Review 2110: Classic Club Spin Result! The Saga of Gösta Berling

The Saga of Gösta Berling begins with the story of a young minister. He has been so depressed by his difficult job and his gloomy house in a remote region of Sweden that he has begun drinking, going so far as to miss some Sunday services. His parishioners have complained, so the bishop and other senior clergymen have come to his parish to attend Sunday service and dismiss him. However, that morning he is sober and gives a passionate and inspiring sermon. The clergymen question the parishioners and they suddenly have no complaints. So, the clergymen give the minister a talking-to and depart. The young minister is Gösta Berling, and now he resolves to reform, to stop drinking and dedicate his life to others. But then one of his old drinking buddies, who drove away with the clergymen, tells him they won’t bother him again. He has given them a terrifying sleigh ride to the station and then threatened them. Gösta knows they won’t believe he didn’t have a hand in it. So, off he goes to become a defrocked priest, a vagrant wandering in the wilderness.

This bit is typical of what we find in this episodic novel, situations apparently resolved for the good, only to end in some ironic twist. It is an unusual novel, and the only thing I can think of that it reminds me of is Peer Gynt, except that Peer Gynt didn’t seem to have good intentions.

Years later, we find Gösta at Ekeby, the home of the majoress. She has a sad past but for years now has ruled Ekeby and its iron mines and farms through having married the major. She has given free room and board, indeed a wing of her house, to 12 cavaliers, who are required to do nothing except enjoy themselves and raise hell. The only catch is that each year, one of them dies. Gösta is one of the cavaliers.

On Christmas Eve, a “black gentleman” emerges from the chimney during the cavaliers’ party and convinces them that everything wrong with their lives is the fault of the majoress, that she has made a pact with the devil to get power. He particularly convinces Gösta even though the majoress rescued him from poverty. They make a pact with him to have control of Ekeby for one year, and if one of them acts unlike a cavalier in that time, he will have all their souls. So, on Christmas Day the cavaliers drive the majoress out of her house to wander the countryside.

This event is only two or three chapters into the book, but by this time there had already been several episodes in which Gösta proved himself charismatic but mercurial and unreliable. I was getting disgusted with him and took a break from the novel.

But coming back to it, I began to appreciate Lagerlöf’s extravagant prose style and vivid descriptions. It’s clear that she loves the Värmland area of Sweden, which was her home and the setting of the novel. Plus, I got more involved in the action of the novel, which has the feel of stories of the past being told around a fire.

Still, I found Lagerlöf’s idea of a fitting ending as well as the religious overtones fairly off-putting. So, a so-so for Gösta. I read this novel for my Classics Club list.

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Review 2109: Orphans of the Carnival

After reading Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie, I had high expectations for Orphans of the Carnival, especially as it had in common the carnival setting. However, my reactions to this novel were much more mixed.

The subject of the novel is a woman who really existed, Julia Pastrana, a 19th century performer. Julia was more than a performer, though. She was a famous “freak” at a time when such shows were popular. She is described only here and there and in pieces so that we slowly get an idea of what she looked like, but she was labeled an ape-woman, among other names.

The novel opens as Julia has decided to take up a showman’s offer and leave her home in Mexico, where she works as a servant, to travel to New Orleans to work in a sideshow. But her hunger for travel and adventure is stifled, because her boss wants her to stay out of view except when she’s on exhibit, discouraging her from even walking around heavily veiled, as she usually does.

Julia eventually changes agents and quickly becomes world famous, being an accomplished performer and speaking several languages. But she yearns for a fulfilling private life.

The trouble is, Birch didn’t succeed in making Julia an interesting personality. This problem may be because she was a real person and Birch didn’t want to take too many liberties, but sometimes I want to say to authors, “Your characters aren’t inherently interesting even if you put them in interesting situations. You have to make them interesting.” Further, she doesn’t do much with the carnival setting.

Birch also uses at least one anachronism when she puts Julia in pantyhose. Pantyhose wasn’t actually invented until 1959 and was called “panty legs” at first. The term “pantyhose” didn’t become common until the mid-1960’s.

