyed this book, but it did keep me interested, even if it was totally bananas.

Agatha Christie

Towards Zero by Agatha Christie

Title: Towards Zero
Author: Agatha Christie
First published in 1944

Plot summary from Goodreads: What is the connection among a failed suicide attempt, a wrongful accusation of theft against a schoolgirl, and the romantic life of a famous tennis player?

To the casual observer, apparently nothing. But when a house party gathers at Gull’s Point, the seaside home of an elderly widow, earlier events come to a dramatic head. As Superintendent Battle discovers, it is all part of a carefully laid plan — for murder.

This is the fifth, and last, of the Superintendent Battle interconnected mysteries. Superintendent Battle wasn’t one of Christie’s favorite creations, apparently, since she only wrote 5 books with him, but to my mind, they are five of the most enjoyable! He does exist within the same universe as Hercule Poirot, as he appears with Poirot, Colonel Race and Ariadne Oliver in Cards on the Table, although none of them appear in this book. Superintendent Battle does, however, make reference to Hercule Poirot while he investigating the murder of Lady Tressilian, noting Poirot’s attention to detail and its usefulness in crime solving.

The obsessive need for revenge takes center stage in this book. Agatha Christie has previously plumbed the depths of the obsessive personality, in books like Death on the Nile and And Then There Were None, and she will return to the theme in her psychological thriller Endless Night. The more I read – and reread – Agatha Christie, the more convinced I am that she had a way of cutting through societal niceties to see the blood and bone beneath, and frequently the true sight was terrifying. Her character sketches are quite compact, and while the negative or positive traits can be exaggerated, they are also remarkably perceptive given their brevity. This book demonstrates the devious and malicious undercurrents that can flow between two people – a victim and a perpetrator – while society sees something entirely different. And, until the very end, as is so often the case, Christie hides the truth in plain sight.

There are several supporting characters in this book that I particularly like, including Mary Aldin. About Mary Aldin, Christie said:

She has really a first-class brain—a man’s brain. She has read widely and deeply and there is nothing she cannot discuss. And she is as clever domestically as she is intellectually. She runs the house perfectly and keeps the servants happy—she eliminates all quarrels and jealousies—I don’t know how she does it—just tact, I suppose.”

If there is one thing that this book needed, it was more Mary Aldin!

One significant weakness to this book, I think, was Christie’s failure to develop the character of Angus McWhirter, using him as a prop to jump in and save the day, and the damsel, at the end. Christie had a thing for literal (not figurative) love at first sight, in which her male characters are constantly plunged into deep passionate love with a pretty face at first glance. While I am perfectly willing to buy lust at first sight, or infatuation at first sight, the shallow manner in which her characters profess love at first sight annoys me, and demeans the emotion. I also didn’t care particularly for the ending, although the promise of a legitimate happy ending for Mary was pleasant.

If you’re a fan of Dame Agatha, and you’ve somehow missed this one, I recommend it. If you are coming to Christie as a new reader, there are others that I would recommend before Towards Zero, although it is an enjoyable read and shows many of her skills to advantage.

A note on the television adaptation: the Miss Marple series grabbed this one for an adaptation, along with several other of the non-Marple independent mysteries, a fact which I personally consider a travesty. It was poorly done, so don’t bother with it. I really wish that someone would do a solid adaptation of the Christie mysteries that don’t involve Marple and/or Poirot. There are some really good books, and trying to shoehorn them into the Marple series doesn’t do them justice!

Edith Wharton

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

This is an old review from 2015. I am closing down a blog, and republishing book reviews that fit this blog theme prior to deleting the old one.

Title: The Age of Innocence
Author: Edith Wharton
First Publication: 1920

Plot Summary from Goodreads: When the Countess Ellen Olenska returns from Europe, fleeing her brutish husband, her rebellious independence and passionate awareness of life stir the educated sensitivity of Newland Archer, already engaged to be married to her cousin May Welland, “that terrifying product of the social system he belonged to and believed in, the young girl who knew nothing and expected everything.” As the consequent drama unfolds, Edith Wharton’s sharp ironic wit and Jamesian mastery of form create a disturbingly accurate picture of men and women caught in a society that denies humanity while desperately defending “civilization.”

