Virginia Woolf

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

Title: The Voyage Out
Author: Virginia Woolf
First published in 1915

Plot summary from Goodreads: Woolf’s first novel is a haunting book, full of light and shadow. It takes Mr. and Mrs. Ambrose and their niece, Rachel, on a sea voyage from London to a resort on the South american coast. “It is a strange, tragic, inspired book whose scene is a South America not found on any map and reached by a boat which would not float on any sea, an american whose spiritual boundaries touch Xanadu and Atlantis”

My personal experiences with Virginia Woolf have historically been fraught. I want to love her – she is iconic, so important in the pantheon of women in literature and feminism that she very nearly stands alone. But she is also impenetrable, a cipher for which I, sadly, lack the necessary decoder ring with which to make sense of her. Her writing is achingly, heartstoppingly beautiful, and yet I find that I understand almost none of it.

It was with some delight, then, that I began reading her first, and most autobiographical, novel, The Voyage Out. Written in narrative style that makes sense to my admittedly limited brain (i.e., linear) it contains her trademark gorgeous language. There is so much in it to admire, as well. Rachel, the main character, is an interesting character – a young woman who has been sheltered from everything except music, the product of a strange upbringing in an oppressive society. One of the matronly characters says about Rachel:

This girl, though twenty-four, had never heard that men desired women, and, until I explained it, did not know how children were born. Her ignorance upon other matters as important” (here Mrs. Ambrose’s letter may not be quoted) . . . “was complete. It seems to me not merely foolish but criminal to bring people up like that. Let alone the suffering to them, it explains why women are what they are—the wonder is they’re no worse. I have taken it upon myself to enlighten her, and now, though still a good deal prejudiced and liable to exaggerate, she is more or less a reasonable human being. Keeping them ignorant, of course, defeats its own object, and when they begin to understand they take it all much too seriously.

Woolf approaches feminist ideas obliquely, through several characters. Mrs. Ambrose, above, talking about the sheltering of women. Mr. Dalloway (yes, that Mr. Dalloway), talking about suffragettes:

“Oh, I’m entirely with you there,” said Dalloway. “Nobody can condemn the utter folly and futility of such behaviour more than I do; and as for the whole agitation, well! may I be in my grave before a woman has the right to vote in England! That’s all I say.” The solemnity of her husband’s assertion made Clarissa grave. “It’s unthinkable,” she said. “Don’t tell me you’re a suffragist?”

Or, this quote, from the young man who ends up as Rachel’s love interest:

“I’ve often walked along the streets where people live all in a row, and one house is exactly like another house, and wondered what on earth the women were doing inside,” he said. “Just consider: it’s the beginning of the twentieth century, and until a few years ago no woman had ever come out by herself and said things at all. There it was going on in the background, for all those thousands of years, this curious silent unrepresented life.

This curious silent unrepresented life. This isn’t entirely true, of course, because women have been part of fiction since fiction was written, although their stories were primarily told by men. But, still, it is true, right? Women did not lead public lives, in the same sense that men did. Their lives were entirely private, lived out in the quiet, domestic domain. She talks a great deal about loneliness, about the way that people live out their lives in solitary fashion, even when surrounded by others.

The Voyage Out takes a turn late in the book, into something that, given that it was written by Woolf, I might have expected. But, I didn’t. I won’t say more, because I don’t want to spoil. But, for readers who struggle with Woolf, this book is a good place to begin.

Dorothy Sayers

Whose Body by Dorothy Sayers

Whose BodyTitle: Whose Body
Author: Dorothy Sayers
Series: Lord Peter Wimsey #1

Summary from Goodreads: The stark naked body was lying in the tub. Not unusual for a proper bath, but highly irregular for murder — especially with a pair of gold pince-nez deliberately perched before the sightless eyes. What’s more, the face appeared to have been shaved after death. The police assumed that the victim was a prominent financier, but Lord Peter Wimsey, who dabbled in mystery detection as a hobby, knew better. In this, his first murder case, Lord Peter untangles the ghastly mystery of the corpse in the bath.

Whose Body is the first of the Lord Peter Wimsey series, written by Dorothy Sayers. Mrs. Sayers wrote ten Lord Peter novels, as well as short stories featuring her gentleman-detective between 1923 and 1937. Lord Peter ages in real-time with her stories, and they are contemporary mysteries set during the year in which they are written.

