Classics Club Spin #26

It’s time for another Classics Club Spin. I have been trying to finish my list in time for my deadline, which is coming up at the end of June. I’m not going to make it, but I’ve been scheduling in books that I read months ago to try to get most of the books reviewed by then, and I have been reading like crazy to finish the others. With any luck, I’ll only be a month or so late. That means that my list for this spin is going to be repetitive.

To participate in the spin, you post a numbered list of 20 of the books from your Classics Club list (or in my case, however many books you have left over and over to make a list of 20). The Classics Club picks a number, and that determines the book you’ll read for the spin. So, here is my list! We are posting these lists by April 18th, and the deadline to read the chosen book is May 31.

  1. The Sea Hawk by Rafael Sabatini
  2. The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault
  3. The Viscount de Bragelonne by Alexandre Dumas
  4. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  5. Evelina by Frances Burney
  6. The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster
  7. Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare
  8. The Sea Hawk by Rafael Sabatini
  9. The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault
  10. The Viscount de Bragelonne by Alexandre Dumas
  11. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  12. Evelina by Frances Burney
  13. The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster
  14. Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare
  15. The Sea Hawk by Rafael Sabatini
  16. The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault
  17. The Viscount de Bragelonne by Alexandre Dumas
  18. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  19. The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster
  20. Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare

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 1628: My Brilliant Career

My Brilliant Career is the very singular story of the life of an Australian teenage girl in the bush in 1901. It isn’t so much singular in its plot as in the personality of Sybilla, the main character.

Sybilla’s childhood was spent in comfort, as her father was a prosperous horse breeder. However, well before this novel starts, her father decided his talents were wasted, so he sold his property and began a career selling livestock. He was unsuccessful, and he drank heavily in entertaining prospective clients. When the novel opens, the family is struggling to run a dairy with their father drinking away the money he makes selling butter.

Sybilla at 15 is admittedly a difficult person. Her mother never gives her a kind word, and her mother and brother twit her about her lack of good looks. She angrily resents their life of endless labor for no good result. In fact, she is ambitious to become more but doesn’t know how to go about it. She is an unusual mixture of self-confidence and self-hatred and is angry and rebellious.

Sybilla’s mother becomes so angry with her that she arranges for her to go live with her grandmother farther into the bush. There, Sybilla blossoms under the kind treatment of her grandmother, her uncle, and her Aunt Helen. Her aunt helps her look more attractive, but she never gets over believing she is ugly. Romance even seems to be on the horizon.

I thought that the view this novel gives of Australian frontier life is really interesting, and I was particularly struck by the amount of traffic going by the grandmother’s house and the number of homeless, wandering men. However, I was unsatisfied with this novel, and to explain why, I have to include spoilers, so be warned.

A feminist interpretation of this novel might be that the heroine chooses to write a novel instead of getting married, but that would be ignoring Sybilla’s difficult personality. Continually, she seems to bite off her nose to spite her face, and in the case of marriage, really declines out of a sense of inferiority rather than anything else. She decides not to marry Harold and stays in a life she hates because she can’t believe he loves her and she thinks she is not good enough for him. I find that really frustrating. It’s not that I wanted a romantic ending so much as it bothered me how she never really sees herself or is able to get past being told how worthless she is by her mother.

I read this for my Classics Club list.

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Review 1618: The Prince

I put The Prince on my Classics Club list mostly out of curiosity. Now that my curiosity has been satisfied, I can well understand some of the controversy surrounding it.

Machiavelli wrote the book for the newly arisen Medici family, and the last chapter is basically a plea for Lorenzo di Medici to rise up and conquer Italy. The Prince is a treatise on power: how to get it, how to keep it, what to do with it. It is utilitarian rather than moral. For example, it advises princes that they need not honor their promises once they are in a position of power if the promises are not in their best interests.

Although Cesare Borgia was considered ruthless and cruel even in his own time, Machiavelli several times holds him up as a model and clearly venerates him. But then, his ideas are not ours, for he tells a story of a principality being won. The principality needed good government, so the prince put in charge a man known for his ruthlessness and rapacity. Once the area was settled, the prince “wiped out” his lieutenant. Good work!