There is also a present-time story about a woman who fills her apartment with lots of odd objects she’s picked up. There seems to be no connection between the two story lines until the very end of the book. However, when they do link up, the connecting is haunting.

The end of the novel is very much the best part of the book, but otherwise I had trouble staying with it and read two other books in between starting and finishing it. This for me means I am having trouble concentrating on the one I’m reading.

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Review 2101: A House in Bloomsbury

Dora Mannering is a little brat when we first meet her at 16. She and her father are tenants of a house in Bloomsbury. They are not wealthy—he is a scientist who works at a museum—and they occupy three rooms although the rooms are well-appointed. Dora has no understanding of what it means to be very poor and disdains thoughts of money.

Dora doesn’t remember her mother, and her father never speaks of her. Someone sends her a box of gifts once a year, anonymously, and he is not happy when it arrives.

Dora’s father becomes very ill, which throws Dora more into the company of others in the household. Miss Bethune is one, a wealthy Scottish spinster who lives with her maid. Dr. Roland, who believes he could treat Mr. Mannering’s illness better than the expensive society doctor called in, is another.

Then a strange lady appears, or rather, her envoy, a young man, who approaches Miss Bethune with a request that she receive the lady and invite Dora over at the same time. It’s not too hard to guess who the lady is, but the circumstances of the original separation also come out.

Miss Bethune also has a secret.

I’m not sure if this novel would have been considered a sensation novel in its time, because the secrets don’t turn out to be that shocking, but there are a few emotional scenes and two different women who are hysterical at times. However, the novel features likable characters and has a satisfying ending. The heroine grows up, and people are kind to each other.

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Review 2099: The Eustace Diamonds

The Eustace Diamonds is the third of Anthony Trollope’s Palliser series and the least political so far. In fact, although it contains a few political discussions, it is really a social commentary and satire.

The beautiful Lizzie married Florian Eustace for money, while Florian married for love. Lizzie, being mercenary, deceitful, and immoral, broke his heart, and he, being very ill, died before Lizzie was even 21, leaving her with the Eustace heir, her son.

Lizzie is left very well off, with a yearly income and Portray Castle for life. However, the Eustace’s upright solicitor, Mr. Camperdown, notices that Lizzie has not returned the Eustace family diamonds to the estate. Repeated requests for the return of the diamonds meet with no reply.

Lizzie has recently engaged herself to Lord Fawn, an engagement his family is not really happy about, because they think Lizzie is a woman of few morals—and they are right. But Lord Fawn is attracted to her beauty and is also not very well off. However, when Lord Fawn hears rumors that Lizzie is keeping family jewelry that doesn’t belong to her, he begins to back off. His position in the government doesn’t warrant any scandal.

The Fawn’s governess, whom they dearly love, is Lucy Morris, a childhood friend of Lizzie’s. Around this time, Lizzie’s cousin, Frank Greystock, proposes to Lucy despite his family’s disapproval. They have nothing against Lucy but wish Frank, for the sake of his profession, would marry a girl with some money.

When Lizzie begins having trouble about the diamonds, she turns to Frank. Although he knows on some level that she is a liar, she is able to charm him and make him sympathetic to her. She lies about the circumstances in which she received the necklace from her husband—circumstances that make a legal difference—and he begins to think Lord Fawn is a dastard for trying to back out of the engagement. Lizzie wonders if she wouldn’t rather marry Frank.

In many ways, this novel resembles Vanity Fair, as Lizzie tries to make her way in society, although with ultimately less success and less sympathy from me. Lizzie gets involved with some dubious characters and eventually there are not one but two robberies. A very interesting and unusual side plot for this age involves Lizzie’s friend Mrs. Carbuncle, who is trying to marry off her niece, Lucinda, to Sir Griffin Tewett before she completely runs out of money. Lucinda doesn’t want to marry any man at all and certainly not Sir Griffin, who appears to only want her when she is rejecting him. It’s sad that in his time the only way Trollope can resolve this plot is to have Lucinda run mad, almost but not quite like the Bride of Lammermoor, to whom there are references in the text. Still, it was interesting to me that at this period of literature, Trollope includes an attractive young woman who doesn’t want to marry as one of his characters.