“Why can’t you marry and settle down and live quietly, doin’ something useful?” said the Duke, unappeased.

“Because that was a wash-out as you perfectly well know,” said Peter; “besides,” he added cheerfully, “I’m bein’ no end useful. You may come to want me yourself, you never know. When anybody comes blackmailin’ you, Gerald, or your first deserted wife turns up unexpectedly from the West Indies, you’ll realize the pull of havin’ a private detective in the family. ‘Delicate private business arranged with tact and discretion. Investigations undertaken. Divorce evidence a specialty. Every guarantee!”

In 1998, Jill Paton Walsh took up Mrs. Sayers’ mantle and completed her unfinished last Lord Peter novel, called Thrones and Dominations. She has since published three more Lord Peter books, including The Attenbury Emeralds, which actually reaches back to 1921 and tells the story of Peter Wimsey’s first foray into detecting. The Attenbury Emeralds case is mentioned in Whose Body, but the story is not fully (or even partially) told.

I bought all of the original novels over the Christmas holidays this year, as they were all on sale. All of the Open Road editions of the Peter Wimsey books have similar covers, all featuring Peter’s monocle as part of the image. I find the covers both clever and appealing.

The mystery in Whose Body is quite grim, actually, although the treatment of it is lighthearted (as is so often the case with “Golden Age” mysteries). It is a classic upper crust mystery, although the murderer is quite frankly a sociopath who conveniently commits suicide at the end – this is another common feature of Golden Age mysteries. The murders often dispose of themselves to avoid the sticky and lower-class legal process that will result from their being caught-out by our amateur sleuth.

There is light satire of the British pre-WWII social conventions and the relationship between Lord Peter (aristocrat) and his valet (Bunter). In Whose Body, Lord Peter has a recurrence of “shell shock” from his experiences during WWI, and is cared for Bunter, who is obviously very close to Lord Peter. As a random aside, their relationship rather reminds me of the relationship between Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee from the Lord of the Rings, which was taken from Tolkien’s observations of the relationship between batman and officer in WWI. One of the great strengths of this book is the touching, affectionate and convincing relationship between Wimsey and Bunter.

Also, Bunter gets some of the best lines:

“Yes, Mr. Graves, it’s a hard life, valeting by day and developing by night—morning tea at any time from 6.30 to 11, and criminal investigation at all hours.”

The next book in the series is Clouds of Witness.

Dorothy Sayers

Clouds of Witness by Dorothy Sayers

Previously published March 18, 2014

Title: Clouds of Witness
Author: Dorothy Sayer
Series: Lord Peter Wimsey #2
Published in 1926

Summary from Goodreads: When blood stains his family name, Lord Peter fights to save what he holds most dear.

After three months in Corsica, Lord Peter Wimsey has begun to forget that the gray, dangerous moors of England ever existed. But traveling through Paris, he receives a shock that jolts him back to reality. He sees it in the headlines splashed across every English paper—his brother Gerald has been arrested for murder. The trouble began at the family estate in Yorkshire, where Gerald was hunting with the man soon to be his brother-in-law, Captain Denis Cathcart. One night, Gerald confronts Cathcart with allegations about his unsavory past, leading the captain to call off the wedding. Just a few hours later, Cathcart is dead, with Gerald presumed to be the only person who could have fired the fatal shot. The clock is ticking, and only England’s premier sleuth can get to the bottom of this murky mystery.

” my love swears that she is made of truth
I will believe her, though I know she lies”

The second Peter Wimsey novel begins with Peter on an extended holiday in Corsica, enjoying the sights and recovering from the events of “Whose Body.” His trip is cut short when Bunter informs him that his brother, the Duke of Denver, has been arrested for murder.

You may remember the quote I put in my post about Whose Body, (and I swear that I did not know what was coming in this book), where Peter tells Gerald that someday he will be happy to have a sleuth in the family, saying cheerfully, “You may come to want me yourself, you never know.”

Now we know.

