Review 1551: The Grey Woman

Here’s another book for RIPXV.

This novel opens with an unnamed narrator, a traveler in Germany, who meets a pale woman known as The Grey Woman. When he asks for her story, she gives him a letter she wrote to her daughter. This letter contains her story.

As a young girl in 1778, Anna Scherer is very beautiful. A miller’s daughter, she is invited to visit a school friend in Karlsruhe, where she stays with the Rupprechts. She is a shy girl, but she makes a conquest of her social better, a Frenchman named Monsieur de la Tourelle. She is pushed by Frau Rupprecht into receiving him and accepting his gifts, and the next thing she knows, she is engaged to marry him even though he makes her feel uncomfortable.

After their marriage, de la Tourelle takes her to his castle in the Vosges Mountains, where she feels that the servants spy on her. He makes her cut all ties to her family and tries to control her every movement, not allowing her even to go for a walk. The saving grace is Amante, the servant he hired to be her lady’s maid.

Aside from being a stern and controlling husband, de la Tourelle has a fearsome secret, which Anna and her maid discover by accident.

This novel is typical of the gothic genre that was popular in its time, except that it is much more believable than most that I have read, not including any supernatural elements. I took it to be one of Gaskell’s earlier works, and it may have been, because it was published the year of her death, in 1865. It is very short, easy reading, although the antique-sounding dialogue is a bit cumbersome. Luckily, there’s not much of it.

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Review 1508: The Gallows Pole

In a remote Yorkshire valley in 1767, David Hartley and his brothers call together all the clippers in the area. Clippers have for centuries been debasing the coin of the realm by clipping edges off to make counterfeit coin. Hartley is already known as King David in the region for his control of the valley that his home lies above on the moor, but now he declares that they will all become rich by becoming systematic. All the people in the area will send him coins, and in return they will all get a portion of the proceeds. To make more money, he brings in a man called the Alchemist, who will make more convincing coins. Any man who refuses to participate is brought into line.

Within two years, this gang has caused enough disturbance in the local economy that an exciseman, William Deighton, is brought in to try to bring the Hartleys and their gang to law. James Broadbent, a member of the gang who thinks he hasn’t been rewarded enough, decides to turn informant.

On the one hand, this novel is at times lyrical, especially in evoking the landscape, and it is based on true events. On the other hand, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the subject or the brutality. There is a lot of fascination in our society with people who are essentially gangsters that I don’t share. Although Myers tells most of the story in a fair-handed way, he does seem to come down a bit on the side of the thieves, even as he recounts some crimes against innocent men. This book won the Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize for 2018, but I’m not sure it’s the one I would have picked.

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Review 1471: Homegoing

Writers seem to be experimenting with the form of the novel these days, not always successfully. Yaa Gyasi uses the form of linked short stories to good effect, however.

In paired stories, the novel follows two half sisters and their descendants through 300 years of history. In 18th century Gold Coast, Effia is being courted by the son of a king, but her mother, Baaba, tells her to hide the fact that she has reached womanhood. Her suitor eventually marries someone else, and Effia is married to a white man, James Collins, the governor of Cape Coast Castle. The Castle is where slaves are kept before being shipped to the colonies.

Esi is the daughter of Big Man and Maame, a former slave to Effia’s family. In her attempts to befriend Abronoma, her family’s slave, she sends a message to Abronoma’s family to tell them where she is. Thus, she herself becomes a slave when her slave’s family attacks and captures her village.

The novel checks in with each of eight characters of the girls’ descendants, sometimes telling the entire stories of characters’ lives, other times dealing with significant moments. Both families are affected by this great evil in their lives, slavery and its aftereffects. This structure allows Gyasi to explore some of the key events in the histories of Ghana and the United States.

At first, I thought I might get frustrated with the format, because I often want more from short stories. But because the stories are about two families, some of the characters are present in more than one, and you can at least find out what happened to them. Many of the stories are grim, but the novel ends hopefully. Gyasi’s voice is a fresh one, and I found this novel captivating.

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Review 1465: Sugar Money

Best of Ten!
In 1765 Martinique, Father Cléophas sends two of the monks’ slaves, Emile and Lucien, on an astoundingly ill-advised mission to Grenada. The two brothers are to gather the monks’ hospital and field slaves from the island, which has been taken by the British, and bring them to Martinique. Cléophas presents them with a notarized document and tries to convince them that the British have agreed to this, but in the next breath, he tells them to do it secretly, on Christmas Day, when the British will be drunk.

Emile, who is 28, tries to convince Cléophas to leave Lucien, who is 13, home, but Cléophas insists that Lucien go, because he can speak English. Then he gives them a package of medicinal herbs to convey to a doctor, their excuse for going to the island.

The slaves have no choice but to do as they are bidden. Lucien relates this story in his quirky mix of English, French, and patois. In the guise of an adventure, with humor and a likable, inimitable narrator, Jane Harris tells us the horrifying details of life in the 18th century Caribbean.

