Review 1642: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Gilbert Markham is a young man running a family farm when a new, mysterious person moves into the neighborhood, taking up residence in an old, half-derelict house named Wildfell Hall. She is Mrs. Graham, a beautiful young widow with a five-year-old son, Arthur. She tends to be reclusive, which makes the neighborhood more interested in her. Finally, Gilbert goes with his sister to call and finds that Helen Graham is supporting herself working as an artist.

Gilbert falls in love with Helen, but she will not allow him to express any of his feelings. Then, he hears an ugly rumor about Helen and his friend Mr. Lawrence, Helen’s landlord. Helen has secrets, but they’re not the ones being repeated about her. She finally decides to confide in Gilbert by giving him her diary.

I hadn’t read this novel for many years, so I put it on my Classics Club list. I found the structure of the novel—epistological first because Gilbert is writing a very long letter to a friend, and then the diary—to be cumbersome. It seems as though a straightforward first-person narration would be less artificial for the first part, which must be the longest letter ever written. For the middle, diary portion, I understand why Brontë chose that method of telling her story, which makes up the bulk of the novel, but it seemed a little clumsy and too long.

Finally, there were times when I tired of the self-righteous Helen. It seemed to me that her attitude might have driven a better husband than the one she chose away from her. Of course, he is a scoundrel, so there was probably no attitude she could adopt that would reform him, which makes the ending kind of absurd. I don’t know how to explain it without spoilers, but I thought it might be a sop to the critics of Brontë’s time who would have thought Helen should not have deserted her husband. Either that or she is destined for sainthood.

I am probably being overcritical of this book, which would have been quite shocking for its time because of making a woman who has fled her home with her child its heroine. Although I’ve read a gothic novel or two with the same premise, I’m sure this one was more groundbreaking through the husband’s faults being those of cruelty and dissipation rather than, say, robbery and murder. Here, we see Brontë taking up a feminist viewpoint, and I guess I’m just saying that I found Helen a little too rigidly moral. She spends an awful lot of time being outraged. Jane Eyre is also moral, but somehow from her it doesn’t seem as irritating.

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Review 1641: The Dictionary of Lost Words

After reading The Professor and the Madman, Pip Williams got interested in the ways that gender affected the original edition of the OED. She wrote The Dictionary of Lost Words to honor the women who helped produce the dictionary.

As a little girl, Esme becomes fascinated with the strips of paper used to keep track of different uses of words. Her father is the assistant to Dr. Murray, who is in charge of the OED project, and she spends a lot of time sitting under her father’s desk at the Scriptorium. One day, she finds the strip for the word “bondwoman” and puts it in her pocket. She begins collecting duplicate strips or words that will not be included in the dictionary and puts them in a trunk.

As a young woman, she begins working in the Scriptorium. She becomes fascinated with the idea that some words are not allowed in the dictionary because they don’t have a written source. Many of these words, she notices, are related to the poor and to women—words for women’s body parts, professions, epithets for women. She begins collecting her own words from Lizzie, the Murray’s maid, and from common people in the market.

link to Netgalley

This novel not only reflects the love of words but also the events of the time—the battle for women’s suffrage and eventually World War I. At first, I had difficulty getting into it, but that may in part have had to do with my problems with eBooks. Eventually, I was sucked in and found the novel touching, even though a few plot points are predictable.

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for a free and fair review. I had this review already scheduled for posting when I learned that the book made it to the shortlist for the Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize.

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Review 1606: Things in Jars

Best of Ten!
Imagine a combination of Victorian London, eccentric Dickensian characters, a ghost, a supernatural being of myth, hints of Jane Eyre, a lady detective, and a fascination with grotesqueries. If you can imagine that, you might go a little way toward a hint of this unusual novel.

Bridie Devine, the lady detective, has been summoned to a graveyard to examine a dead body found shackled in a crypt. On her way there, she meets a scantily clad ghost, a prizefighter named Ruby Doyle who claims to know her and follows her on her investigation.

But her real case comes when a baronet, Edward Berwick, hires her through a Doctor Harbin to find his daughter, who has been kidnapped. As she investigates, though, she learns the girl was kept alone in the west wing of the house, and there are rumors that she is some kind of unusual creature. Bridie begins to believe that the kidnappers, who probably include the girl’s nurse, mean to sell her to some freak show.

Bridie has had a difficult path in life that includes encounters when she was a girl with Gideon Eames, the sociopathic son of a man who rescued her from poverty. She thought he was dead but finds he is very much alive.

With an entourage that includes a seven-foot-tall bearded maid, Bridie braves dead bodies, attacks, and visits to a freak show as she pursues the child. We know from the beginning that the girl was taken by her nurse and Dr. Harbin, but more people who want to possess or sell this valuable child get involved.

Not quite at first but very soon I got so involved with this quirky novel that I dropped everything until I finished it. Bridie is an interesting, likable character, Ruby Doyle is endearing even though he is constantly hitching up his drawers, the novel was exciting at times. What’s not to love?