Clouds of Witness relies heavily on the coincidence, and a series of illicit nighttime encounters. I always love these English Country House murders where everyone is rambling about all night long, practically tripping over one another. That’s what we have here. Gerald literally trips over the body of Cathcart, our victim, at the same moment that Lady Mary, his now estranged fiancee, is coming out the door. Things look bad for the Duke of Denver.

Fortunately for him, Lord Peter is on the case.

There is a lot going on in this book. While the Duke awaits trial, Peter is questing about the country, the continent, and eventually, the world, looking for clues to explain who killed Denis Cathcart. He meets a miserable farmer named Grimethorpe whose long-suffering wife is indeed long-suffering. He discovers that his sister, Lady Mary, has been secretly engaged to a socialist named Goyle. An engagement that has been brutally broken-up by the Duke, who threatened to cut them both off without a shilling if the marriage went through:

“Monstrous!” said Miss Tarrant, shaking her head so angrily that she looked like shock-headed Peter. “Barbarous! Simply feudal, you know. But, after all, what’s money?”

“Nothing, of course,” said Peter. “But if you’ve been brought up to havin’ it it’s a bit awkward to drop it suddenly. Like baths, you know.”

(I love this quote. It made me laugh).

There is also a lovely courtroom scene, where Sir Impey Biggs stands for the defence:

The Dowager Duchess had once remarked: “Sir Impey Biggs is the handsomest man in England, and no woman will ever care twopence for him.” He was, in fact, thirty-eight, and a bachelor, and was celebrated for his rhetoric and his suave but pitiless dissection of hostile witnesses. The breeding of canaries was his unexpected hobby, and besides their song he could appreciate no music but revue airs.”

On the other side of the table, we have Sir Wigmore Wrinching, the Attorney-General, for the crown. That name is pure awesome.

There is a lot of humor in this book, and a bit of silliness Sir Peter, ultimately, finds the necessary witness to determine what really happened to Denis Cathcart. I am not going to tell you here, so if you want to know, you will have to read for yourself.

In the words of Sir Impey Briggs:

“Since, however, by a series of unheard-of coincidences, the threads of Denis Cathcart’s story became entangled with so many others, I will venture to tell it once again from the beginning, lest, in the confusion of so great a cloud of witnesses, any point should still remain obscure.”

Dorothy Sayers

Unnatural Death by Dorothy Sayers

Originally published on March 24, 2014

Title: Unnatural Death
Author: Dorothy Sayers
Series: Lord Peter Wimsey #3
Published in 1927

Summary from Goodreads: When a terminally ill woman dies much earlier than expected, Lord Peter suspects murder…

Though never quick-witted, Agatha Dawson had an iron constitution and a will to fight that never abated in her old age. Even after three operations failed to rid her of her cancer, she refused to give in. But as her body began to weaken, she accused lawyers, nurses, and doctors of trying to kill her and snatch her fortune. The town physician, an expert in cancer, gives her six months to live. Three days later, she is dead. Though the autopsy reveals nothing surprising, the doctor suspects that Agatha’s niece had some hand in the old woman’s death. When Lord Peter Wimsey, the dashing gentleman detective, looks into the matter, he finds that death stalks all those who might testify. How can he continue his investigation when every question marks another innocent for murder?

This was a very enjoyable installment of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. Peter’s relationship with Parker becomes more collegial, and we are introduced to a new character by the name of Mrs. Climpson. I hope Mrs. Climpson sticks around, because she is wonderful.

The book begins with Parker and Wimsey having dinner at a club on a pleasant April evening. They are talking of murder, of course, and a young doctor interrupts their pleasant discussion to tell them a tale of a suspected murder most foul: an elderly woman who was quite ill, but who died so suddenly that the young doctor suspects foul play.

Unnatural Death is a lot of fun. Before Lord Peter can solve the murder, he must prove that a murder has been committed.

“This is the real sleuth—my friend Detective-Inspector Parker of Scotland Yard. He’s the one who really does the work. I make imbecile suggestions and he does the work of elaborately disproving them. Then, by a process of elimination, we find the right explanation, and the world says, ‘My god, what intuition that young man has!’ Well, look here—if you don’t mind, I’d like to have a go at this. If you’ll entrust me with your name and address and the names of the parties concerned, I’d like very much to have a shot at looking into it.”

