Day 1108: His Bloody Project

Cover for His Bloody ProjectI was actually reading another novel on my iPad when I picked up His Bloody Project because my iPad needed charging. I was so riveted by it that I couldn’t go back to the other novel until I finished this one.

In 1869 Scotland, 17-year-old Roddy Macrae is in jail awaiting trial for the murders of three people. Roddy has admitted the murders and is ready to take his punishment, which in this time means hanging. His advocate, Mr. Sinclair, thinks there are mitigating circumstances and asks him to write his account of the crimes.

The entire novel is made up of documents—first, Roddy’s account, then the medical reports of the victims and psychiatric evaluations, finally the account of the trial and what happened afterward. Although there is no doubt who committed the murders and little doubt of the outcome of the trial, Burnet manages to conjure up a great deal of sympathy for Roddy and a terrific amount of suspense.

Not only does Burnet create a complex psychological depiction of Roddy, he also deftly depicts the life of highland crofters in the mid-19th century. The novel deals with such issues as class discrimination, the inequities in the lives of crofters and their domination by the landlords, the limitations of our system of justice, and the beliefs held in the infancy of psychiatry. These observations make the novel sound heavy, but it is eminently readable. This is one of the books I read for my Booker Prize project, and I’m really glad I did.

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Day 1104: Vanity Fair

Cover for Vanity FairVanity Fair is a reread for me for my Classics Club list. It has been a long time since I’ve read it, though, and I was curious about whether I would have the same reaction to it.

The novel, of course, is Thackeray’s famous satire of society that follows two English girls through their launches into society and later lives. One is Amelia Sedley, the gentle, conventional heroine who has been the only girl to befriend Rebecca Sharp, the charity student. Amelia is only eager to marry George Osborne, her long-betrothed fiancé. Rebecca is determined to be a success and marry a rich man.

It may be perhaps predicted that good, honest Amelia suffers much more than conniving Becky. Early in the book, Amelia’s marriage to George is threatened when her father loses his fortune. Even though we readers already know that George cares for no one more than himself, Amelia goes into a decline.

Meanwhile, Becky makes her own improvident marriage. She runs off with Rawdon Crawley, the heir to her employer’s fortune, thinking that she will be able to bring Miss Crawley around.

The early days of both marriages are set against the backdrop of the battle of Waterloo, as both George Osbourne and Rawdon Crawley are serving officers. With them is George’s best friend, Dobbin, who falls madly in love with Amelia at first sight and helps her throughout the novel.

As a girl, I thought Amelia was completely insipid and admired Becky Sharp. But it must be said—Becky has no morals. This time through, although I still found Amelia a bit tiresome, I found myself sympathizing more with Rawdon and Dobbin.

In any case, this novel is often funny and always entertaining. Although Thackeray presents us with a conventional heroine for the time in Amelia, you can’t help thinking he had some admiration for the unsinkable Becky. By following her adventures, Thackeray shows us the foibles of members of polite society: the fights over inheritance, the sycophancy, the treatment of people as their fortunes wax and wane.

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Day 1102: The Essex Serpent

Cover for The Essex SerpentBest Book of the Week!
In 1885, Cora Seabourne is a recent widow and is happy to be so, as her husband abused her. For the first time, she feels free and is not eager to remarry, even though surgeon Dr. Luke Garrett is in love with her.

Cora is interested in fossils and has made a heroine of the early fossil finder Mary Anning, so she moves with her son Frankie and her friend Martha to Essex, where she can explore the sea coast. Soon after arriving, she hears rumors of the Essex serpent, a monster that has been supposedly terrorizing the area. There are rumors of slain farm animals and lost children. Cora hopes to find a living prehistoric animal. The villagers are more superstitious, and an aura of dread soon develops.

Cora finds happiness rambling around the countryside, so she delays introducing herself to the Ambroses, Reverend William and his wife Stella. But when she finally meets them, they become fast friends. In particular, Will and Cora enjoy debating such subjects as science versus religion, a topic made even more controversial since Darwin’s discoveries. Sadly, it soon becomes obvious that Stella has tuberculosis.

This novel evokes the ideas and preoccupations of the Victorian age. Although it has quite a few characters, they are all convincingly portrayed. I was deeply interested in the novel. It presents a fully realized world, vividly imagined and described.