The Age of Innocence is the third book in Wharton’s loosely-linked cycle focused on upper class New York of the 1870’s (the other two books are The House of Mirth, published in 1905, and The Custom of the Country, published in 1913). She’s writing from a distance, looking backward between 30 and 50 years, but this is an era and subject that is deeply familiar to her by dint of her birth. Wharton herself was fairly unconventional – unhappily married to a man who was seriously mentally ill, she commenced an affair with a newspaperman and divorced her husband.

The Age of Innocence, unlike the other two books, is narrated by a male character, Newland Archer, who provides a bridge between the older, conventional attitudes and newer, more liberated attitudes, and is, to some degree, crushed by convention. He lives on the cusp of change, but chooses to follow the strictures of society. He is conflicted about what he really wants from his life.

On the one hand, when speaking of his future wife, he says:

He did not in the least wish the future Mrs. Newland Archer to be a simpleton. He meant her (thanks to his enlightening companionship) to develop a social tact and readiness of wit enabling her to hold her own with the most popular married women of the “younger set,” in which it was the recognised custom to attract masculine homage while playfully discouraging it. If he had probed to the bottom of his vanity (as he sometimes nearly did) he would have found there the wish that his wife should be as worldly-wise and as eager to please as the married lady whose charms had held his fancy through two mildly agitated years; without, of course, any hint of the frailty which had so nearly marred that unhappy being’s life, and had disarranged his own plans for a whole winter.

He chooses May Welland to be his wife, an athletic, beautiful and extremely proper young girl who is totally conventional. He announces this choice with desperately unfortunate timing on the very evening that he will meet May’s cousin, Ellen Olenska, who, as it turns out, represents the consuming passion of his life. There are many moments during the book that are turning points, where he could choose passion, but, instead, he follows duty and societal expectation.

There is something both noble and sad about Newland Archer. He was an anachronism, even in Wharton’s time – the honorable man who would sacrifice passion for domesticity. As the book continues, the shackles around Archer tighten by his own choice. At any moment, he could throw caution to the wind, leave May, leave New York, and follow his heart. But he never does, and I end up thinking more of him for the sacrifice, not less.

He could not deplore (as Thackeray’s heroes so often exasperated him by doing) that he had not a blank page to offer his bride in exchange for the unblemished one she was to give to him. He could not get away from the fact that if he had been brought up as she had they would have been no more fit to find their way about than the Babes in the Wood; nor could he, for all his anxious cogitations, see any honest reason (any, that is, unconnected with his own momentary pleasure, and the passion of masculine vanity) why his bride should not have been allowed the same freedom of experience as himself.

Archer acknowledges that May has been raised to be just that which she has become – a “blank page.” She has been raised to go, innocent, from father’s home to husband’s home. The entire society is in a conspiracy to ensure that ladies like May never have to confront the difficulties of life. How terribly suffocating and infantilizing that must have been. But, in spite of that, she knows, of course, that her husband is passionately in love with someone else. And it isn’t just sexual passion, it is also intellectual passion. With Ellen, he has found his soulmate and his intellectual equal, someone who would challenge him. May was not capable of engaging him.

Archer had reverted to all his old inherited ideas about marriage. It was less trouble to conform with the tradition and treat May exactly as all his friends treated their wives than to try to put into practice the theories with which his untrammelled bachelorhood had dallied. There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free; and he had long since discovered that May’s only use of the liberty she supposed herself to possess would be to lay it on the altar of her wifely adoration.

In the end, what does Archer gain? Well, his children of course, who love him quite dearly. And May, who, limited as she was, sacrificed as well.

He had been what was called a faithful husband; and when May had suddenly died — carried off by the infectious pneumonia through which she had nursed their youngest child — he had honestly mourned her. Their long years together had shown him that it did not so much matter if marriage was a dull duty, as long as it kept the dignity of a duty: lapsing from that, it became a mere battle of ugly appetites. Looking about him, he honoured his own past, and mourned for it. After all, there was good in the old ways.

By the end of the book, Archer’s world has changed inalterably. His son is marrying the daughter of Julius Beaufort, a young woman who resembles Ellen Olenska in many ways – sparkling, vibrant, unconventional – with the approval of society. Archer knows that it has changed too late for him – he is the old guard, his children are the new. They will get their chances. He sacrificed his for duty.