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Review 1599: The Mayor of Casterbridge

At a small county fair in the early 1800’s, a drunken Michael Henchard sells his wife and child to a sailor. Twenty years later, his wife and her daughter come seeking him, the sailor having disappeared at sea and the two being nearly destitute. When they arrive at Casterbridge, they find he is wealthy and the town’s mayor.

To his credit, Henchard looked for his wife and child twenty years ago, but they had emigrated to Canada. Wanting to make amends, he suggests that Susan Newson, as his wife calls herself, and Elizabeth Jane stay in Casterbridge. He will appear to court Susan and will marry her.

At the same time, he meets a young Scotsman, Donald Farfrae, and likes him so much that he offers him a job. But Henchard has a hasty temper and a jealous, unforgiving nature, and as Donald becomes successful, Henchard takes a dislike to him that grows into enmity. A final issue is caused by another incident from Henchard’s past.

Henchard is not a likable character. Although he is often repentent of his actions, his temper creates situations, like the sale of his wife, that lead to his downfall. This is an interesting novel for Hardy, whose main characters, although flawed, are usually more sympathetic. Still, it is an absorbing and dramatic story about a man who is his own worst enemy.

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Review 1595: Mansfield Park

I was having difficulty reading another book, so I decided to take a break by rereading Mansfield Park, which is on my Classics Club list. In these days, Austen’s heroine, Fanny Price, is not admired, but she is a true and admirable product of her environment and circumstances.

At nine, Fanny is brought to live at Mansfield Park as an act of charity, for she is a poor relation. She is taught to be grateful for this charity and to have no expectations for herself. Sir Thomas Bertram is an upright, stern man whom she and her cousins fear. Lady Bertram is languid. Fanny’s Aunt Norris, who suggested they give her a home in the first place, actively dislikes her and favors her female cousins, particularly Maria.

Fanny is very shy and miserable at first, but the younger son of the house, Edmund, takes her under his wing, is her friend and educator.

As a young lady, Fanny is happy to be of service and not used to her needs or inclinations being attended to. Then two things happen at about the same time. Sir Thomas goes away on a lengthy business trip, and Mary and Henry Crawford arrive to stay with the Grants at the parsonage. Edmund, whom Fanny loves, is immediately attracted to Mary, but Fanny is dismayed by the sister and brother’s lack of principles. Maria Bertram is engaged by then to a rich but stupid young man, but Henry Crawford flirts with both Bertram sisters, playing one off the other. Mary’s behavior is more or less impeccable, but she expresses unprincipled ideas. Edmund seems blind to her faults.

Fanny is one of Austen’s more thoughtful heroines. Will she ever be appreciated for her qualities of affection, duty, and principle? Will Edmund marry Mary or recognize Fanny’s superior qualities? Well, we can all probably answer that, but the journey there is wonderful, as Austen’s novels tend to be.

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Review 1590: The Burning of Bridget Cleary

In 1895, a rural Irish woman, a milliner, was burnt to death by her husband and relatives. Their explanation was that the ailing woman had been taken away by the fairies and that they had burnt a changeling trying to get it to say it was not Bridget Cleary.

Historian Angela Bourke examines this crime in detail, not only the events as reported by the witnesses and the trial but the meaning of it. She interprets fairy legends and their place in rural Irish society, and she also explains the meaning of comments and actions the night of the crime and the night preceding it in terms of these legends. She looks at the crime from a feminist point of view as well.

I found this book interesting, although at times I felt Bourke got carried away with her interpretations. Most of the time the writing style and her analysis are interesting, but the book is occasionally a little dry.

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Review 1586: Literary Wives! The Age of Innocence

Cover for The Age of Innocence

Today is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in 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!

Cynthia of I Love Days
Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

* * *

I reviewed this novel, one of my favorites, back in 2015, and I find I still agree with my original review. So, I will not re-review it, but instead am providing the link to the original review. Then I will go on to consider our usual question for this club.

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

“Ah, no, he did not want May to have that kind of innocence, the innocence that seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience!” So thinks Newland Archer in contemplating May Welland, his fiancée. But of course, that’s the kind of innocence May has, as he is too slow to discover, just as he is too slow to discover he is actually in love with May’s cousin, the Countess Olenska. Newland has fastened on May’s shining purity, so that even as he hopes never to live a life of sameness, to teach May to appreciate the arts and travel, he hasn’t seemed to notice the sameness that the Wellands pursue as they cater to their hypochondriacal patriarch, spending the late winters in St. Augustine and the summers in Newport, carefully following the dictates of society.