And he does, and of course, he discovers that the murderer has committed a near perfect crime, and for the basest of motives. The murderer in this book is quite a nasty piece of work, and before long, bodies are piling up like cord wood.

Lord Peter’s Daimler Twin-Six makes its first appearance in this book as well. For those of you not familiar with the Daimler, it looks something like this:

Gorgeous, isn’t it?

Overall, this is probably my favorite of the Lord Peter mysteries so far. I love the legal twist to the motive, the murderer is both clever and exceptionally cold-blooded.

Victoria Holt

The Landower Legacy by Victoria Holt

Title: The Landower Legacy
Author: Victoria Holt
First published in 1984

Plot summary from Goodreads: Green-eyed Caroline Tressidor has the whole world at her feet. But at Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, Caroline lets slip a secret. It is nearly fatal.

Caroline’s promising future dissolves without her knowing why. Her search for answers violates the iron rules of Victorian society. It takes her to the wild moors of Cornwall and pits her against her shy, pretty sister.

It also brings her the man of her dreams, Paul Landower. . .dark, mysterious, trapped in his own past. . .a past that may include a legacy of murder.

This one is hard for me to review, because it was not a bad read, but it absolutely did not live up to the promise of the genre/cover synopsis. I can’t really characterize this book as gothic, as there was almost no suspense at all. If I were pressed to put a genre on this book, cover and description nothwithstanding, it would probably be historical romance, or maybe family drama. I’m not really sure.

So, let’s get to my complaints. When I read a gothic romance, I am expecting that the heroine will be put in significant danger by someone who wants to keep her from succeeding in attracting the hero. There might also be some perceived light supernatural elements, even if it turns out at the end that they were just plain old human avariciousness or jealousy. A bit of haunting perhaps, or some lights appearing and disappearing in the woods. That sort of thing.

There should also be a secret that is coming back to haunt someone – usually the Hero. And then, last but certainly not least, there should be some sort of a large country home or chateau that is the center of all of the action.

So, with this book, all of the elements were here: a haunted mine shaft where black dogs appear when someone is in danger, an impoverished hero who is trying to save the estate that has been in family since the 15th century, and a number of secrets possessed by a number of characters.

The problem with the book is that none of these three things really had anything to do with each other. I am accustomed to seeing them used as plot devices, but their disconnection from one other made them just that much more obviously the gears to keep the plot moving forward, and it felt really unnatural. So, as a gothic, it didn’t work for me. There wasn’t one moment when my pulse quickened and I felt like the heroine was really in danger. The one point of danger ended up being so quickly over and easily resolved that it just fell flat.

Also, maybe it was the fact that I had just read a book using the same plot device that I hate that Holt used in this one, which meant that I figured out the “twist” the first time that an allusion to it was raised.

This sounds like I hated the book, but I didn’t. It was disappointing, but I actually really liked both the heroine, who was pretty tough, and Aunt Mary, who was a hoot – an independent woman who was running an estate (really successfully) at a time when ladies weren’t supposed to do anything more strenuous than fainting. And Catherine’s perfectly planned and brilliantly executed revenge on the man who jilted her (for her wealthy but weak sister) was delightful!

The romance though, was pretty unconvincing for me, and since I can’t abide cheaters, I was less than enamored of the married Paul Landower. I get it that he felt like he’d been trapped into marriage because his wife was a wealthy woman who bought herself a husband by leverage his family’s poverty against him. But, you know what? Them’s the breaks, dude. If you sell your soul for cash, you don’t get to complain when the purchaser decides she wants the benefit of her bargain. Women had been doing just this for generations in the time period in which this book is set. Plus, he was a terrible father to his very young son, which made him all that much more unlikeable.

Agatha Christie

When Hastings Fell in Love

Title: Murder on the Links
Author: Agatha Christie
Series: Hercule Poirot #2
First published in 1923

Plot summary from Goodreads: An urgent cry for help brings Hercule Poirot to France. But he arrives too late to save his client, whose brutally stabbed body now lies facedown in a shallow grave on a golf course.

But why is the dead man wearing an overcoat that is too big for him? And for whom was the impassioned love letter in the pocket? Before Poirot can answer these questions, the case is turned upside down by the discovery of a second, identically murdered corpse.…

Oh, Hastings. You ninny.

