Day 1073: Middlemarch

Cover for MiddlemarchBest Book of the Week!
The first section of Middlemarch is concerned with Dorothea Brooke, an ardent but naive young woman who only wants to take part in something good. She thirsts for knowledge and wants to help with something important.

One trait of Dorothea’s that is physical as well as metaphorical is her shortsightedness. As her sister Celia tells her, “I thought it right to tell you because you went on as you always do, never looking just where you are and treading in the wrong place. You always see what no one else sees; it is impossible to satisfy you; yet you never see what is quite plain.”

Dorothea in her youthful ardor and intelligence attracts the attention of Mr. Casaubon, a cleric and scholar in his fifties who has been laboring for years on a work he calls “The Key to All Mythologies.” Dorothea decides it would be an honor to marry Mr. Casaubon and help him with his great work. And she does so, despite the admonitions of her friends and family.

It is while Dorothea is on her honeymoon in Rome that we meet other important characters in the novel, for Eliot subtitled her novel “A Study in Provincial Life.” There are the young Vincys, Fred and Rosamund, who have both been indulged by their wealthy parents. Fred has been raised to expect a fortune from his crusty old uncle, Peter Featherstone. Concerned at first only with leading the life of a gentleman, he has quit his university studies and fritters away his time. He would like to marry his childhood friend Mary Garth, but she won’t have him until he sticks to something.

Mr. Lydgate is a new doctor in town. He hopes to reform medical practices and make some significant discovery in medicine. Although he feels he cannot afford to marry for some years, he has not reckoned with Rosamund Vincy, a beautiful but self-centered young woman.

He also starts out by harming his chances through some outspoken comments and a too close relationship with Mr. Bulstrode. A wealthy businessman, Bulstrode is involved with the local hospital. But he likes to be in control of all his charities and is inflexible in his religious views.

In Rome, Dorothea and Mr. Casaubon re-encounter Will Ladislaw, Mr. Casaubon’s second cousin. Mr. Casaubon has been supporting Will financially through his studies after Will’s grandmother was disinherited from her family because of her choice in husband. Dorothea, in trying to befriend Will, does not see how much Mr. Casaubon dislikes him. That dislike is to have repercussions for Dorothea’s future life.

Eliot masterfully acquaints us with the problems and politics of this provincial area. Her characters are unforgettable, rich and human. There is a strong feminist sensibility, as Dorothea finds that everything she tries to do is balked because she’s a woman. And class is also an important theme. I continue to feel that Middlemarch is one of the best books ever written and was happy to have it chosen for me by the Classics Club spin.

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Classics Club Spin #15

It’s time for another Classics Club spin. We are to choose 20 books from our Classics Club lists, and on Friday, the Classics Club will pick a number. That will determine the book we will read for May 1.

I am getting so close to completing my list that I haven’t had 20 books left to pick for the last several spins. This time I’ll list both Henry VI, Pt. II and III, which will force me to read Pt. II if Pt. III is chosen. Then I’ll be done with old Henry. So, here goes:

  1. The Moonstone
  2. Henry VI, Pt. II
  3. The Idiot
  4. Henry VI, Pt. III
  5. Bleak House
  6. Middlemarch
  7. The Moonstone
  8. Henry VI, Pt. II
  9. The Idiot
  10. Henry VI, Pt. III
  11. Bleak House
  12. Middlemarch
  13. The Moonstone
  14. Henry VI, Pt. II
  15. The Idiot
  16. Henry VI, Pt. III
  17. Bleak House
  18. Middlemarch
  19. The Moonstone
  20. The Idiot

Day 999: Beloved

Cover for BelovedOn some occasions after reading a novel, I find my thoughts about it are not clear. Did I enjoy it? Did I completely understand it? Did I think it was powerful or overpowering? This doesn’t happen very often, but these are my thoughts after reading Beloved.

The novel, when looked at straightforwardly, is a ghost story. Sethe escaped from slavery with her children, although the plan went wrong. Most of the other escaping slaves were killed or captured, including her husband, and Sethe had to come later, giving birth to her daughter Denver on the way.