The book is regarded as a realistic analysis of the pursuit of power. This is why it is still widely studied. It is written in a straightforward style, assertion followed by example.

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Review 1607: Classic Club Spin Result! Oroonoko

Oroonoko was the book I read for the most recent Classics Club Spin.

There are a few issues with Oroonoko, written in 1688, that might make it difficult for modern audiences. One is its acceptance of slavery (although the novel is viewed as an anti-slavery work), which in the 17th century was common. The other is its graphic violence, albeit off-stage, that has caused it to vary in popularity over time. (Apparently, even the publishers of the edition I read disagree about that, because the introduction says it was Behn’s most popular work, while the cover says it was not popular because of its violence.)

Oroonoko has been considered a novella rather than a biography, because there is no proof that such a man as Oroonoko existed. However, Behn writes the story in first person as herself, and she is known to have traveled to Suriname, where it is set, shortly before the country was ceded to the Dutch. So, you have to wonder.

Oroonoko is the prince of Coramantien, an area of present-day Ghana, the grandson of the king and a great warrior. He falls in love with a beautiful girl named Imoinda, and she becomes his betrothed. However, his grandfather sends her the veil, which means she is to join his harem, even though because of her betrothal that is a break in custom. Oroonoko must accept this or die, so he accepts it with the thought that the king cannot live long. However, the king regrets his actions and sees no way to recover the situation except if Imoinda was dead. He is unable to have her killed, though, so he sells her into slavery and tells Oroonoko she is dead.

Next, an English slave trader whom Oroonoko has sold slaves to invites him for a party. When he and his men have passed out from drink, the trader enslaves them and puts them on a ship for Suriname. It is when Oroonoko arrives there that he meets Behn and her traveling companions and they learn his tale and witness the rest of the action.

Oroonoko might be the first anti-slavery novel, although it is subtle about it, showing some of its abuses while not really commenting on the institution. Behn reveals the dastardly behavior of a series of Europeans, either slavers or owners, and contrasts it with the image she builds up of a handsome, brave, forthright black hero and his beautiful and virtuous lady. The novel was interesting, but I found what happened to Imoinda through Oroonoko’s hands distressing and the reflection of a type of thinking I did not find admirable—and the ending was just plain gruesome.

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Review 1595: Mansfield Park

I was having difficulty reading another book, so I decided to take a break by rereading Mansfield Park, which is on my Classics Club list. In these days, Austen’s heroine, Fanny Price, is not admired, but she is a true and admirable product of her environment and circumstances.

At nine, Fanny is brought to live at Mansfield Park as an act of charity, for she is a poor relation. She is taught to be grateful for this charity and to have no expectations for herself. Sir Thomas Bertram is an upright, stern man whom she and her cousins fear. Lady Bertram is languid. Fanny’s Aunt Norris, who suggested they give her a home in the first place, actively dislikes her and favors her female cousins, particularly Maria.

Fanny is very shy and miserable at first, but the younger son of the house, Edmund, takes her under his wing, is her friend and educator.

As a young lady, Fanny is happy to be of service and not used to her needs or inclinations being attended to. Then two things happen at about the same time. Sir Thomas goes away on a lengthy business trip, and Mary and Henry Crawford arrive to stay with the Grants at the parsonage. Edmund, whom Fanny loves, is immediately attracted to Mary, but Fanny is dismayed by the sister and brother’s lack of principles. Maria Bertram is engaged by then to a rich but stupid young man, but Henry Crawford flirts with both Bertram sisters, playing one off the other. Mary’s behavior is more or less impeccable, but she expresses unprincipled ideas. Edmund seems blind to her faults.

Fanny is one of Austen’s more thoughtful heroines. Will she ever be appreciated for her qualities of affection, duty, and principle? Will Edmund marry Mary or recognize Fanny’s superior qualities? Well, we can all probably answer that, but the journey there is wonderful, as Austen’s novels tend to be.

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Classics Club Spin #25

It’s time for another Classics Club spin. The way it works is that Classics Club members pick 20 numbered books from their lists and post these lists by Sunday. The Classics Club selects a number, and that’s the next book you read, for a deadline of January 30. I’m glad of the long period this time, not because I usually have trouble finishing but because I plan my schedule of posts out about six weeks, so often I have to make adjustments to my schedule to add in my book for the spin. Not so this time. I think this change is a good idea anyway, because there are people who have difficulty getting the book read on time for the spin.

