Review 2004: Classics Club Spin Result! Phineas Finn

When I put Phineas Finn on my Classics Club list, I was just looking for a book by Trollope that I hadn’t read. I didn’t realize it was the second of the Palliser novels, so now I’m going to have to go back and read the first.

Against the advice of his father and his mentor, Mr. Low, Phineas Finn has been persuaded by friends to run for Parliament even though he has just recently finished his law studies. The difficulty is that he has no money and Parliamentary representatives aren’t paid, so his father, who is a country doctor, will have to continue to support him unless he can get a paid government position.

Nevertheless, he goes ahead and gets “elected” as member for an Irish pocket borough, where the lord who awards it has feuded with his son, the incumbent. So, Phineas begins his career.

One of his friends who has encouraged him in politics is Lady Laura Standish, a young woman who takes a great interest in politics. Although she had some fortune, she gave it away to her brother, Lord Chiltern, to pay off his debts in the hopes he can reconcile with his father, the Earl of Brentford. Both the Earl and Lady Laura are encouraging about Phineas’s career, and Phineas finds himself in love with Lady Laura. However, he has a rival, Mr. Kennedy, who is stiff and formal but very rich.

The novel details Phineas’s Parliamentary career as well as his friendships with several young ladies as he looks for a wife. It is thoughtful about the choices for women at this time and deals with the consequences when Lady Laura makes the wrong choice of husband. Another character, Laura’s best friend Violet Effingham, is wealthy in her own right and wants to remain single and run her own household but finds she is not allowed to. Finally, there is Marie Max Goesler, an intriguing character. She is a wealthy widow who is known for her select parties. She is an admitted social climber, but she takes a great interest in Phineas’s career.

Phineas himself is a likable fellow who sometimes seems a little suggestible but by and large works hard and leads an ethical life. I enjoyed this book very much. The only thing I found disappointing was that of the four women he considers marrying, he ends up with the least interesting and most insipid.

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Review 1896: Sense and Sensibility

When I was making up my current Classics Club list, I realized I hadn’t reread any Austen for a while. So, I picked Sense and Sensibility.

When Mr. Dashwood was dying, he made his son John promise to take care of his second wife and daughters, since he was unable to leave them anything due to an entail. John makes this promise with good intentions and tells his wife he will give each of them £1000, but she talks him out of each of his suggestions until he gives them nothing.

On a very small budget, then, Mrs. Dashwood must find a new home for herself and her three daughters, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret. Just as things are getting unbearable at the shared home, a relative of Mrs. Dashwood, Sir John Middleton, offers the women a cottage in Devonshire at a low rate.

Elinor regrets leaving her home all the more because she has developed what she believes is a shared attachment with her brother-in-law, Edward Ferrars. But Mrs. John Dashwood wants her brother as far away from Elinor as possible. Both she and her mother plan for him to marry well.

Relocated to their new home, the Dashwoods find their neighbors, the Middletons, and Mrs. Jennings, Mrs. Middleton’s mother, to be almost overly friendly.

One day Marianne and Margaret are caught out in a rainstorm and Marianne sprains her ankle skidding down a grassy hill. A gentleman rescues her, and he, Mr. Willoughby, becomes a frequent visitor. It is clear he is attracted to Marianne, and she, having fully adopted the ideals of Romanticism, shows plainly that she’s in love with him. Meanwhile, Elinor wonders why she isn’t hearing from Edward.

This novel is about two sisters who deal with unhappy love affairs in opposite ways and the result. It has vividly believable characters, some funny, and in its own way constitutes a sharp social satire. This novel is one of my favorites by Austen.

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Review 1895: The Magician

Although I’ve only read one work by Thomas Mann, I still found The Magician, based on Mann’s life and writings, interesting. Although Mann himself often seems inert in this novel, he lived in interesting times, during both world wars.

The novel covers Mann’s life from a young man who is dispossessed by his father to his relocation from California to Switzerland in his 70’s. It examines the thinking behind his greatest works and although fairly meditative in tone, has some excitement during the Mann’s flight from Nazi Germany.

In some ways The Magician is reminiscent of The Master, Tóibín’s novel about Henry James, with Mann fantasizing about young men but never acting on those fantasies after a couple of abortive encounters. The difference is that James seemed almost unaware of his own proclivities. Mann still managed to have a long, successful marriage with his wife Katia.

Tóibín’s biographical fiction always seems intuitive and thoughtful to me. I enjoyed this one despite my lack of knowledge about its subject. I read this novel for my Walter Scott Prize project.

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Review 1851: The House of Whispers

Hester Why travels to the Cornish coast to take up a position as a lady’s maid. Right away, we know something is wrong, because Hester is traveling under an assumed name and is drinking. When she arrives at Morvoren House, it seems a strange household. The mistress, Louise Pinecroft, is a frail woman who hardly speaks and refuses to leave a drawing room full of china, even though the room is freezing. Aside from an adopted daughter who, although adult, is treated like a child, there are only servants, including Creeda, a disturbing woman who is obsessed with fairies.