This is an excellent novel that I read for my Walter Scott Prize project. I have recently read more than one novel set on a Caribbean sugar plantation, but this one seems the most authentic.

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Review 1424: Little

Best of Ten!
Often I don’t read reviews attentively or more often I don’t remind myself what a book is about before reading it, so I didn’t realize for some time that Little is a fictional biography of Madame Tussaud. It is an idiosyncratic one, to be sure.

Marie, often called Little for her small stature, is familiar with loss. In 1760, when she is five, her father dies. Her mother never recovers from it, and shortly after she and her mother take up residence with Doctor Curtius, for whom her mother is employed as a servant, her mother commits suicide.

Doctor Curtius is one of many peculiar characters, Marie not excepted, who occupy the novel’s pages. He is a very odd creature, unused to others, who models body parts in wax to be studied by anatomists. Marie is not dismayed by his peculiarities and is entranced by his wonderful collection of body parts. So, he begins teaching her to draw and model objects in wax.

At Little’s suggestion, they model the entire head of some subjects. Soon, they have a business of selling heads of themselves to customers. Dr. Curtius is mistreated by the hospital, so when a traveling Frenchman, Louis-Sébastian Mercier, suggests they move to Paris from Switzerland to model great men, they do.

Shortly after they arrive in Paris, Doctor Curtius falls under the influence of their landlady, the Widow Picot, who soon has Little working for the entire family, not just Doctor Curtius, even though Little has never been paid. Madame Picot makes no secret that she would like to get rid of her. In the meantime, she and Doctor Curtius begin by modelling the heads of famous criminals. By now, the French Revolution threatens.

Little is narrated in a sprightly, whimsical fashion even when it relates things that are not so pleasant. That, and the pervading personality of its main character, are two of its charms, even as it becomes darker. This is a strange and wonderful novel.

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Review 1420: The Talisman Ring

Having greatly enjoyed a play based on The Talisman Ring, I thought it was about time I reread the original. So, I pulled out my old, tattered paperback copy (copyrighted 1964) and read it again.

Sylvester Lavenham is dying and wishes to assure that his granddaughter is taken care of. So, he proposes a marriage to his nephew, Sir Tristram Shield. The granddaughter, Eustacie de Vauban, is young, French, and volatile. She agrees to marry Sir Tristram, but having romantic tendencies, she is taken aback by his matter-of-face nature. Changing her mind, she decides to steal away at dead of night to London with the aim of becoming a governess.

Unfortunately, she is taken by smugglers who are trying to escape some excisemen. To her delight, she finds that the leader is her cousin Ludovic Lavenham, famously wanted for murdering a man who refused to return his talisman ring, which he pledged while gaming. During their escape, Ludovic is shot, and Eustacie takes him to a local inn for help.

Here’s the poster from the play.

Of course, Ludovic is not guilty of murder and several characters join forces to prove his innocence. But if you think Ludovic and Eustacie are the romantic lead characters of this novel, you don’t know Heyer. For at the inn, they encounter Sarah Thane, an older young woman with a quick sense of humor.

The Talisman Ring is a typical Heyer romantic comedy, with a complicated, ridiculous plot, one brave but foolhardy hero, a vivacious heroine, and a likable older couple to anchor the romance. It’s lots of fun, as Heyer’s novels usually are.

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Review 1409: Brookland

Prue Winship grows up the oldest daughter of a gin distiller in 18th century Brooklyn. Her father having failed to have sons, he brings her into the distillery as an apprentice when she is 14, and she learns to run it. She doesn’t expect, though, that her father’s early death will leave her and her sister Temperance in charge of it.

Despite the preoccupations of running a business, Prue has another dream—to build a bridge across the East River into New York. Many have tried to design one, but nothing has been proposed that would not obstruct water traffic for hours. Prue thinks she has an idea that would work.

This seems like it would be a book I would enjoy, but I could not get going in it. I gave it an effort, but after six days of reading, I still wasn’t into it and hadn’t reached the halfway mark. (Usually six days is enough for me to read most works of fiction, no matter how long. Often in six days I have read two or three novels.) I still had about 300 pages to read when I decided to stop. I couldn’t put my finger on my problem. The novel was well written and on an interesting subject. However, it was very slow moving and kept relating the heroine’s dreams. There is nothing more boring than a dream in fiction, I think. Finally, I dimly remember reading a book on this same subject, the distillery and the bridge, years ago, although I am fairly sure it was not this one. So, not the book for me despite its good reviews in the press.

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Review 1399: The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock

In 1785, Jonah Hancock is a merchant who is waiting for his ship to arrive. It is delayed, and he has heard nothing for a long time, but such is the life of a merchant. Finally, his captain arrives but without his ship, which he has sold to purchase, of all things, a mermaid.

