Review 1734: Effi Briest

Effi Briest is sort of a German version of Madame Bovary. It seems that the last half of the 19th century was a big time for novels about unfaithful wives. However, whereas Anna Karenina was a call for improvement in women’s rights on this issue, Effi Briest seems to accept the unfairness of the laws and societal mores. Nevertheless, I liked this novel more than Madame Bovary, which is more of a character study of a stupid woman.

Effi is only sixteen when the Baron von Instetten, an old suitor of her mother, comes calling. Within an hour, he proposes marriage and is accepted. The Baron is a civil servant, and after their marriage, he takes her home to a seaside village in upper Pomerania. The house is dark and depressing and reputedly haunted. Society is limited, and Effi, who is a gay person who likes to enjoy herself, finds only one congenial inhabitant, the local chemist. The women she has to socialize with are commonplace or spiteful. Effi feels neglected and unhappy.

After the birth of her daughter, the Crampases arrive. Major Crampas is an old schoolfriend of the Baron and a known womanizer. (I wonder if his name’s resemblance to Krampus is a coincidence, considering the Germanic origins of that character.) Although she tries to avoid it, Effi is drawn into an affair with him. When her husband gets a posting to Berlin, though, she is happy to leave and put it behind her. But it is not behind her at all.

I liked the character of Effi very much, but she is the only one in this novel who is fully drawn. The others just seem like placeholders for their actions, except for Rollo the dog. Also, the harsh reactions of everyone when they find out about the affair, even though it is long over with, seem even more extreme than Karenin’s in Anna Karenina.

Even though this novel is 20 years more recent than Anna Karenina, having been published in 1895, it has a much more rigid and judgmental message despite Effi being a sympathetic character. As a person, I liked Effi better than silly Emma Bovary or naïve Anna Karenina, but I found the novel a bit punitive. Fontane was reacting in it to a story he heard of a similar event in which he was struck by the lack of surprise or dismay expressed by society at the harsh treatment of the woman involved, so he is combining an approach to our sympathy with Realism in this novel.

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Review 1728: A Sin of Omission

A Sin of Omission opens with Stephen Mzamane making a long journey to see his best friend, Albert Newnham, across the region known in the 19th century as Kaffraria on the Cape of South Africa. During this journey, the novel looks back on his life.

Picked up as a starving child in the bush by Reverend Basil Rutherford, Stephen is raised at a mission to become an Anglican priest. Once his family learns where he is, his father brings his older son, Mzamo, there too, reasoning that the boys will not succeed unless they learn to be English. The Ngqika tribe has been driven off its lands by the British, and because of a prophecy that foretold the British would leave if the people destroyed their crops and animals, his father has killed his cattle and burned his crops. Although he is an important man, he has to work on the roads to avoid starving.

The Church is making it a practice to raise the sons of important natives as British clerics in an attempt to convert the people. Both Stephen and Mzamo are intended for this program. However, Mzamo is rebellious while Stephen is dedicated and devout, so Mzamo is ejected from the program.

Stephen is eventually sent to Canterbury to be educated at the Missionary College. There, although he is a fish out of water, he becomes best friends with a fellow student, Albert Newnham. Unfortunately for this friendship, Albert eventually chooses to marry a girl who is completely unsuited to be a missionary’s wife and is racist.

Things begin to go wrong after the young men take an ill-considered shortcut so as not to be late for tea, but Stephen only begins to learn the fruits of this event when he returns to Africa. Although he still needs to pass Greek and Latin exams to become a priest, unlike his white fellows, he is given a post far from any libraries or tutors. The job he expected to get working at the missionary college with his beloved Mfundisi Turvey, principal of that college, eventually goes to Albert. Instead of being give a post together, as promised, they are separated. In fact, Stephen is alone because the nearest cleric to his post is racist.

Stephen is also no longer a part of his own people, although his brother plays a large part in his fate. The major events of this novel are initiated when he learns of his brother’s death.

This novel is partially based on the life of Stephen Mtutuko Mnyakama, a missionary of the Anglican Church of the Holy Trinity. Although it didn’t initially pull me in, I eventually found it absorbing and heart-rending. This is a novel I probably wouldn’t have discovered had it not been for my Walter Scott project.

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Review 1723: A Fugue in Time

Godden attempts something unusual in A Fugue in Time. She makes a house that has held the same family for a century into a sort of conscious entity and tells the story of the family in collapsing time.

It’s World War II, and old Rolls Dane has received notice that the 99-year lease on his house has elapsed and the owners want it back. The house was the one his parents moved into upon their marriage, and it has been the scene of many events, including his own unhappy love affair.

Rolls has been leading a reclusive life with only one servant left in the big house, and he is not pleased when his great niece, Grizel, an American officer, comes to ask if she can stay in the house. Later, Pax Masterson, an RAF officer being treated for burns, comes to visit the house that he’s heard about all his life from his mother, Lark, the girl Rolls’s father brought home many years before after her parents died in a railway accident.