These events happened 16 years ago, but shortly after Sethe made it across the Ohio River, Schoolteacher, the despotic overseer, came after her. To keep her children from being dragged back into slavery, Sethe decided to kill them. She was stopped, but not before she slit the throat of her daughter, Beloved. (Her name isn’t really Beloved, but that’s what’s on her tombstone; we don’t know her name.)

Sixteen years later, Sethe’s house in Cincinnati, referred to as 124, is haunted. Sethe lives there with Denver, her mother-in-law having died and her sons having left. Denver is a sulky, needy young woman who craves her mother’s attention, but that is all for the ghost of her baby.

The action begins when Paul D. arrives. Paul D. had been one of the young male slaves at Sweet Home, where Sethe was a slave. He has been wandering since the war. When he realizes the house is haunted, he drives the ghost out and lives with Sethe as her lover.

But Beloved comes back, now embodied as a girl the age she would have been if she’d lived. Denver and then Sethe become enslaved to her.

But is Beloved a ghost or just a young girl damaged by slavery? Someone in the text makes a reference to a lost girl enslaved since a child, and I think that’s who Beloved is meant to be. Denver and Sethe have just mistaken her from their own needs. There is only one chapter where we see things from Beloved’s point of view, and it is incoherent.

That is what I think, but I was confused because everyone else seems to take the novel as a straight ghost story and of course, an indictment of slavery. I finally ran across a reference to an article by an academic who believes the same thing, but I never found the original paper.

In any case, Beloved is an unusual work. It uses an unusual combination of storytelling techniques, some of which I enjoyed and some I did not. It is powerful, depicting emotions and events that we can barely comprehend. Did I like it? I don’t know. Does it make me think? Yes. Do I understand it? Not completely.

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Classics Club Spin #14!

Another Classics Club spin is starting, so here is my list. Classics Club will pick a number between 1 and 20 on Monday, and that will determine which book I will read. I only have nine books left on my list that I haven’t read (although I haven’t yet reviewed all that I have read), so I have repeated all of them on this list to make 20. I listed them in order backwards by the time year they were written and then went back the other way, and then randomly filled out the list. Most of the ones left on my list are re-reads. We have until December 1 to read the next book chosen. I can’t wait to finish this list, because I have a new one already prepared!

  1. Cover for The MoonstoneAda by Vladimir Nabokov
  2. Middlemarch by George Eliot
  3. The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  4. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
  5. Bleak House by Charles Dickens
  6. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
  7. The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith
  8. Henry VI Pt. III by William Shakespeare (if I get this one, I’ll have to read the next one first)
  9. Henry VI Pt. II by William Shakespeare
  10. Henry VI Part III
  11. The Vicar of Wakefield
  12. Vanity Fair
  13. Bleak House
  14. The Moonstone
  15. The Idiot
  16. Middlemarch
  17. Ada
  18. The Moonstone
  19. Vanity Fair
  20. Bleak House

Classics Spin #13!

It’s time for another Classics Club Spin, for which I will post the rest of my Classics Club list, numbered. On Monday, the spin will select the number of the novel I must read and review by August 1. Since August 1 is a Literary Wives posting date, I will be posting my review the week before. And, since I have fewer than 20 books left on my list, I will have to repeat some of them. I have gotten my list down so that many of the remaining books are rereads. So, here goes:

  1. Cover for The MoonstoneThe Vicar of Wakefield
  2. Beloved
  3. Ada
  4. Henry VI, Part II
  5. The Idiot
  6. The Moonstone
  7. The True Heart
  8. Troy Chimneys
  9. Vanity Fair
  10. Bleak House
  11. Middlemarch
  12. The Beggar Maid
  13. The Moonstone
  14. Troy Chimneys
  15. The True Heart
  16. Vanity Fair
  17. Ada
  18. The Idiot
  19. Beloved
  20. Bleak House

Day 897: That Lady

Cover for That LadyThat Lady is another book I’ve read for my Classics Club list, and a good one it is, too. In the Preface to the novel, Kate O’Brien states that it is not a historical novel because, although all of the events are real, the scenes between characters are wholly imagined. But I would argue that this is the very definition of a historical novel, with the proviso that the author attempt to preserve the true nature of the peoples’ characters, if they are known. That Lady is based on a curious interaction between Philip II of Spain and Ana de Mendoza, Princess of Eboli, that historians are still struggling to understand.