In this novel, we don’t so much see what it’s like to be Newland’s wife as to be May’s husband. On their honeymoon, after May has dismissed the tutor Newland wishes to invite for dinner as “common,” with her limited, provincial thinking, Newland “perceived with a flash of chilling insight that in future many problems would be thus negatively solved for him, but . . . he took refuge in the comforting platitude that the first six months were always the most difficult in marriage. ‘After that I suppose we shall have pretty nearly finished rubbing off each other’s angles,’ he reflected; but the worst of it was that May’s pressure was already bearing on the very angles whose sharpness he most wanted to keep.”

Two years into the marriage, he makes plans to take flight with Ellen Olenska, thinking he can talk her into it when she is resolved not to betray her family. Wharton has just explained that Newland has given up reading poetry in the evenings because May “had begun to hazard her own [opinions], with results destructive to his enjoyment of the works commented upon.” In that scene, where he finds himself literally stifling, “As she sat thus, the lamplight full on her clear brow, he said to himself with a secret dismay that he would always know the thoughts behind it, that never, in all the years to come, would she surprise him by an unexpected mood, by a new idea, a weakness, a cruelty or an emotion.”

The other important marriage in this novel is only hinted at, but it underlies all of the action. That is Ellen’s marriage to Count Olenski. We are told the man is a brute, that he is a womanizer. When the Count’s secretary comes to make Ellen an offer to return to her husband, he tells Newland he has seen a change in her—that she must not go back.

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Ellen herself is reticent about her marriage, and I am actually not sure what Olenski’s brutishness is supposed to consist of, but I think we are to understand that she has found, despite its faults, New York society possesses a fineness and honesty that is not present in her former milieu. She wants to become a better person, so she will not go back and she does not wish to betray May and the rest of the family despite her love for Newland. And May, despite her false assumption that the two are having an affair, finds the best way to thwart Newland’s plans.

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Review 1584: Milly Darrell

When Mary Crofton attends a charmless school to learn to be a governess, she is befriended by an heiress, Milly Darrell. Milly is a beautiful and good-natured girl whose life becomes complicated when her widowed father remarries.

Augusta Darrell doesn’t like Milly, but the situation changes for the worse with the reappearance in the area of a neighbor, Angus Egerton. Before he returns, the girls hear the story of his falling out with his mother after he fell in love with a girl of low birth. When his mother prevented the marriage, he swore never to return while his mother was alive and was said to have lived dissolutely. His mother dead, he returns to try to repair his dilapidated estate.

It is easy to guess that Mrs. Darrell has something to do with this story but not so easy to see how that will affect the plot. This thickens when Milly and Angus fall in love with each other.

This novella is a typical sensation work of its time. It is short and fun to read. For some reason, though, the publisher has chosen to add an alternate ending which, while not materially different from the original, is a travesty of purple prose—an indication of a lack of discrimination on their part.

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Review 1572: Shadowplay

Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light dealt with a relationship in the life of the playwright John Millington Synge. Shadowplay deals with a period in the life of another Irish literary figure, Bram Stoker.

In a novel that shifts back and forth over a 30-year time period, Stoker goes to work as general manager for the Lyceum Theater in London, having been hired by Henry Irving, the greatest Shakespearean actor of his time. Stoker has taken what he believes is a part-time job that will allow him to work on his fiction, but he finds himself assuming responsibility for everything in the theater, an overwhelming position. Further, he has to cope with his employer’s extravagance and his occasional wild rages. Worse, Irving is dismissive of Stoker’s literary efforts. Nevertheless, they form a lasting friendship.

Also involved in the theater is the famous actress Ellen Terry. Shadowplay is primarily about the enduring relationship between these three. However, it reflects other events of its time, particularly Jack the Ripper and the trial of Oscar Wilde. It deals with Stoker’s struggles to earn a living as a writer, a feat he never accomplished. And it has a ghost.

Shadowplay, which I read for my Walter Scott project, was involving and interesting.

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Review 1565: A Struggle for Fame

After reading The Uninhabited House, I looked for more books by Charlotte Riddell and came across the Recovered Voices series published by Tramp Press and this book, A Struggle for Fame. A Struggle for Fame is Riddell’s semi-autobiographical novel about the publishing industry.

Although Glen Westley is the main character in the novel, it follows the progress of two Irish young people who meet on the ship from Ireland and both end up in London’s literary milieu. Through poor investments, Glen’s father has lost the family home and all his money. She determines that they will travel to London so she can try to make a living as a writer.

On the ship, they meet Barney Kelly, a young chancer who is looking for a way to make money.

Glen works hard at good literary fiction and is repeatedly rebuffed by editors even while being told she has promise. Barney, on the other hand, falls into an opportunity to write articles for a journal. The novel makes clear that Glen has much more ability than Barney, but he is able to make a living at writing much earlier than Glen. It is clear from the beginning that the novel is about Glen’s rise and fall, but we are drawn in to see what happens.

A lot of characters are vividly drawn and quite Dickensian in their idiosyncrasies. It is fairly obvious that Riddell is depicting, sometimes satirically, publishers and authors she knew. Although written in 1883, the novel has observations about gender and ability that still apply today.

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