This is the second Hercule Poirot novel – and in spite of the title has almost nothing to do with golf. This is a good thing, in my opinion, since I find golf slightly less interesting than watching paint dry, but it was almost a deal breaker. I did not want to read this mystery. Based on the cover, I assumed it would be about a British guy in knickers geting clonked on the head with a five iron on the back nine. I read it purely for completeness sake – and I am glad I did.

The only connection to golf is that the body was buried in a location that was soon to become a hazard on a new golf course. Also, it is set in France, which I found totally baffling since I have never, not even once in my entire life, considered the possibility that there might be golf courses in France. So, I learned something there.

The mystery itself is quite a clever little mystery, with lots of misdirection. There is a funny rivalry between the vain Poirot and the equally vain and condescending Gireau, who is the inspector investigating the case for the French police. Poirot is frequently piqued at being mocked by Monsieur Gireau, and is able to prove his superiority in satisfying fashion. Hastings, though, is a total dolt. He gets mixed up with an acrobat known to him only as Cinderella, and ends up in a not-even-remotely convincing romance. It is silly, although Cinderella ends up proving her courage in a rather compelling way.

One of the things about Agatha Christie is that she has no qualms about depicting her female characters as just as venal, just as sneaky, just as mean, just as smart, just as strong, just as wilful, and just as brave as her male characters. It’s refreshing, really. Her character studies aren’t terribly detailed, but she stays away from stereotyping based on gender.

On the whole, I would put this in the midrange of Christie’s work. Not dazzlingly clever, like some, but still enjoyable.

Shirley Jackson

Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson

Title: Hangsaman
Author: Shirley Jackson
First published in 1951

Plot Summary from Goodreads: Seventeen-year-old Natalie Waite longs to escape home for college. Her father is a domineering and egotistical writer who keeps a tight rein on Natalie and her long-suffering mother. When Natalie finally does get away, however, college life doesn’t bring the happiness she expected. Little by little, Natalie is no longer certain of anything—even where reality ends and her dark imaginings begin. Chilling and suspenseful, Hangsaman is loosely based on the real-life disappearance of a Bennington College sophomore in 1946.

Hangsaman was Jackson’s second novel, after The Road through the Wall, which was published in 1948. Published in 1951, Hangsaman is nominally a bildungsroman about a college freshman named Natalie Waite who attends a Bennington College-like institution. She is the daughter of a second-rate writer and a mother who is a rather desperate housewife. Broken into basically three sections, the novel begins with Natalie at home, on the cusp of going away to college. The second part deals with her first weeks at school, and her fragility and difficulty adjusting to the changes. The third part is a frankly strange look at Natalie’s devolution into what appears to be mental illness. The ending is cryptic and unresolved.

There are several important women in this book. The male characters are largely superfluous to the story – being entirely self-absorbed and interacting with the women primarily as extensions of themselves, Eves to their Adams, created from their ribs, without independent significance. Natalie herself, as a college student, is in a state of limbo, as a young woman who has left the shelter of her father’s home but hasn’t yet transitioned to the shelter of a husband. She is very much in a waiting period – hence, probably, the last name that she was given. Her role in the community and in the larger world is unclear to the reader, and it is unclear to Natalie.

Her interactions with her father show disturbing and inappropriate amounts of enmeshment and a cavalier attitude towards Natalie’s autonomy. Confronted with her unhappiness, her father responds:

There is no doubt but what the class of girls you have as friends is not a representative one, but my plans for you never did include a broad education; an extremely narrow one, rather—one half, from the college, in people and surroundings; the other half, from me, in information. My ambitions for you are slowly being realized, and, even though you are unhappy, console yourself with the thought that it was part of my plan for you to be unhappy for a while.

Natalie’s relationship with her mother is even more tenuous and fraught than her relationship with her father. The first section focuses extensively on a party which her mother is hostessing, which her father has arranged, and there is a long discussion between Natalie and her mother in which her mother explains to her all of her father’s faults, and warns her against marriage. The party itself is excruciating and bizarre, with Natalie interacting with the guests and simultaneously carrying on a mental conversation with a detective who has, in her imagination, accused her of murder. And then there is the sexual assault, alluded to but unexplained, which occurs when one of the guests takes her into the woods behind her home and does something which is never described, nor really referenced again, but which hangs like a pall over the rest of the book.