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Day 1101: Thomas Hardy

Cover for Thomas HardyThomas Hardy has long been one of my favorite Victorian writers, so when I learned that Claire Tomalin had written his biography, I set about getting a copy. Tomalin has made a career of writing interesting and readable but meticulously documented biographies of mostly literary figures and has become one of my favorite biographers.

Tomalin shows that Hardy was a contradictory man—shy but eager to socialize in intellectual circles, resenting early snubs but nevertheless a snob himself, an inner-living man who still welcomed all who came to see him. Hardy was the son of an uneducated builder and a house servant, both of whom encouraged him in his efforts to gain an education and better himself. But in those days this was difficult, and he never achieved his dream of a Cambridge education. Instead, he went to work at 16 in an architect’s office.

Above all else, Hardy became a writer who challenged conventional attitudes toward women, sex in literature, and religion. Almost from the beginning of his career, while still writing formula novels, he ran into trouble with editors wanting to censor his work. His publication of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, with its subtitle “A Pure Woman,” caused an uproar. Although I have read many of his novels, it was fascinating to read about them in terms of events going on in his own life.

What I had not read much of is his poetry. Hardy always considered himself a poet rather than a novelist, and at the height of his career, after publication of Jude the Obscure, he caused another furor by quitting his novel-writing career to concentrate on poetry. Tomalin is obviously a fan of his poetry, and although I am not much of a poetry reader, the snippets she reproduces are musical and beautiful, and the context she gives them fascinating.

Tomalin begins her book with the story of Hardy’s regret after his first wife’s death that they had grown apart. The story of that relationship, as well as that with his second wife, is also very interesting.

Tomalin has a gift for breathing life into her subjects so that you feel as if you understand them, at least a little. If you have any interest in Thomas Hardy, you’ll find this a compelling book.

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Day 1098: Bella Poldark

Cover for Bella PoldarkI’ve finally finished the last of 12 books in the Poldark series with Bella Poldark. I enjoyed the first six books very much but was only mildly interested in the others and finally only continued because I wanted to finish the series.

This novel is not exactly what you might expect of the last of a series. It resolves some of the continuing subplots but not others. I was surprised to find it introducing some new characters while hardly mentioning some who featured strongly in the other books.

Set in 1818, Bella Poldark is principally concerned with the romances of the two Poldark daughters, Clowance and Bella. Clowance is now a widow, but she has two suitors, Captain Philip Prideaux, a former soldier, and Lord Edward Fitzmaurice, who has been in love with Clowance since she was a girl. But Clowance feels still half in love with Stephen and half hates him because of his lies.

Bella has been courted by Christopher Havergal for years, and he helps her find a voice teacher in London and begin her career as a singer. But a French empresario, Maurice Valéry, offers her a part in an opera in Rouen and himself.

Valentine Warleggan’s affairs are also a concern of the novel. They become entangled with another subplot, a murder mystery. Someone has been killing young women in the area. When Valentine’s latest mistress is a victim and he is questioned about it, his wife, Selina, has had enough and leaves with their son, George. Valentine at first leads a life of dissipation, but when he realizes that his putative father, George Warleggan, is interesting himself in his son, he decides he cannot leave young George to be raised by old George, as he was.

In all, although this novel was more interesting than some of the others, I felt sometimes as if Graham was trying to juggle too many balls. I am happy to have finished this series even though I only found the later books moderately interesting. So, I am happy in more ways than one.

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Day 1089: Literary Wives! The Awakening

Cover for The AwakeningWe have two new members of Literary Wives joining us today, I hope. They are Eva of Paperback Princess and TJ of My Book Strings. Welcome, Eva and TJ!

Today is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in modern fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Ariel of One Little Library
Eva of Paperback Princess
Kate of Kate Rae Davis
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink
TJ of My Book Strings

My Review

Literary critic Elaine Showalter, in her introduction to The Awakening, says it is “recognized today as the first aesthetically successful novel to have been written by an American woman.” I’m not at all sure what she means by “aesthetically successful,” but there is no doubt that the novel was revolutionary, and controversial.

The novel begins with a summer on Grand Isle, south of New Orleans. The Pontelliers are vacationing there, or at least Edna and the children are. Léonce spends the week in the city.

Edna has an almost constant companion, the young man Robert Lebrun. As he adopts a young married woman every summer to worship, no one takes him seriously. But sometime during the summer, Edna realizes she is in love with him.