Mr. Hancock doesn’t quite know what to do with the wizened, grimacing creature with the fish tail, especially as it is dead and Captain Jones has sold his ship for £2000 less than it is worth. But the Captain blithely believes the mermaid will make his fortune—he should exhibit it.

Angelica Neal’s protector recently died, leaving her with nothing. Her friend, Mrs. Frost, worried about their household expenses, urges her to return to the house of Mrs. Chappell, the bordello owner, but Angelica is hoping to attract a protector rather than to fall back in debt to Mrs. Chappell. Unfortunately, she falls in love at the party Mrs. Chappell gives to exhibit Mr. Hancock’s mermaid, with a young lieutenant who doesn’t come into his fortune for years.

I enjoyed this peculiar novel, which seems solely a historical novel but contains a whimsical dash of the supernatural. I was interested in both Angelica and Mr. Hancock as characters, as well as some of the others. There is an odd subplot about a girl who runs off from Mrs. Chappell that, while not unfinished, takes some part of the narration and then vanishes from the book until the end. I wasn’t sure of the point of that story line.

In fact, the entire novel sort of meanders past the point where you think it will end, making for an unexpected last 100 pages.

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Review 1343: The Expedition of Humphry Clinker

Cover for Humphry ClinkerWhen I was making up my latest Classics Club list, I looked for some 18th century fiction to add to it. The result was this peculiar novel by the Scottish author and poet, Tobias Smollett.

Smollett was known for picaresque novels, but I wouldn’t exactly call this novel that. In fact, I don’t know what to call it. The novel it reminds me most of is The Pickwick Papers,  because it is about a group of amusing people on a road trip.

Written in letter form, it starts out as a social satire. Matthew Bramble is a middle-aged hypochondriac who sets off with his family for a tour of the watering holes of England. His travelling companions are his nephew, Jeremy Melford, an Oxonian; his frippery niece, Lydia Melford; and his sister, Tabitha, who is on the hunt for a husband.

The novel begins by poking fun at the characters and the eccentric people they meet as they do the rounds of the watering holes. When they reach London, this becomes political and literary satire as well as social satire, as Jeremy visits literary salons and Matthew looks into politics.

However, the novel changes character when they travel north to Scotland. Through the polemics of a Scots lieutenant they befriend, Mr. Lismahago, we learn about the condition of the Scots peasantry and industry. These letters read almost like textbooks. Meanwhile, Smollett even introduces himself as a very minor character. Later, as the group travels south again, humor returns.

The novel is virtually plotless, the only continuing thread the fate of Lydia’s love affair with a travelling player. Humphry Clinker doesn’t even appear until 100 pages in. It was the contention of an essay I read that this novel is an example of the kind where the servant knows more than the master, but I don’t agree. Actually Humphry is pretty much an idiot.

I had a hard time finishing this novel. The humor didn’t appeal to me, nor was I enough informed about the time and place to understand some of the satire, for example, against certain literary figures who were probably recognizable at the time. The introduction calls the novel a snapshot of the whole of Britain at a time when everything was beginning to change with the onset of the Industrial Age. I have also read it is a commentary about Colonialism, but that only seems to apply to the Scottish section. I guess both of these topics might be interesting to some more informed readers.

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Review 1322: Golden Hill

Cover for Golden HillBest of Ten!
It is 1746 when a mysterious young man arrives in New York and immediately goes to Lovell & Company on Golden Hill. He presents a bill for a thousand pounds, an enormous amount of money, from a trading partner of Lovell. Although the bill looks legitimate, Lovell insists on sending back to London for confirmation of the bill’s legitimacy before paying out.

Perhaps Lovell would have felt more comfortable if Richard Smith was more forthcoming, but Smith has nothing to say about who he is or what he plans to do with the money. He is, in fact, dissembling in some way, but we don’t learn how for some time.

These are uneasy days in the colonies. The governor is not popular, and he is constantly undercut by Mr. De Lancey, who has better connections. Most of the New Yorkers are very touchy about anything that seems to threaten their liberty. Smith himself is the type of person who rubs others in the wrong way. He is also hapless. Within no time, he has been robbed of almost all his money and has to subsist on a few guineas until the bill clears. At the same time, he must present a facade of wealth to all the curious New Yorkers.

On Guy Fawkes Day, he accidentally offends a gang of laborers and is rescued by the governor’s secretary, Septimus Oakeshott. They begin an uncomfortable friendship.

Finally, Smith has the misfortune to fall in love with Tabitha Lovell, a quick-witted, quick-tempered girl who seems to hate him.

The novel is written in a humorous, sprightly style, and we don’t find out who the narrator is until the last chapter. We end up with a picaresque adventure story that has a hidden purpose, and hints of more important issues.

Golden Hill is an excellent historical novel that I read for my Walter Scott prize project. It depicts the beginnings of English New York with its solid Dutch background, hints of the coming revolution, and looks at the issue of slavery. It is entirely unpredictable and highly enjoyable.

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