Both of her parents only see her in relation to themselves, and not as an independent entity.

“It seemed that perhaps her father was trying to cure his failures in Natalie, and her mother was perhaps trying to avoid, through Natalie, doing over again those things she now believed to have been mistaken.”

In addition, Natalie’s fellow students, mostly women, largely dislike her as they jockey for social position, and at least one of her peers is involved in a sordid affair with a professor who is already married to an emotionally fragile ex-student who has grasped the brass ring (marriage, to a handsome intellectual, like Natalie’s mother. Or Shirley Jackson herself) and yet found her prize hollow, retreating into an alcoholic haze to cope. The other young women are superficial, dismissive, and occasionally even mean, but they are brashly capable of navigating a world that is causing Natalie to fall apart completely. Jackson was writing this book in 1951, while her husband was a teacher at Bennington College in Vermont, and as such she would have been intimately familiar with young women in Natalie’s position. There are references, some off-handed, some less so, about conflict between young women living in dormitories, about affairs, sometimes with professors, and suicides, and pregnancies and abortions. As the novel progresses, Natalie’s very grasp on reality seems to splinter, until, after her trip home for Thanksgiving, she is on a bus back to college , and

She wanted to sing and did so, soundlessly, her mouth against the fogged window of the bus, thinking as she sang, And when I first saw Natalie Waite, the most incredible personality of our time, the unbelievably talented, vivid, almost girlish creature—when I first saw her, she was sitting in a bus, exactly as I or you might be, and for a minute I noticed nothing of her richness . . . and then she turned and smiled at me. Now, knowing her for what she is, the most vividly talented actress (murderess? courtesan? dancer?) of our time or perhaps any time, I can see more clearly the enchanting contradictions within her—her humor, her vicious flashing temper, so easily aroused and so quickly controlled by her iron will; her world-weary cynicism (she has, after all, suffered more than perhaps any other from the stings and arrows of outrageous fortune), her magnificent mind, so full of information, of deep pockets never explored wherein lie glowing thoughts like jewels never seen . . .

The narration changes, briefly from third person to first person. Even now, looking back, I don’t know what any of this means – who is the narrator of this passage? Is he – she – real? Natalie’s imagination, again? When Natalie returns to campus, the tension ratchets up, and the book becomes almost a thriller, with midnight wanderings and a terrifying plunging through the dark Vermont woods.

Jackson was adept at plumbing the psyches of disturbed, repressed young women – Merricat, from We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and Eleanor from The Haunting of Hill House, and Natalie. This is an unsettling book, with its look backwards at the cost that society imposed on young women who didn’t fit into the roles that society prepared for them. Not a ghost story, not a murder mystery, Hangsaman is something more abstract but in some ways even more terrifying – a narration of the mental disintegration of a sensitive young woman in a society that neither makes an effort to understand her, nor cares little for her psychological well-being.

Jane Austen

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Previously published on August 19, 2015

Title: Persuasion
Author: Jane Austen
First published in 1818

Summary from Goodreads: At twenty-seven, Anne Elliot is no longer young and has few romantic prospects. Eight years earlier, she had been persuaded by her friend Lady Russell to break off her engagement to Frederick Wentworth, a handsome naval captain with neither fortune nor rank. What happens when they encounter each other again is movingly told in Jane Austen’s last completed novel. Set in the fashionable societies of Lyme Regis and Bath, Persuasion is a brilliant satire of vanity and pretension, but, above all, it is a love story tinged with the heartache of missed opportunities.

Persuasion was Jane Austen’s final book. She died before completing the editorial process, which means that it is, perhaps, a little bit less polished than her other books, all of which were shined to a glass-like finish before being submitted for publication.

There are echoes of her other stories: Anne is a beaten down version of Lizzie – what Lizzie would have been if someone persuaded her to turn down a poorer Darcy in spite of her deep love for him. Captain Wentworth is an angrier Darcy – still resentful of the fact that his beloved was insufficiently strong-willed to stand up for herself and take him in spite of her family. William Elliot is an even more nauseating version of Mr. Wickham or Mr. Willoughby – more successful at being a self-serving, amoral douche, more adept at hiding his true nature.

