Review 1424: Little

Often I don’t read reviews attentively or more often I don’t remind myself what a book is about before reading it, so I didn’t realize for some time that Little is a fictional biography of Madame Tussaud. It is an idiosyncratic one, to be sure.

Marie, often called Little for her small stature, is familiar with loss. In 1760, when she is five, her father dies. Her mother never recovers from it, and shortly after she and her mother take up residence with Doctor Curtius, for whom her mother is employed as a servant, her mother commits suicide.

Doctor Curtius is one of many peculiar characters, Marie not excepted, who occupy the novel’s pages. He is a very odd creature, unused to others, who models body parts in wax to be studied by anatomists. Marie is not dismayed by his peculiarities and is entranced by his wonderful collection of body parts. So, he begins teaching her to draw and model objects in wax.

At Little’s suggestion, they model the entire head of some subjects. Soon, they have a business of selling heads of themselves to customers. Dr. Curtius is mistreated by the hospital, so when a traveling Frenchman, Louis-Sébastian Mercier, suggests they move to Paris from Switzerland to model great men, they do.

Shortly after they arrive in Paris, Doctor Curtius falls under the influence of their landlady, the Widow Picot, who soon has Little working for the entire family, not just Doctor Curtius, even though Little has never been paid. Madame Picot makes no secret that she would like to get rid of her. In the meantime, she and Doctor Curtius begin by modelling the heads of famous criminals. By now, the French Revolution threatens.

Little is narrated in a sprightly, whimsical fashion even when it relates things that are not so pleasant. That, and the pervading personality of its main character, are two of its charms, even as it becomes darker. This is a strange and wonderful novel.

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Review 1412: Classics Club Spin Review! The Wise Virgins

The novel selected for me by the latest Classics Club Spin is The Wise Virgins by Leonard Woolf. This semi-autobiographical novel is partially about the courtship of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, in the characters of Harry Davis and Camilla Lawrence.

Harry and his family have just moved to the London suburb of Richstead and are shortly befriended by the Garland family, which has four unmarried daughters. Harry is disdainful of life in Richstead and of the fates of the spinster daughters, given up to good works or golf and tennis. The youngest daughter, Gwen, is naïve and gives undue weight to his discontented utterances. He amuses himself by giving her books and plays to read of Dostoevsky and Shaw.

In his art class, Harry is drawn to Camilla Lawrence, a cool beauty. When she invites him home, he finds it one of ideas and stimulating conversation. Camilla has suitors, but she is less interested in marriage than in a quest for self-fulfillment. She is repeatedly alleged to be passionless.

This novel was considered somewhat shocking in its time but was notable for examining the fates of conventional young women in Edwardian England. Harry is not a likable hero nor is Camilla very knowable. I personally did not like their glib and superior dismissal of whole classes of people. I always imagine the Bloomsbury circle snidely sniping at everyone else (and behind each other’s backs), and this novel didn’t make me rethink that idea.

This is probably taking the novel out of its time, but simply the continual reference to unmarried women by Harry as virgins irritated me to no end. He is so superior and supercilious. The introduction to the book says that “virgin” was synonymous with unmarried woman to Edwardians, but clearly for Harry there’s a sneer involved. One article I read calls Harry a truth-teller, but some of the things he says seem only designed to stir people up and make him seem more like eighteen than twenty-eight. Also uncomfortable for modern readers is the antisemitism that is accepted unquestioned by Harry and his family, who are Jewish.

Finally, there are lots of references to talking in this book, and for people who are looking for a purpose in life besides marriage and other predictable fates, they aren’t doing much actual acting. I think Woolf is pointing that out, though, by the chapter headings.

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Review 1347: A Place Beyond Courage

Cover for A Place Beyond CourageIn 12th century England, John FitzGilbert is the marshal for King Henry. He is an astute politician and a masterful organizer. FitzGilbert’s comfortable position is threatened, however, after Henry’s death. Henry has made all of his men pledge fealty to his daughter, Matilda, upon the event of his death, but he does not affirm his successor before his death. Many of Henry’s men prefer to follow Stephen, Henry’s likable nephew, after his death rather than recognize Matilda as queen or even as regent for her young son, Henry. The result is the period of English history called the Anarchy.

At first, John throws in his fortunes with Stephen, but he eventually recognizes that Stephen is a weak ruler, too swayed by his closest advisers. In particular, Stephen fails to reward John for his successes in battle. So, John switches sides to Matilda, along with other discontented men.

John is also unhappy in his marriage. He married Aline, his innocent young ward. Aline is painfully shy and seems totally unsuited for her position. She takes little interest in anything but the church.

A Place Beyond Courage is moderately interesting, but I feel it suffers from a trait common to historical fiction about actual characters. It tries to follow too faithfully the events of FitzGilbert’s life, resulting in a series of brief scenes instead of a more integrated novel.

Chadwick has also taken a character historically reviled because he gave his son over as a hostage with a famous speech that boils down to “There can be more where that came from” and depicted him sympathetically. Whether he deserves this treatment is questionable. Chadwick says he is know to have been gentle with women and children, but he sets aside Aline, his wife of many years and mother of his son, a woman he married for her fortune, for Sybilla, a young, beautiful woman the marriage with whom brings peace and useful connections. To justify this, Chadwick makes Aline unfit for her position and Sybilla so eminently more suitable that in the book this relationship is telegraphed for years before they even meet. Do any of these people actually deserve how Chadwick treats them? I’m not sure. Certainly, FitzGilbert seems mostly driven by ambition to me.