Wharton knows how to end her books with a knife twist to the gut, and we get one here, too. Archer doesn’t hold out for happiness at the end. He lived the life he chose, and he will honor that choice, painful, limiting, sometimes sad and always dutiful, even to the end.

He sat for a long time on the bench in the thickening dusk, his eyes never turning from the balcony. At length a light shone through the windows, and a moment later a man-servant came out on the balcony, drew up the awnings, and closed the shutters. At that, as if it had been the signal he waited for, Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel.

That hurts.

Willa Cather

Portrait of an Artist as a Young Woman

This is an old review from 2016. I am closing down a blog, and republishing book reviews that fit this blog theme prior to deleting the old one.

Title: The Song of the Lark
Author: Willa Cather
First published in 1915

Plot Summary from Goodreads: In this powerful portrait of the self-making of an artist, Willa Cather created one of her most extraordinary heroines. Thea Kronberg, a minister’s daughter in a provincial Colorado town, seems destined from childhood for a place in the wider world. But as her path to the world stage leads her ever farther from the humble town she can’t forget and from the man she can’t afford to love, Thea learns that her exceptional musical talent and fierce ambition are not enough.

It is in the solitude of a tiny rock chamber high in the side of an Arizona cliff–“a cleft in the heart of the world”–that Thea comes face to face with her own dreams and desires, stripped clean by the haunting purity of the ruined cliff dwellings and inspired by the whisperings of their ancient dust. Here she finds the courage to seize her future and to use her gifts to catch “the shining, elusive element that is life itself–life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose.” In prose as shimmering and piercingly true as the light in a desert canyon, Cather takes us into the heart of a woman coming to know her deepest self.

Richly imagined, Cather’s third novel is an exploration of the passion of the artist and the strength of youth. Her main character, Thea Kronborg, child of immigrants from Moonstone, Colorado, has all of the brazen energy and boundless potential of her prairie town. She is the exceptional child in a family of many children, the others quite ordinary, a girl so relentlessly herself that the triumphant arc of her life has a feeling of inevitability, in spite of the many obstacles that she must overcome with the force of her mind and character.

The early part of the book concentrates on her time spent in Moonstone. Even as a child, many of her friends and acquaintances seem to recognize in Thea something to be nurtured. Dr. Archie, the unhappily married town doctor, introduces her to great writers, and spends time with her – in an entirely uncreepy way, thankfully – helping her intellectual development along. Her mother ensures that she has what music lessons are available, and private space in which to practice, which is a luxury in a home of at least five children. Thea herself possesses all of the engaging hubris of the child, confident in her future.

Of this child, laying in her attic room, at home, Cather says:

Life rushed in upon her from that window – or so it seemed. In reality, of course, life rushes from within not without. There is no work of art so big or so beautiful that it was not once contained within some youthful body, like this one which lay on the floor in the moonlight, pulsing with ardour and anticipation. [page 129]

Thea is a character who bursts with possibility. I can’t help but contrast Cather’s writing with Edith Wharton, another woman who was writing very different books at nearly the same time, and compare Thea to Lily Bart. Where Lily is frozen and constricted, an expensive piece of carved marble, Thea is red-blooded and expansive, fully human. Where Wharton’s characters are limited by complicated societal rules, Cather’s characters, like her landscape, are boundless and free.

When Thea is 15, her family, along with Dr. Archie, arrange for her to leave Moonstone to study music in Chicago, after she inherits a small life insurance policy from a friend. She finds herself on the train, headed east:

She smiled — although she was ashamed of it — with the natural contempt of strength for weakness, with the sense of physical security which makes the savage merciless. Nobody could die while he felt like that inside. The springs there were wound so tight that it would be a long while before there was any slack in them. The life in there was rooted deep. She was going to have a few things before she died. She realized that there were a great many trains dashing east and west on the face of the continent that night, and that they all carried yong people who meant to have things. But the difference was that she was going to get them! That was all. Let people try to stop her! She glowered at the rows of feckless bodies that lay sprawled in the chairs. Let them try it once! [page 200]

Thea bursts off the page, with her her self-confidence, her fearlessness, and her prodigious talent. Cather writes the western experience better than any other author I have ever encountered, with the possible exception of Wallace Stegner. Growing up under open skies has an impact on her characters, and she ensures that the reader understands this. You look at the world differently when you’ve lived in a place where you can stand and mark the curve of the world untouched by signs of civilization.