Although I eventually got involved in this novel, its basic premise seemed at first affected and I didn’t think it was going to work. Early on, for example, there is a five- or six-page description of the house that slowed momentum to a standstill. Then, the shifts in time sometimes take place within the same paragraph, and at first it’s hard to grasp the when. There are some cues, for example Rolls’s name changes from Roly to Rollo to Rolls.

This is not one of my favorite Godden books, but the idea behind it is an interesting one. It reminded me a little of A Harp in Lowndes Square, in which images and sounds of the future and past reside in a house.

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Review 1719: The Nonesuch

Often when I am in the middle of some hefty nonfiction book, I take a break by reading some sort of light fiction. I was reading a biography of Lyndon Johnson when I thought I hadn’t read any Georgette Heyer lately, so I picked The Nonesuch out of my library.

The inhabitants of the village of Oversett are all interested when they hear that Sir Waldo Hawkridge, known as the Nonesuch, has inherited Broom Hall from the miserly Joseph Calver and will be arriving to look it over. The young men are excited to see this notable whip. Up at Staples, kindly Mrs. Underhill is dismayed to learn that Sir Waldo has arrived with a lord, his young cousin Lord Lindeth, for her unprincipled but beautiful ward, Tiffany Wield, has announced that she means to marry into the nobility. Tiffany’s governess/companion, Ancilla Trent, remarks with her customary humor and calmness that they will just have to convince Tiffany she is wasted on anyone under a Marquess.

Lord Lindeth meets Tiffany after she carefully arranges an encounter while he is out fishing. When Waldo sees her and her affect on Lindeth, he is dismayed. However, he is much struck by Ancilla. It is Ancilla who does not have a high opinion of Corinthians, the set to which Waldo belongs.

As usual with Heyer, this novel is full of likeable characters, humor, and an engaging hero and heroine. I tend to like Heyer’s sillier plots best, because they are so funny. This is not one of them, but I enjoyed it very much just the same. A perfect Covid-era lightener. (I re-read it last January.)

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Review 1695: The Bridge of the Gods

A friend who knew I was writing a story set locally before the arrival of white men gave me The Bridge of the Gods, which was written in 1899 as a result of Balch’s years of collecting Native American folklore and customs in Oregon. The novel is based on a legend about a bridge of stone across the Columbia.

The novel begins in 17th century Massachusetts, where Reverend Cecil Grey feels the mission to preach Christianity to the indigenous people of the West and dreams of a huge stone bridge over a river. His wife having died, he sets off to do just that, accompanied by his Native American nurse.

Eight years later, Multnomah, chief of the Willamette tribe, decides to test his allies. His tribe is the leader of a confederation united against their enemies, the Spokanes and the Shoshoni. The ascendancy of the Willamettes is prophecied to last until the Bridge of the Gods, a massive stone arch over the Columbia River, is destroyed. However, Multnomah has been hearing that some tribes want to leave the confederation. He decides to summon all of the tribes for a great council on Wappatta Island (now Sauvie Island).

Multnomah has a beautiful daughter, Wallulah, whose mother was an Asiatic princess shipwrecked at the mouth of the Columbia. Multnomah wants to betroth her to Snohomish, chief of the Cayuses, to cement their alliance. Wallulah, having seen Snohomish once, is not averse—until Cecil Grey comes on the scene.

I didn’t expect much from the attitudes of this book, considering when it was written, and I didn’t get much. Despite the young Balch having been interested enough to travel around and interview indigenous people, they are referred to constantly as savages, their traditions are treated with abhorrence, their villages are described as degraded, they are shown as violent and cruel. Even Multnomah, who compared to Snohomish is a good guy, is depicted as obdurate and cruel. Grey’s faithful nurse doesn’t even have a name.

Only Wallulah escapes this treatment, but note that she is half “Asiatic” (and a confused half at that, for her mother is said to have taught the Willamettes something about Buddha but calls god Allah). Her mother is described as white. Wallulah is herself a typical late 19th century romantic heroine, fragile and weak and a completely unlikely indigenous woman.

Although this novel is billed as a romance, Grey’s struggle is between his mission and Wallulah (even though they do not seem mutually exclusive), and since Grey is a zealot, Wallulah doesn’t have much of a chance. This is actually a romance in the older sense of the word, an adventure novel.

Since Balch went to so much trouble to personally speak to indigenous peoples and collect stories, I was hoping this book would be a little more enlightened—say, perhaps, written by someone who actually liked the people. It wasn’t. If you’re interested in an older book based in the life of indigenous peoples, I recommend The Loon Feather.

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Review 1671: Now We Shall Be Entirely Free

In 1809 during the Napoleonic Wars , Captain John Lacroix returns from Spain ill and wounded. As he recovers, something is troubling him, but we don’t know what. Before he has fully recovered, he is summoned back to his regiment, but instead of returning, he sets out on a journey to the Scottish islands.

Back in Spain, a tribunal is being held about the sacking of a Spanish village by British troops. On the word of one man, Corporal Calley, the tribunal finds Captain Lecroix guilty of being the officer in charge of those troops and the man who cut off the hair of an innocent woman. The Colonel then sends Calley to find and kill Lecroix accompanied by a Spanish officer, Lieutenant Medina, to make sure he does it.