Persuasion is darker and sadder. Anne has no one to look out for her best interests. Sure, Lady Russell means to do the job, but she is so easily swayed by appearances that, as it turns out, her advice is worse than useless, but is actively subverting Anne’s happiness albeit unconsciously. And by the time the tale opens, Anne is firmly on the shelf, a woman of eight and twenty who has lost her looks and her charm and is no more than a body to support others, as all unmarried ladies are.

Her father overlooks her, her elder sister disdains her, and her younger sister uses her. And because she has a fine sensibility and intellect, she is perfectly capable of discerning these things and understanding that this is her life. Potentially forever. Unloved, unimportant, expected to simply extinguish herself in the service of others, becoming essentially a non-person. And because she is a non-person, she isn’t even allowed to resent the advantage being taken of her, but rather, must respond with relentless chirping appreciation that she still has a place to live, even if her place is as little better than a kitchen maid.

It is truly difficult to decide who is the least likeable character in this book. Austen has sharpened her pen, but she has also become more subtle with age. None of these people are caricatures – there’s no Mrs. Bennett, with her well-meaning but completely insane approach to marrying off her daughters, no Miss Bates, sweet but vacuous to the point of vacancy, no Lady Catherine DeBourgh, with her relentless self-absorption and superiority, no Mr. Collins, endlessly diverting with the intensity of his obsequiousness. The antagonists in Persuasion are still unlikeable, but they maintain a pretense of realism. And because of this, Persuasion is much less comic than Austen’s other work, and much more painful.

And Anne, well, Anne is a bit difficult to admire. She is all that is admirable, but still, she feels weak. She was in love with Wentworth. Truly, deeply, madly in love, and she let him go because she was persuaded by her family to withdraw her acceptance. What does this say about her? And then, years later, she is forced to watch him pay attention to other women, to potentially fall in love with other, younger women. It hurts to be her – heck, it hurts to read about it.

She is not, however, guilty of the grievous sin of inconstancy that he has laid at her door. She has repined for Wentworth, never stopped loving him. And once he realizes that her sin is really an over-abundance of filial respect, as opposed to fickleness, the way is cleared for them to reunite.

Everyone knows Darcy’s words from Pride and Prejudice, when his love for Lizzie overcomes him:

“In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.””

Many fewer know Wentworth’s impassioned words to Anne:

““I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant.”

Has there ever been a better description of the exquisite disorientation of love than “I am half agony, half hope?

I’ve read Persuasion many fewer times than I’ve read Pride and Prejudice, or even Sense and Sensibility or Emma. Prior to this reread, I would’ve said that it is my least favorite Austen save Northanger Abbey, which I have also never liked. I don’t think that is still true.

I also loved the fact that Austen took aim at the broader cultural silencing and disempowerment of women (tongue firmly in cheek, of course, as the pen was in her hands):

Captain Harville: “But let me observe that all histories are against you — all stories, prose and verse. If I had such a memory as Benwick, I could bring you fifty quotations in a moment on my side the argument, and I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.”

Anne Elliot: “Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”

Thank you Jane Austen, giving a voice to women for 200 years.

Phyllis Whitney

Snowfire by Phyllis Whitney

Title: Snowfire
Author: Phyllis Whitney
First published in 1972

Plot summary from Goodreads: In this gripping new novel of love and danger, Phyllis A. Whitney spins into magnificent focus the icy weather and fiery passions of a chic eastern ski resort. The slopes are fine but for Linda Earle, who hasn’t come to Graystones for winter sports, the atmosphere is terrifying. Seeking to clear her brother of a murder charge, Linda finds her search for the truth hampered by her attraction to the mysterious Julian McCabe. It was Julian’s wife who had been murdered and now Linda’s presence has aroused new terrors. Is Linda going to be the next victim?

In a lot of ways, I am the perfect audience for this book.

Phyllis Whitney is one of the big gothic romance authors from the 1970’s. This is the second Whitney I’ve read – the first being Window on the Square. Whitney writes in both a contemporary and a historical time period. Window on the Square is historical. This one is contemporary.