Edna begins a slow self-realization during which she tries to cast off the parts of her life that are not really hers. Shockingly for her audience in 1899, these include her duties to her husband and children.

Even from the beginning of the novel, her husband criticizes her child-rearing and housekeeping skills, and her mothering is contrasted to that of the other mothers very simply. We’re told that when her children fall down, they pick themselves back up and go on instead of crying and being fussed over by their mothers. This sounds like good mothering to me but apparently was not the norm in Edna’s set of Creole neighbors. Creole in the New Orleans sense means of French descent, and tellingly, Edna is the only one among them who is not Creole.

The descriptions of this summer are heavy with atmosphere and lush, almost sensual. Although barely perceptible on the island, Edna’s awakening affects her behavior after Robert leaves for Mexico and she returns to the city. She is no longer able to lead a conventional life.

Although the novel is considered a feminist classic and was radical for its time, from a modern feminist viewpoint, Edna’s behavior is still defined by her relationship to men. She is awakened by her feelings for Robert, but even in her emancipation her fate is determined by her relationships to men.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Even before her awakening, Edna seems bored and disenchanted with marriage, although she perhaps doesn’t know it. She is married to an older man who is both critical and generous, at times controlling, at times neglectful. She loves her children but does not dote on them or even seem to think of them very often. In truth, she seems a lot like my mother, dreamy and abstracted and not very prone to domesticity.

As her foils in the story, she has two opposites. Madame Ratignolle is the personification of motherhood, with a loving relationship with her husband. Mademoiselle Reisz, the musician, lives a meager and bitter existence alone. These two opposites seem to pose extremities of alternative lives for her.

For Edna, marriage is stifling. She attempts to move out of the bounds of marriage and take up a creative life. To do so, she feels she must shed everything pertaining to her previous life.

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Day 1073: Middlemarch

Cover for MiddlemarchBest Book of the Week!
The first section of Middlemarch is concerned with Dorothea Brooke, an ardent but naive young woman who only wants to take part in something good. She thirsts for knowledge and wants to help with something important.

One trait of Dorothea’s that is physical as well as metaphorical is her shortsightedness. As her sister Celia tells her, “I thought it right to tell you because you went on as you always do, never looking just where you are and treading in the wrong place. You always see what no one else sees; it is impossible to satisfy you; yet you never see what is quite plain.”

Dorothea in her youthful ardor and intelligence attracts the attention of Mr. Casaubon, a cleric and scholar in his fifties who has been laboring for years on a work he calls “The Key to All Mythologies.” Dorothea decides it would be an honor to marry Mr. Casaubon and help him with his great work. And she does so, despite the admonitions of her friends and family.

It is while Dorothea is on her honeymoon in Rome that we meet other important characters in the novel, for Eliot subtitled her novel “A Study in Provincial Life.” There are the young Vincys, Fred and Rosamund, who have both been indulged by their wealthy parents. Fred has been raised to expect a fortune from his crusty old uncle, Peter Featherstone. Concerned at first only with leading the life of a gentleman, he has quit his university studies and fritters away his time. He would like to marry his childhood friend Mary Garth, but she won’t have him until he sticks to something.

Mr. Lydgate is a new doctor in town. He hopes to reform medical practices and make some significant discovery in medicine. Although he feels he cannot afford to marry for some years, he has not reckoned with Rosamund Vincy, a beautiful but self-centered young woman.

He also starts out by harming his chances through some outspoken comments and a too close relationship with Mr. Bulstrode. A wealthy businessman, Bulstrode is involved with the local hospital. But he likes to be in control of all his charities and is inflexible in his religious views.

In Rome, Dorothea and Mr. Casaubon re-encounter Will Ladislaw, Mr. Casaubon’s second cousin. Mr. Casaubon has been supporting Will financially through his studies after Will’s grandmother was disinherited from her family because of her choice in husband. Dorothea, in trying to befriend Will, does not see how much Mr. Casaubon dislikes him. That dislike is to have repercussions for Dorothea’s future life.

Eliot masterfully acquaints us with the problems and politics of this provincial area. Her characters are unforgettable, rich and human. There is a strong feminist sensibility, as Dorothea finds that everything she tries to do is balked because she’s a woman. And class is also an important theme. I continue to feel that Middlemarch is one of the best books ever written and was happy to have it chosen for me by the Classics Club spin.

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