It was over flat lands like this, stretching out to drink the sun, that the larks sang — and one’s heart sang there, too. Thea was glad that this was her country, even if one did not learn to speak elegantly there. It was, somehow, an honest country, and there was a new song in that blue air which had never been sung in the world before. [page 202]

Her time in Chicago moves her further along the path to musical success, and one of her teachers discovers that rather than piano, it is her voice that is truly remarkable. Ultimately, over the next several sections of the book, Thea leaves Chicago, studies in Germany, and returns to New York a fully-fledged opera singer. I am again reminded of Wharton – her Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Age of Innocence begins in an opera house, where Newland Archer is knuckling under to the societal pressure that he must marry, and he must marry a young woman who is, in many ways, the polar opposite of Thea Kronborg. When Cather speaks to Thea through Fred Ottenburg, Thea’s married lover and greatest supporter, she might be speaking about May Welland:

Don’t you know that most of the people in the world are not individuals at all? They never have an individual idea or experience. A lot of girls go to boarding school together, come out the same season, dance at the same parties, are married off in groups, have their babies at about the same time, send their children to school together, and so the human crop renews itself. Such women know as much about the reality of the forms they go through as they know about the wars they learned the dates of. They get their most personal experiences out of novels and plays. Everything is second hand with them. Why, you couldn’t live like that.” [page 327]

Among Cather’s longest books, The Song of the Lark moves quickly through Thea’s development as an artist and represents a remarkable character study of a young woman who is unbowed by convention. As I continue with my Willa in Winter project, I plan to return to some of the themes that Cather is developing in this book, as my understanding deepens through further reading. I’ll end this review with Thea’s words:

She rose impatiently and walked to the edge of the cliff. “It’s waking up every morning with the feeling that your life is your own, and your strength is your own, and your talent is your own; that you’re all there, and there’s no sag in you.” [page 290].

I can’t help but feel that Willa Cather had no sag in her, either.

Jane Austen

Lady Susan by Jane Austen

This is an old review from 2015. I am closing down a blog, and republishing book reviews that fit this blog theme prior to deleting the old one.

Title: Lady Susan
Author: Jane Austen
First published: 1794

Plot summary from Goodreads: Beautiful, flirtatious, and recently widowed, Lady Susan Vernon seeks an advantageous second marriage for herself, while attempting to push her daughter into a dismal match. A magnificently crafted novel of Regency manners and mores that will delight Austen enthusiasts with its wit and elegant expression.

Fiddle Dee Dee. The Scarlett O’Hara of Regency England

I am a woefully underread Janite, as it turns out. Sure, I’ve read the big six – her half-dozen beautifully written novels – many times. But in all of the years I’ve been reading Austen, I had never ventured into her other, sadly scarce, works. Laziness, maybe. Haughtiness, maybe. I’d read the best, why would I go backwards from there?

Well, at least in the case of Lady Susan, because it was freaking awesome. This is Jane Austen at the beginning of her career – rumor has it that she wrote Lady Susan at the age of 19 and it is undeniable that she was a born writer and a woman of great perspicacity. She nailed Lady Susan.

This is a short little novella, but it fairly crackles with wit, humor, nastiness, judgment, and realism. It is written in letters, but I never wondered what was happening. She lays bare the soul and the facade of Lady Susan, a woman who raises manipulation and calculation to its highest art. Lady Susan does everything for effect, but appears completely natural.

“She is delicately fair, with fine grey eyes and dark eyelashes; and from her appearance one would not suppose her more than five and twenty, though she must in fact be ten years older, I was certainly not disposed to admire her, though always hearing she was beautiful; but I cannot help feeling that she possesses an uncommon union of symmetry, brilliancy, and grace.”

She is a magnificent creation, the ultimate expression of what a society that praises form and ignores substance deserves. Empty of compassion, wholly self-absorbed and hedonistic, never concerned with anyone but herself. I wish that Austen had written a full-length novel including her as a character. I am left wondering about her marriage, her widowhood, her future. I’d like to know more about her long-suffering daughter, Frederica, about whom she said, cruelly:

“She is a stupid girl, and has nothing to recommend her.”