Forty years earlier, Louise Pinecroft and her father arrive at Morvoren House. Dr. Pinecroft has purchased the house because it sits above some caves on a beach. He has a theory that clean, damp sea air could cure consumptives, so he has arranged for some consumptive convicts to live in huts built in the caves below the house. Neither Louise nor her father is thinking very clearly, because their entire family recently died of consumption, after which Dr. Pinecroft lost all his patients because he couldn’t save his family.

This gothic novel is set in two unnamed periods, most likely in the 19th century. It is about two women whose need to be needed basically shipwrecks their lives. It is fairly creepy, although I thought the ending was kind of all over the place. Still, Purcell knows how to write a page-turner.

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Review 1850: Simon the Fiddler

I read Enemy Women a while back, another Jiles novel set during the American Civil War. Simon the Fiddler is set towards the end of the war and in its aftermath.

Simon Boudlin is a master fiddler who has been playing in East Texas trying to dodge the conscription men. He has a dream of earning enough money to buy a piece of land and settle down with a wife. However, the conscription men get him, and he finds himself toward the end of the war on Brazos de Santiago in the Confederate Army.

The men are soon in a strange position, because the war is officially over but no one has disbanded them. Then for no apparent reason, the Union army attacks them, resulting in many casualties. Later, we learn the attack was made because Union General Web wanted to earn some glory in battle. The Confederates manage to gain back their island, and then they surrender.

Simon, along with several other musicians, is asked to play for the officers during a celebration of the end of the war. So, it’s a mixed group of Union and Confederate musicians who play. Then, Simon spots a girl. She’s the Irish governess for General Webb’s daughter. Her name is Doris, and Simon learns that the General doesn’t let any young men near her.

Simon teams up with three of the musicians to form a band. Their plan is to go to Galveston and make money. So, they steal a boat and navigate to the ruined city of Galveston—Simon; Patrick, a boy boudrain player; Damon, a penny whistle player; and Dorotheo, a guitarist. But all the time, Simon is planning to buy his land and marry Doris.

This is a wandering tale full of incident and the flavor of a largely untamed Texas. It is written sparely, with occasional lyrical descriptions of the beauty of the Texas landscape. I liked this novel a lot and plan to look for more by Jiles, particularly News of the World, which I have managed to miss.

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Review 1846: Classics Club Spin Book! The Dead Secret

The latest Classics Club Spin ended up with The Dead Secret as the book I should read. It is Wilkie Collins’ first full-length novel but unfortunately not his best.

Mrs. Treverton is on her deathbed at Porthgenna Tower, but she has a secret. She wants to disclose it to her husband but can’t bring herself to do it. So, she forces her maid, Sarah Leeson, to write it down. She makes Sarah promise not to destroy the confession or remove it from the house, but she dies before she can make her promise to give it to her husband. So, Sarah hides it in a ruined wing of the house and then flees.

Fifteen or sixteen years later, Mrs. Treverton’s daughter Rosamond is a young wife. She and her blind husband, Leonard Frankland, are on their way to Cornwall to take up residence at Porthgenna Tower, where Rosamond has not lived since she was five. They intend to renovate the house, including the ruined north wing, but they have had to stop their journey because Rosamond has gone into premature labor.

The local doctor, in seeking a nurse for the new mother and son, consults a householder only to have her housekeeper, Mrs. Jazeph, unexpectedly volunteer to do it herself. However, Mrs. Jazeph’s odd behavior that evening causes her to be dismissed. Before leaving, she tells Rosamond to stay out of the Myrtle Room.

With a ruined old mansion on the coast of Cornwall that is possibly haunted and a secret too awful to tell, this novel promises to be all that a sensation novel should be. However, Collins is clearly learning here, for this novel is dripping with sentimentality and soppiness. Moreover, the behavior of the maid (it’s not hard to guess who she is) is so exaggerated that I could hardly stand to read about her at times. Collins took Dickens for his model, and Rosamond is a typical type for Dickens—sweet, a little foolish at times, loving, needing the guidance of her morally correct husband. Without having spent enough time with Sarah for us to care much for her—in fact, at times her behavior is extremely irritating—he spends too long a time with a supposedly heart-rending scene.

The secret isn’t very hard to guess, nor are the events of the plot difficult to predict. This isn’t a terrible novel, but Collins has written better ones.

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Review 1844: Karolina and the Torn Curtain

I was interested in reading more foreign novels, so for some reason I picked Polish and then just googled a list of books. I picked a novel I thought was written by a woman only to find out that Maryla Szymiczkowa is the pseudonym for two gay men. I would scold myself for sloppy research, but I enjoyed this mystery, although it is second in a series and I prefer to start with the first. However, I don’t think you miss much if you start with this one except maybe more introduction to the main characters.

The novel is set in 1895 Crakow. Zofia Turbotyńska is the respectable wife of a professor at the Jagellonian University. However, she has another occupation—solving crimes.

Zofia’s maid Karolina has disappeared from her house without explanation, and later her body is found in the river, where she has been thrown after being shot. The autopsy reveals she has also been violated.