To understand why I am the perfect audience for this book, you must understand something of my childhood. I was born in the midwest, and my parents fell in love with skiing when I was very young. I recall chartered bus trips from Omaha, the place of my birth, to Breckenridge and Aspen, Colorado, with the kids bedded down in the front of the bus, while our parents – the adults – played cards, smoked cigarettes, flirted and drank cocktails in the back. It was a raucous good time.

We moved to Idaho specifically for the skiing when I was in the fifth grade, and I spent every weekend on the slopes. I joined junior racers and my high school ski team. I threw myself down the mountain as recklessly as possible, and warmed up in the lodge and made fun of the ski bunnies who got all gussied up for the purpose, apparently, of sitting in the lodge and being hit on by the ski bums.

I don’t know if Phyllis Whitney was a skier, but she nailed 1970’s ski culture, from the fondue to the snow bunnies to the apres-ski gluhwein.

Graystones, the house at the center of this book, was perfect – a Norman castle transplanted into the north woods. The mystery was engaging, with Linda, the heroine, going “undercover” as an apres-ski hostess to clear her younger brother, Stuart, who has been accused of murdering Margot, the wife of Stuart’s ski mentor, Julian.

Julian is the owner of Graystones. As in Window on the Square, Linda forges a connection with Adria, the small daughter of Margot, who believes that she has killed her mother – the parallels between this book and Window on the Square are notable. And, while I will admit that I think that WotS is the superior book, this one was quite enjoyable. The story comes to a climax on the mountain at night, with Linda fleeing, on skis, from the pursuing murderer.

Now, about the cover. I really like the cover that shows up on goodreads, but like a lot of these books, it was issued in other covers, and my actual cover is not available to choose! I think that the cover for this edition is a little bit misleading, though – because that dress looks like this would be a piece of historical fiction.

This, however, is my cover:

Yes, it is just as crazy in person as it is in a photograph! So, this is a cheesy little book, but it is fun.

Agatha Christie

Appointment With Death by Agatha Christie

Title: Appointment With Death
Author: Agatha Christie
Series: Hercule Poirot #19
First published 1937

Summary from Goodreads: Among the towering red cliffs and the ancient ruins of Petra sits the corpse of Mrs. Boynton, the cruel and tyrannizing matriarch of the Boynton family. A tiny puncture mark on her wrist is the only sign of the fatal injection that killed her. With only twenty-four hours to solve the mystery, Hercule Poirot recalls a remark he overheard back in Jerusalem: “You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?” Mrs. Boynton was, indeed, the most detestable woman he had ever met.

This book is about what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. It is one of my absolute favorites of the Poirot novels for both the setting – the rose red city of Petra, Jordan – and the villainy of the victim.

Christie draws on her experience travelling with her archeologist husband, Max Mallowan, as she did in Murder in Mesopotamia and Death on the Nile. In my opinion, this mystery is loads better than Murder in Mesopotamia, and is every bit as good as Death on the Nile.

The book begins with Poirot overhearing two people speaking in the hotel room next to his, through an open window. The voice of a man says “You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?” The first section of the book occurs at the hotel, where the reader is introduced to the Boynton family, including Mrs. Boynton, who is a simply unredeemable, petty domestic tyrant. She has exercised total psychological control over the four children who travel with her: Lennox Boynton, Raymond Boynton, Carol Boynton and Ginevra Boynton. She is manipulative and extremely cruel to her family, and she has them so cowed that they have simply collapsed under her tyranny.

The book is partially narrated by a young doctor named Sarah King, because once the Boynton family leaves Jerusalem for Petra, Poirot is not present until the end. The murder occurs with him off-stage. Sarah King is also an interesting character – one of Christie’s bright young women – and she is more than capable of seeing clearly that Mrs. Boynton is mostly pathetic, in spite of her ability to terrorize her family.

Mrs. Boynton is the sort of person who doesn’t understand that everyone has a breaking point, so by the time we get to Petra, it becomes clear that she is going to come to an unhappy end. This is essentially a closed circle mystery, with an ingenious solution. The first time I read it, I was a bit blindsided by the identity of the murderer. In subsequent readings, I’ve been astounded at how cleverly Christie drops clues into the book that, with exquisite subtlety, point the reader to whodunnit.