In Frederica, I saw shades of Georgiana Darcy. A shy young woman, overwhelmed by her much more assertive mother. The novella implies that she gets her happy ending. I hope so!

A woman like Lady Susan will always land on her feet (often on top of her rival). She doesn’t get the comeuppance she deserves, but her outcome is more realistic than satisfying.

This was a lot of fun. So much fun that I ended up reading sections of it out loud to my daughter, including this gem, contained in a letter from Lady Susan to her equally unscrupulous friend Mrs. Johnson, relating how she has been able to yank her young admirer back into line after it becomes apparent that she is terribly cruel to her young daughter:

“There is something agreeable in feelings so easily worked on; not that I envy him their possession, nor would, for the world, have such myself; but they are very convenient when one wishes to influence the passions of another. And yet this Reginald, whom a very few words from me softened at once into the utmost submission, and rendered more tractable, more attached, more devoted than ever, would have left me in the first angry swelling of his proud heart without deigning to seek an explanation. Humbled as he now is, I cannot forgive him such an instance of pride, and am doubtful whether I ought not to punish him by dismissing him at once after this reconciliation, or by marrying and teazing him for ever.”

Louisa May Alcott

Alcott and heavy-handed moralizing

This is an old review from 2013. I am closing down a blog, and republishing book reviews that fit into this new blog prior to deleting the old one.

Title: Work: A Story of Experience
Author: Louisa May Alcott
First Published: 1873

Plot Summary from Goodreads: In this story of a woman’s search for a meaningful life, Alcott moves outside the family setting of her best known works. Originally published in 1872, Work is both an exploration of Alcott’s personal conflicts and a social critique, examining women’s independence, the moral significance of labor, and the goals to which a woman can aspire. Influenced by Transcendentalism and by the women’s rights movement, it affirms the possibility of a feminized utopian society.

I read this for a reading event in a private group over on Goodreads. When I began reading this, I mistakenly believed that it was one of her early novels. I was quite wrong about that – according to Wikipedia, it was published in 1873, after both Little Women and Little Men, as well as after her melodramatic stories that were published in the 1860’s. So, looking at it with this in mind, some of what I thought were the seeds of Little Women are really more recycled bits from that particular book.

This is not Alcott’s best work, which makes sense, since it is a largely forgotten story. Written for adults, it is more overtly political even than her other books, with very obvious feminist and abolitionist overtones. Although it is well-worth reading, Alcott is – as she has a tendency to be – heavy-handed in her moralizing.

The book generally tells the tale of a young woman, Christie Devon, who leaves the care of her resentful uncle and long-suffering but loving aunt and seeks employment to make her way in the world. She is engaged in various fairly menial jobs: governess, companion, actress, seamstress, and struggles to support herself. Many issues are addressed, and Alcott’s abiding abolitionist beliefs are openly articulated.

There were a couple of things that I found particularly interesting about the book. First, reminiscent of the proposal of Laurie and Jo’s refusal to marry him, Christie also turns down a proposal from a wealthy gentleman. There are shades of Pride and Prejudice, as well, in the dialogue from this section of the book. Christie initially turns him down politely, and when he reacts badly, we have a very “Lizzie Bennett” moment where she calls him out for his sense of superiority. It left me wondering if Alcott had read P&P close in time to writing the book – the scenes were so similar.

In addition, it has a bit of a WTF ending. Alcott is a deeply religious woman, and believes fervently (as many of her era did) in a heaven. The book takes place during the years of the Civil War and much is made of the heroic sacrifice of the men and women who fought for the union and who died, or had loved ones die, in the war. Louisa always was one for the grand sacrificial gesture – if you are looking for a traditional happily ever after for our heroine, well, you’re not going to get one.

Anyway, it was an interesting read. A bit too sweet and preachy for my taste, but, still, Alcott was a very principled woman, and it was interesting to read something that is so clearly feminist and egalitarian from the early part of my nation’s history.