Making interpretations like this is the purview of a historical novelist, certainly, but most are more cautious than this. In any case, these doubts of mine are just thoughts that occurred to me as I was reading. My main objection is how Chadwick crams 20 years of events into a long series of short, staccato scenes. Few of the characters are very fleshed out because of this approach.

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Review 1332: Fire from Heaven

Cover for Fire from HeavenIt seems like I’m in the middle of a lot of trilogies lately. I just wrote up my review of the last of Gerald Durrell’s Corfu Trilogy (coming soon) and in two weeks the review of the first book in Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy will appear. I actually just finished reading the second book in that trilogy (review coming in a few months) and liked it enough to purchase her Levant Trilogy. Now, here’s the beginning of another trilogy. Fire from Heaven is the first book in the great Mary Renault’s trilogy about the life of Alexander the Great. Renault, of course, is known for the historical accuracy, admired by authors and classicists, of her novels set in Ancient Greece.

Fire from Heaven follows the life of Alexander from the age of four to nineteen, when he became king of Macedon. His life is plagued by the battles between his mother, Olympia, allegedly a sorceress, and his father, King Philip. Philip’s crime is to have taken additional wives, even though Olympia is at total enmity with him. She sees this as a mortal affront and teaches her children to hate him. She is also cagey about whether Philip is actually Alexander’s father, hinting that he is not.

As Alexander gets older and begins learning about fighting and diplomacy from his father, they begin to understand each other. Olympia’s machinations and Philip’s womanizing continually create problems and misunderstandings, however.

An important person to Alexander is his friend Hephaistion, who becomes his lover. The two are inseparable, and Alexander is fascinated by the Sacred Band of Thebes, a group of soldiers composed of pairs of lovers, said to fight the more doggedly because of it.

This novel is rich in the intrigues among the city-states of the area, the myths surrounding Alexander’s life, and the depth of characterization. I read it long ago but found I didn’t remember it well and am pleased to have begun rereading this trilogy.

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Review 1329: Varina

Cover for VarinaVarina is one of those books that makes me wish Goodreads allowed half stars, because it is better than the books I’ve given three stars (my okay or ho-hum rating) but it’s not quite as good as many books I’ve rated four stars. It is interesting, though, the story of Varina Davis, Jeff Davis’s young wife.

The novel begins when Varina, or V as she is called, as an old woman meets James, a young African-American boy she raised with her own children. At the time of the fall of the Confederacy, Jimmy was taken from her after she was captured.

James comes to see V because he remembers very little of that time and has read some things in a book he wants to ask her about. She is happy to see him, because all of her children have died. He is the last one left. The novel skips backward and forward through incidents in her life as she and James hold a series of conversations.

I found this novel both interesting and touching. I know very little about Jeff Davis and knew nothing of his wife. V seems to have been an unconventional and spirited woman. She led a difficult and sad life.

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Day 1299: Flush: A Biography

Cover for FlushI admit to feeling rather perplexed by Flush, which seems to be a light-hearted biography of Elizabeth Barrett’s pet dog. It was clear to me that a lot more was going on than a story about a dog. The introduction to my Persephone edition by Sally Beauman draws parallels between Flush’s life and Barrett’s—and Virginia Woolf’s own life.

Flush is a cocker spaniel, a hunting dog, given to Elizabeth Barrett as a gift. Woolf is clear about how Flush’s life on Wimpole Street becomes one of constraint and even neuroticism as the lap dog of a constrained, restricted, and hypochondriacal Elizabeth Barrett.

The slant the novel puts on the famous romance between Barrett and Robert Browning is also very interesting. Flush is immediately jealous of Browning and tries to bite him twice. From being loved and terrifically spoiled by Barrett, he learns he has to take second place.

Now to get to the source of my perplexity. Just in terms of mistreatment of dogs, this novel was not, to me, the one fondly referred to by others over the years. Woolf’s doggy hero is restricted by Elizabeth just as she was by her father. To add interest, though, there are sly digs at social strata and Victorian life throughout.

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Day 1224: The Alphabet of Heart’s Desire

Cover for The Alphabet of Heart's DesireThe Alphabet of Heart’s Desire is about an incident in the early life of Thomas De Quincey, best known as the author of Confessions of an Opium Eater. The bare bones of fact are that De Quincey, as a young man, was given an allowance to use in his travels around the country, which he stopped getting when he fell out of touch with his family. Destitute, he was rescued by Anne, a prostitute. This novel tells their stories, along with that of Tuah, a Malay slave who is taken in by Archie, who sells used clothing.

I had a lot of trouble reading this novel and kept putting it aside to read other books. I almost decided to quit reading it when I realized I was 80% done, so I finished it. My problem was that I didn’t find any of the three major characters, De Quincey, Anne, and Tuah, particularly interesting. Here is a situation where the author tries to invoke interest in his characters by making bad things happen to them, trying to raise our sympathy from these unfortunate events rather than from the characters’ own personalities.

link to NetgalleyI also found this fictionalized interpretation of a short period in De Quincey’s life to be relatively pointless. All it serves is to wrap up Anne’s fate in a pretty bow. In reality, she disappeared into the London stews.

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