When Zofia investigates, she learns that Karolina had met a young man, an engineer, who wanted to marry her and take her to America. Looking into it further, it appears that Karolina was lured by a white slaver, and the police claim to have identified him and shot him during an attempted escape. But then Zofia’s other maid Franciszka sees Karolina’s boyfriend in a crowd.

This mystery is quite convoluted and also fairly witty. One of the things modern audiences will find funny are some of the “scientific” ideas of the time—for example, that educating women affects their organs so that they can’t give birth. Another is the chapter subtitles, reminiscent of those in older novels except facetious.

I enjoyed this novel but didn’t feel the characters were that compelling. I’m not sure whether I will read another one.

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Review 1843: The Shape of Darkness

Newly recovered from a vicious bout of pneumonia, Agnes is still weak, but she is so poor she has returned to her job as a silhouette maker. Her mother is ailing, and she also has her nephew Cedric to support. Then she notices that her last few customers have been murdered—their throats slit.

Pearl is an 11-year-old albino who up until recently has been appearing as a ghost in her sister Myrtle’s seances. But Pearl seems to have a gift herself, so Myrtle has been advertising her as the White Sylph. Certainly something happens when she attempts to contact the spirits. She, though, doesn’t know what, because she passes out.

Agnes, worried that someone is targeting her business, decides that Pearl can help her.

Although I have been enjoying Purcell’s novels and this one is creepily Gothic, set as it is in old, dilapidated houses in Victorian Bath, it took me a while to get into it. However, I had patience that paid off. I had lots of theories about what was going on, but there’s no way I could have guessed the truth.

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Review 1823: Murder in Old Bombay

Nev March says she was inspired to write Murder in Old Bombay by Sherlock Holmes and Kipling’s Kim. Certainly I can see the influence of the Holmes novels, if not in the hero’s deductive processes then in the complicated plot and disguises. From Kim, I hoped for a more atmospheric novel.

Captain Jim Agnihotri has retired from the army and is in the hospital recovering from serious wounds when he reads about a murder case. Two Parsee women fell or were pushed from the university bell tower, and the man charged got off because it wasn’t clear whether it was suicide or murder. Also, two other men present on the scene could not be found. Jim decides to offer himself as a journalist and investigate the case.

Having been hired, Jim goes to interview Adi Framji, whose wife and cousin were the victims of the crime. As a Eurasian, Jim is not usually accepted into either British or Indian society, but the Framjis soon accept him as a friend. Although Parsee families don’t marry outside the Zoroastrian religion, he finds himself smitten by Diana, Adi’s sister returned from London.

Jim’s investigation at first doesn’t turn up much, but even though the break in continuity seemed odd, the novel gets more interesting when he takes on a mission for the army. Indeed, he gets the opportunity to travel a bit and don several disguises.

As far as the mystery goes, this novel seems to stumble along. Jim also makes some cognitive leaps that don’t seem warranted by what has come before. For example, early on Jim concludes that the two girls who fell from the tower were being blackmailed. This turns out to be true, but where did it come from? There is nothing that comes before it to lead him to that conclusion.

The adventure portion makes the novel perk up, but otherwise I felt the effort was a little lackluster for a historical novel. March doesn’t supply much background for the historical events, nor does the reader get much sense of the sights, sounds, and smells of Victorian India, which is one of the things that makes Kim so wonderful.

Finally, although Jim is a likable character and I also liked the Framjis, I wasn’t interested in the romantic plot.

Maybe I’m making this review sound a bit too negative. I enjoyed parts of the novel, but the mystery seemed all over the place and I wanted more descriptions—of rooms, the city, the dress, the food. I wanted to feel the atmosphere of 19th century India, as a historical novel should make me do.

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Review 1801: Classics Club Dare! The Grand Sophy

The latest Classics Club Dare is to read something romantic for February, so I have chosen The Grand Sophy from my list.

When Sir Horace Stanton-Lacey unexpectedly arrives at Lord Ombersley’s home to ask his sister to take charge of his daughter Sophy for a while, he discovers a depressed household. Lord Ombersley’s gambling debts had almost overrun the establishment until his son and heir, Charles Rivenhall, inherited a fortune from a distant relative. Charles “did something with the mortgages” and paid off the debts, and now he is trying to get the household to economize.

Charles is also engaged to Eugenia Wraxton, whose outward sweetness hides a self-righteous and meddling disposition. Her plans to occupy the family home after the wedding depress everyone except Charles.

By the time Sophy arrives, the announcement of her cousin Cecilia’s engagement to Lord Charlbury has been delayed by his having contracted mumps. Cecilia now thinks herself in love with Augustus Fawnhope, a devastatingly handsome but vague young man who fancies himself a poet.

Sophy arrives like a breath of fresh air. She brings a monkey and a parrot to entertain the children, a shy greyhound, and a fabulous black steed to ride. She immediately realizes that the family needs her help. And she never shirks her obligations.

Sophy is a firecracker of a heroine, and The Grand Sophy is one of Heyer’s most beloved novels. There is lots of fun to be had as Sophy’s stratagems twist and turn the plot. The novel is a re-read for me for the Classics Club, but I loved it this time just as much as I did the first time I read it.

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