Trollope skillfully engages us with lots of questions. Will Lizzie keep the diamonds? Will Frank keep his engagement? Which of eventually four men with Lizzie marry?

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Review 2086: Beyond the Rice Fields

I was looking forward to reading Beyond the Rice Fields as the second book set in Madagascar that I’ve recently read (the other was Red Island House) but even more so as the first book ever translated from Malagasy into English. It is set during a fascinating period in the 19th century.

The child Tsito has been a slave since his family were killed or sold into slavery, but his luck changes when he is bought by Rado, a trader in zebu who travels all over the country. He purchases Tsito more as a companion for his young daughter Fara, the product of an unmarried union with Bao, a very beautiful dancer. So, Tsito grows up in a family unit with Fara, Bao, and Bebe, Bao’s mother.

When he is older, Tsito learns to read from foreign missionaries, and this makes him valuable to Andriantsitoha, the provincial lord. He takes Tsito to the City of Thousands to work for him. Tsito is hoping to earn his freedom, because he is in love with Fara. However, the political situation is looking more uncertain since rule of the kingdom was forcibly seized by the Sovereign Queen after the death of the Sovereign King. Powerful lords are taking land away from others who seem to have no judicial recourse, and Andriantsitoha has very little power in the city. The country becomes more chaotic, as a backlash against Christianity leads to large-scale denunciations and slaughter.

I know nothing about the history of Madagascar, so I probably would have found this novel fascinating except for issues that may or may not be cultural. It was hard for me to know. I often found myself confused about the larger picture because except for the final dramatic scenes in the last 50 pages of the book, Naivo doesn’t explain what’s going on very clearly. He tends to only bring in information or characters when he needs them, and if then, doesn’t really give them much dimension. For example, some of the children that Fara and Tsito play with become important later in the book, but he hardly mentions them as children and doesn’t show you what they are like, except the bully.

The narrative point of view switches between Tsito and Fara, and Fara spends a lot of time recounting stories and thinking about some family curse that is never fully explained. So, during the first half or so of the novel, I wasn’t always sure whether we were in the past or the present.

In general, I felt that Naivo had a problem knowing what to tell and when.

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Review 2085: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher

Last summer, my husband and I watched a set of programs on BritBox—not a series but separate movies each with the title “The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher” and a different subtitle. When I looked at the credits, the name Kate Summerscale rang a bell, and I realized I had read her book The Wicked Boy about a Victorian true crime. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is also nonfiction, about a famous Victorian murder and the detective whose career was nearly destroyed by the case.

In June 1860, the Kent family awakened to find three-year-old Saville Kent missing. Searches of the property eventually located him under the seat of an outside privy with his throat cut. A window of the dining room was ajar.

The initial investigation was botched, with local police assuming the crime was committed by a servant or outsider, and even hiding some potential evidence. John Whicher, a top detective in the newly formed detective department, was assigned to the case after two weeks, as a result of reported bungling.

Mr. Whicher was thorough in his investigation despite lack of cooperation and even obstruction by the local officials. He concluded that Saville was murdered by his 16-year-old sister, Constance (this is not a spoiler because this information comes out fairly early in the book), but felt he didn’t have enough proof to make an arrest. However, the local magistrates pushed him into it.

It is the national reaction to the crime and Mr. Whicher’s suspicions that Summerscale concentrates on, as well as telling what happened to the principals later. This is a really interesting book, relating how Mr. Whicher was a model for early fictional detectives and how this case affected early crime fiction.

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Review 2063: Can You Forgive Her?

Can You Forgive Her? is the first of Trollope’s Palliser novels. Phineas Finn, which I read first, is the second. Palliser doesn’t actually appear in this novel until page 150, but then he plays an important role.