As Lacroix unwittingly travels to a small island and becomes involved with the people living there, Calley pursues him, behaving like a deranged animal to the innocent people he thinks may know where Lacroix is. Lacroix certainly has a shameful secret about war, but is it what he is being pursued for?

This novel is atmospheric and deeply engaging. As it nears its conclusion, it is also truly exciting. Although I did wonder how likely it was that the army would have sent an execution squad against one of their officers, the novel is a wonderfully written adventure story that reflects on the nature of war and redemption. I read it for my Walter Scott prize project.

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Review 1670: Classics Club Spin Result! The Brothers Karamazov

I selected The Brothers Karamazov for my Classics club list because I read it many years ago for Russian Literature and found it fascinating. I was curious how I would regard it now.

The plot of the novel is seemingly straightforward, but it is complicated by the characters’ relationships and several subplots, some of which are only tangentially related. Fyodor Karamazov has three sons whom as children he left to be raised by the servants. The oldest, Dmitri (or Mitya), is an ex-soldier whom Fyodor has cheated of part of his inheritance from his mother. Now, although Dmitri is engaged to Katarina, a girl of high moral values, he has fallen madly in love with Grushenka, a girl with an unsavory past, and Fyodor is trying to compete for her. The second oldest, Ivan, is a cold intellectual atheist. The third son, Alexei or Alyosha, is studying to be a monk.

In my old Penguin Classics edition, the novel is split into two volumes. It is not until the second volume that the action takes place that is the centerpiece of the novel. Fyodor is murdered. Mitya has been working himself into a frenzy and making threats so is immediately the prime suspect. Did Mitya kill his father or was it someone else? If so, who?

We readers know what Mitya did that night, so we can answer the first part of that question but not the second part, at least not right away. Dostoevsky (I’m going to use the spelling of his name that I’m accustomed to, and that indeed is on my old Penguin copy rather than the one shown on the title page above) isn’t interested so much in that but in what happens next. And ultimately he is engaged in pitting atheism against belief in God.

In my student days, I found the long philosophical passages in this novel fascinating. These days, I don’t have as much patience with them and I actually skipped a couple of chapters once I got their drift. The amount of time spent on Father Zossima, for example, a relatively minor character who dies in Book One, is a little inexplicable to me now. I can’t help feeling he might have been based on a real person whom Dostoevsky revered, but his presence in the novel doesn’t seem important enough to warrant several chapters being devoted to his life and sayings.

This is not to say that I didn’t find the novel compelling. Although it is long and sometimes difficult, there was something about it that made me want to keep reading it.

The novel is written with an unusual approach to point of view. The narrator is an unidentified person from “our town.” But the narrator is privy to scenes he could not possibly have witnessed. Yet, the point of view is not omniscient. For example, we see what Mitya does on the night of the murder even though there is no actual witness to that, but we don’t see the murder.

As usual with Dostoevsky, most of his characters are in a frenzy. Were 19th century Russians really this excited? Well, they’re not in Tolstoy, but most of Tolstoy’s characters are upper class, while Dostoevsky’s are not. So, I don’t know whether this is a class difference or a difference in the author’s perceptions or what. And speaking of class, the attitude toward peasants here is not great, and there are also other politically incorrect comments on occasion. Just a warning.

The Brothers Karamazov is considered Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, so if you are interested in Russian literature, you should definitely read it. Dostoevsky’s preoccupations are not mine, however, and I think even less so as I get older. I couldn’t help parsing some of the arguments and thinking about an implicit slant to them. The best example is an assumption—a sort of cognitive leap—that is very important to the plot and is stated several times by different characters. The cognitive leap is that if God doesn’t exist, “everything is permitted.” Only one character questions this assumption—that there is nothing within humans besides religion to stop them from doing horrendous things. But his suggestion is brushed aside because Dostoevsky wants you to conclude that there is a God and his arguments don’t work as well if you believe in inner goodness or inherently moral or ethical behavior. I guess.

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Review 1662: The Poison Thread

Dorothea Trueblood is a youngish Victorian heiress who prefers to spend her days pursuing charitable causes rather than in socializing. Her conservative father wants her to marry as highly as possible, but she has secretly engaged herself to a police constable. Something keeps her from breaking the news to her father, even though she is of age.

She is fascinated by phrenology, so one of her charities is Oakgate Prison, where she visits prisoners in hopes of measuring their heads. Therefore, she is excited when Ruth Butterham, a young maid who murdered her employer, comes to the prison.

Ruth begins to tell Dottie her story, and it’s not long before Dottie realizes that Ruth is telling her she killed people by putting bad thoughts into the sewing she was doing for them. Dottie doesn’t find an enlarged organ of deceit in Ruth, but she can only assume she is lying.

This gothic novel has quite a lot going for it. It pins you to the page while you wonder where it is going. I was suspicious of Dottie at first, thinking her interest in Ruth a bit salacious. But I liked Ruth more. This is quite a nice dark book.

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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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