The novel begins in 1576, when Ana is a 36-year-old widow. Her husband was Ruy Gomez de Silva, Philip’s secretary of state. But Ruy has been dead for several years, and Ana has been living a retired life with her children on her country estate of Pastrana.

Philip comes to visit, however, and tells her he wishes her to return to Madrid. He and Ana have enjoyed friendship and a mild flirtation, and he misses her company.

Ana does not return to Madrid immediately, but she eventually does in the fall of 1577. There, she becomes reacquainted with Don Antonio Perez, her husband’s former protégé and friend, who is Philip’s current secretary of state.

Although Ana has heretofore been a virtuous woman, she begins an affair with Perez, partially because she realizes she has done nothing of her own volition for years. This relationship eventually becomes a complication in a political battle.

This novel is primarily a character study of a fascinating woman and to a lesser extent of Philip II, whose poor government of Spain has stricken with poverty the inhabitants of what was at the time the wealthiest country in the world. It is also a very interesting study of the politics of the region of Castille.

At first, I found it difficult to grasp Ana’s character, but the novel centers on her strong sense of principle and protection of her privacy. It is also about the tension between her religious beliefs and her principles. That is, having committed herself, she refuses to abandon her lover when he is in trouble, even to save her soul or her life.

That Lady is a powerful novel about an unusual, strong woman who struggles against the restrictions of her life based on sex and station. I highly recommend it. By the way, the picture on the cover above is of a painting of the actual lady.

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Day 895: Red Pottage

red-pottageBest Book of the Week!
Red Pottage is another find for me this year of a novel by a terrific classic author. I can include Mrs. Oliphant, Dorothy Whipple, and Julia Strachey in this list of classic authors I have not read before that I really enjoyed. My Doughty Library edition says the novel contains “every ingredient for a Victorian bestseller” and mentions wickedness and greed.

Hugh Scarlett has been having an affair with a married woman, Lady Newhaven. At first he thought he was in love with her, but now he has recognized her for who she is—a shallow and stupid beauty. He has already decided to break with her when he meets Rachel West at a party. At one glance he decides that Rachel is the woman to make a better man of him.

Rachel has also attracted the attention of Dick Vernon, a wine grower from Australia who is visiting his friends and family. Rachel likes him, but she is thinking of others.

Rachel has an unhappy past. Once the daughter of a wealthy man, she lost her fortune with her father’s death. For seven years she struggled to support herself, living in London’s East End and working as a typist. At that time, she fell deeply in love with an artist, Mr. Tristram, and was devastated when she realized he had no intention of marrying her. At the beginning of the novel, she has inherited another fortune and still believes herself in love with Mr. Tristram. Now that she has a fortune, though, she is looking like a much better prospect to him.

Another important character is Hester Gresley, an author who has been Rachel’s friend since childhood. Although Hester is better born than Rachel, her fortunes have suffered as Rachel’s have improved. She lives with her brother James, a rector who disregards her talent as a novelist and can only see his own point of view. James’s wife is jealous of Hester, and the children lovable but noisy. Hester finds herself unable to work during the daytime, so she stays up into the morning working, only to be accused by her sister-in-law of laziness.

Red Pottage is a story about morals and manners. That sounds boring, but it is quite satirical at times, while at other times it brought me to tears. The central conflict begins shortly after Hugh meets Rachel, when Lord Newhaven confronts him about Hugh’s affair with his wife. He makes Hugh a challenge, that they draw “lighters” (matches? straws?) and whoever draws the short one must take his own life within four months.

To complicate matters, Lady Newhaven eavesdrops on this conversation but does not learn who drew the short lighter. Then foolish, self-centered Lady Newhaven confides in Rachel, along with her assumption that if her husband dies, she will marry Hugh.

The story turned out just about how I thought it would, but I found the journey completely gripping. Another success from my Classics Club list!

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