At issue in this novel are three romances, which explore the theme of who has the power in courtship and marriage. The most important is that of Alice Vavasor, and as I read her story, I couldn’t help reflecting how different it reads now. Alice is in love with and engaged to John Grey, but she feels that he is too perfect. Further, she is inclined to marry a man in politics while he prefers a retired life in the country.

As Trollope explains it, she overthinks her impending marriage. She goes on a trip to Switzerland with her cousin Kate Vavasor and Kate’s brother George. Years before, Alice was engaged to George but he somehow betrayed her and the engagement was broken off. But Kate is determined that Alice will marry George. George seems indifferent, but he frankly needs Alice’s money for a run for parliament. Slowly, though, readers learn that George is a scoundrel.

Another love triangle involves Alice’s cousin Lady Glencora. Lady Glencora is newly married to Plantagenet Palliser, the heir to the Duke of Omnium. Lady Glencora, a great heiress, is very young, and she was madly in love with Burgo Fitzgerald, a young wastrel. Her horrified relatives quickly pushed her into a marriage with Palliser, but he doesn’t have much in common with her and doesn’t know how to handle her. Lady Glencora befriends Alice and confides in her that Burgo wants her to run away with him. She is unhappy enough to be tempted.

The final love triangle is a comic one. Kate Vavasor’s Aunt Mrs. Greenow is a wealthy widow who has two suitors. Mr. Cheeseacre is a vulgar wealthy farmer who talks about his money all the time. The other is Captain Bellfield, who has some style and panache but probably isn’t a captain and has no money.

Modern audiences may have problems with some of the assumptions of this novel, but I always try to keep modern judgements out of my opinion of older novels. I found this novel interesting and especially got involved in Alice’s situation. She is so honest yet so misguided that it made her story intriguing. I was a little bored with the comic romance, although it dealt with some of the same issues as the other relationships.

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Review 2054: #1929 Club! A High Wind in Jamaica

For some reason, I always thought A High Wind in Jamaica, which I read for the 1929 Club, was a children’s adventure story. Boy, was I wrong. Much of the book’s power derives from the contrast between its light-hearted, jaunty tone and its subject matter. The novel is frequently compared with Lord of the Flies, which should give you some idea of its effect.

No timeframe is given for this novel except that it is after the British outlawed slavery, but I assume it’s sometime in the 19th century. The Thornton children have grown up in a crumbling old house in a ruinous Jamaica running wild, and let’s just say that being kind to animals doesn’t seem to be a concept they’re familiar with. In the case of Emily, from whose point of view we follow the action, it seems to have put her so far into her dreamy imaginary world that she’s sometimes unaware of reality. At least that’s one way to look at it. In any case, the children are nearly feral.

When Emily is 10, a hurricane strikes the island and the roof of their house is torn off. Mr. and Mrs. Thornton finally figure out that Jamaica might not be a suitable place to raise their children. So, they duly put them on a ship for England. On the ship as well are an older girl, Margaret Fernandez, and her brother. Except for Emily, the children aren’t differentiated much, so I lost track of how many there were or who belonged to which family.

The ship is attacked by pirates, or attacked isn’t the right word because the pirates trick their way onboard. While they are questioning the captain about where his money is, they take the children over to the pirate ship. It seems as if this was meant to be temporary, but as soon as the pirates leave the ship, the captain takes off, leaving the children behind. He returns to tell a grisly tale of a violent encounter in which the children were killed.

The pirates are sort of bumbling and down-at heel, but they are not unkind to the children. But as a long dreamy period at sea continues, a feeling of dread grows, especially after Emily’s younger brother dies in an accident. The other children almost immediately forget him, and there is worse to come.

This is a beautiful, disturbing novel. I am not sure I believe some of the behavior of the children, but on the other hand, I’ve seen how children in my own family forget they’ve done things after a period has intervened.

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Review 2049: Hester

When I was reading Hester, I reflected that it might more aptly be named Catherine. However, at the time it was written (published in 1883), many novels were named after their young and beautiful heroines. Catherine is neither young nor beautiful, but almost every action in this book refers back to her.