Agatha Christie, Angela Thirkell, Patricia Wentworth, Stella Gibbons

#1944 Club: 10/15/18 through 10/21/18

Simon, at Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings are hosting the 1944 Club next week. This will be the first time that I’ve managed to participate in one of their “clubs,” and I’m very excited about it. I haven’t quite settled on a book (or two) yet, but, in keeping with this blog theme, it’s definitely going to be by written a woman. Some of my possible choices:

Anne Bronte

Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte

This is an old review from 2014. I am closing down a blog, and republishing book reviews that fit into this new blog prior to deleting the old one.

Title: Agnes Grey
Author: Anne Bronte
First Published: 1847

Plot Summary from Goodreads: Written when women—and workers generally—had few rights in England, Agnes Grey exposes the brutal inequities of the rigid class system in mid-nineteenth century Britain. Agnes comes from a respectable middle-class family, but their financial reverses have forced her to seek work as a governess. Pampered and protected at home, she is unprepared for the harsh reality of a governess’s life. At the Bloomfields and later the Murrays, she suffers under the snobbery and sadism of the selfish, self-indulgent upper-class adults and the shrieking insolence of their spoiled children. Worse, the unique social and economic position of a governess—“beneath” her employers but “above” their servants—condemns her to a life of loneliness.

Agnes Grey was published in 1847. This was an exceptionally good year for the Bronte sisters – 1847 saw the publication of Agnes Grey, Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, which combined to form a trifecta of Bronte awesomeness, and includes the two most well-known books by the Brontes.

Anne Bronte was the youngest Bronte, and remains the least well-known of the three sisters. She died very young, at 29 years of age. Her only other published work is The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which was out of publication for many years at the behest (as I understand it) of the eldest and most prolific sister, Charlotte. Agnes Grey was published under the pseudonym Acton Bell.

Agnes Grey is a bildungsroman, or a coming of age story, in this case, of the titular character, Agnes. The book begins with Agnes and her sister living at home with her parson father and their mother. Father unwisely invests money with a merchant who ends up dying, and the family loses all their savings. Agnes, in a bid for independence, decides to go to work as a governess. She ultimately obtains a position as a governess for a wealthy family, and leaves the family homes and goes out in the world.

I really liked this book. I was not a fan of Wuthering Heights when I read it many years ago, although I did love Jane Eyre. Agnes Grey is, in my mind, less sophisticated than Jane Eyre, but has many of the same themes. Anne Bronte used the book as a vehicle to explore oppression of women, animal cruelty, love, marriage and religion.

I have been listening to one of the Great Courses on the Victorian era as well as reading books that were written in and during the Victorian era. There are two lectures, so far, that dealt directly with women – one about upper class women and one about working class women. The circumstances for working class girls/women were fairly dire, actually, and Agnes Grey does a good job of illustrating that direness. Agnes finds herself working for a family that is clearly inferior to her in most domains – she has more common sense, more integrity, she is better educated, she has a greater work ethic, she is more useful. The only area that they exceed her is in that of wealth. They are rich, she is poor.

Each of the families, nonetheless, considers themselves and is considered by society, to be her superior. The Bloomfield family – the first family where she is a governess – has raised their eldest son to be an overtly cruel human being. He is abusive – both verbally and at times physically – to Agnes, and he casually tortures small animals. His education is a total loss because no one exerts even the slightest degree of control over him to force him to learn, and being the eldest son of a wealthy family, there is no incentive for him to be anything other than what he desires to be. Agnes is dismissed when she fails to educate him.

The second family, the Murray family, is less casually abusive but concomitantly more frivolous. Agnes is governess to their two youngest daughters. The eldest, Rosalie, is a pretty ornament who thinks only of flirtations and marriage. Matilda, the youngest, is a foul-mouthed tomboy who is also a liar (I confess a bit of partiality to poor Matilda. She’s so screwed in that era). The appearance is the reality for this family, and nothing matters but what is on the surface.

Agnes Grey is based on Anne Bronte’s experience as a governess. One of the things that I found interesting was how little actual learning was going on in the schoolroom. I am sure that not every Victorian wealthy family was the same, but Agnes was given no authority at all, and was therefore ignored at best and abused at worst. I cannot think of few worse jobs than being charged with the education of spoiled, entitled, in some cases quite possibly sociopathic, children who have total power over your life. It’s a nightmarish prospect.

It is easy to wax nostalgic for the past, and for eras like the Victorian era. Reading a book like Agnes Grey is a useful exercise to remind us that we should not idealize the past.