When Catherine Vernon was a young woman, she was engaged to marry John Vernon, her cousin and co-owner of Vernon’s, the family bank. The entire community is proud of Vernon’s, which is considered more trustworthy even than the Bank of England. John jilted Catherine to marry a gentle foolish woman, called Mrs. John in the novel. Later, John got the bank into financial difficulties and fled, presumably also embezzling some money. Although Catherine never had anything to do with the workings of the bank, she used her personal fortune to rescue it and took over its management.

Some years later, John Vernon has died, leaving his wife and daughter Hester destitute. Catherine has divided one of her properties into apartments and offered them to relatives who need them, so she kindly offers a home to Mrs. John and Hester. Hester, at fourteen, knows nothing about her father’s perfidy and is very proud. She notices that some of Catherine’s dependents are both sycophantic and ungrateful but also that their behavior amuses Catherine. Hester is offended by this and tends to misjudge Catherine. Since Hester is sulky and rude, Catherine misjudges her, and they proceed to misunderstand each other.

Catherine has brought two young cousins in to learn to run the bank, and by the time Hester is a young woman, they are in charge of it. Henry is a hard worker and is grateful to Catherine for the opportunity, but he is only moderately intelligent and depends on Edward for difficult decisions. Catherine has come to love Edward like a son and has given him a place to live in her own home. What she doesn’t know is that his apparent regard is false. He is bored at the bank and wants to be able to make his own fortune (presumably using the bank’s money to start it). He also misjudges Catherine and thinks she spies on him.

Hester grows into a beautiful independent woman who is used to being ignored and disregarded. However, she has an unusual relationship with Edward, who ignores her when Catherine is around because Catherine doesn’t like her but exchanges cryptic looks and comments with her.

The reader knows this behavior is ungentlemanly as is his two-faced behavior with Catherine, but while the steadfast Harry proposes to Hester and is refused, and she is briefly attracted to a young stockbroker, grandson to her neighbors, she eventually falls in love with Edward.

This is an insightful novel about complex human relationships. I really think Margaret Oliphant, especially with this novel, is right up there with George Eliot and Dickens. The Introduction to my edition calls Hester Oliphant’s masterpiece, and although I have read and enjoyed several of her books but not all (who could? she was unbelievably prolific), I so far agree.

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Review 2047: Booth

Booth follows the lives of the family of John Wilkes Booth, beginning before he is born. Written from the alternating points of view of some of his siblings, it begins when Rosalie, his oldest sister, is a young girl. Her father, a famous actor, is known as much for his drunken bouts and acts of insanity as his theatrical genius. He is often away. Rosalie’s mother is in a state of depression as, one by one, several of her children have died. Rosalie herself is missing the latest one, her favorite brother, Henry.

The family lives on a farm in Maryland that is run by their black servants, the Halls. These servants are slaves—someone else’s that Junius Booth leases, but he also pays them a wage so that they can save up to free themselves. So, the Booth family’s inconsistent stance on slavery comes in right from the beginning.

This book is interesting. It follows the growth of all the Booth siblings through several shocks—the first being the discovery that their father and mother aren’t legally married. They find this out after they move to Baltimore. His legal wife tracks them down all the way from England and follows them on the street shouting horrible things. Some of them develop a fear of sullying the family honor that is eventually forever shattered.

John Wilkes Booth becomes the son favored by their mother, the handsome one, the one who can do no wrong. He is also determined to put his mark on the world but not so interested in working hard to do it.

All of the family members have their difficulties and foibles, which makes it an interesting story. Interspersed between the chapters about the Booths are short ones about Lincoln’s progress as a politician and then as President.

Fowler says she thought of this topic when thinking of the families of our recent mass murderers. That’s exactly what I thought of when reading this novel.

It’s been interesting to see how Karen Joy Fowler has been developing, from the author of a few rather negligible although readable books to what I think is still her masterpiece, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. I like that she seems to be adventurous in picking her subjects.

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