Without further ado, here is my list for the spin. I see I no longer have 20 books left to read, so I will have to repeat some:

  1. I Go by Land, I Go by Sea by P. L. Travers
  2. August Folly by Angela Thirkell
  3. Evelina by Fanny Burney
  4. The Sea Hawk by Rafael Sabatini
  5. The Prince by Machiavelli
  6. The Viscounte de Braglonne by Alexandre Dumas
  7. The Winged Horse by Pamela Frankau
  8. Edward III by Christopher Marlowe
  9. The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster
  10. Joanna Godden by Sheila Kay-Smith
  11. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
  12. The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault
  13. My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin
  14. Oroonoko by Aphra Behn
  15. Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare
  16. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  17. Three Weeks by Elinor Glyn
  18. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
  19. The Sea Hawk by Rafael Sabatini
  20. August Folly by Angela Thirkell

Review 1566: Coromandel Sea Change

Best of Ten!
Rumer Godden was around for so long as an author that when I couldn’t find the book by her that I had on my Classics Club list, I thought nothing of substituting Coromandel Sea Change. Even when I noticed a publication date of 1991, I assumed it was a reprint. It wasn’t, however, which brings up something I’ve been thinking about, and that’s how do we decide something is a classic if it’s not tested by time? I associate Godden with the 30’s through 50’s, when she was very active, and which I considered long enough ago to put her on my list. Oh well. We had this discussion on the Classics Club blog, in fact, this book was the one that gave me the idea. In any case, it is a wonderful, atmospheric book.

Newlyweds Blaise and Mary Browne arrive at Patna Hall on the Coromandel Sea evincing different reactions. Mary is enchanted by this view of the “real India,” while Blaise is enraged that their rooms are not in the main hotel and offended by the bathroom arrangements. As a couple, they seem particularly ill-suited—the young Mary is eager to observe ordinary people and take part in their customs while the older Blaise, a diplomat, is interested only in schmoozing with important people. Very soon, they are bickering like children while the other guests and hotel staff look on in dismay and Kuku, the young assistant manager, hopes to get her chance with Blaise.

The hotel is busy with an upcoming parliamentary election, and Mary meets Krishnan, one of the candidates, out on the beach one night. He is young and charismatic and seems genuinely concerned to help his people. Mary is happy to oblige when the campaign asks for her help, but Blaise is offended and misinterprets her interest.

In this novel, the stories of Mary and Blaise are not the only interest. The hotel staff are important, and the country itself is vividly evoked and almost a character. The election is charming in its own way. Even a donkey named Slippers, an elephant named Birdie, and a squirrel have their places. Mary is likable, although very naive, while Blaise is pretty unbearable.

Despite the sad ending to this novel, I found it colorful and charming. It made me want to visit the Coromandel Sea. Research has told me that the area was virtually destroyed by the tsunami in 2004, but apparently Chennai, mentioned in the book, is considered a top location to visit by Lonely Planet, so perhaps the area has recovered. In any case, perhaps it isn’t the paradise described by Godden anymore.

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Review 1558: Classics Club Spin Result! Kennilworth

Here’s another book for RIPXV!

Reading Kenilworth for the Classics Club Spin made me contemplate the question of how important it is in a historical novel to stick to the historical facts. Of course, historical novels are fiction, so by definition something is invented. And there have been really interesting historical novels where the author purposefully changed some facts to speculate on other outcomes. But do historical novels have the license, just for a more dramatic story, to change what actually happened?

Kenilworth is the novel that famously reawakened interest in the story of Amy Robsart’s death. Amy Robsart was the wife of Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, during the reign of Elizabeth I. Amy’s death is the classic mystery of did she fall or was she pushed? At the time of her death, the rumor in court was that Leicester colluded in her death because he believed he could then marry Elizabeth.

In the novel, Amy is a young bride who has run away from home for a marriage with Leicester that is secret because he is afraid for his position in court, having married without royal permission. Amy’s jilted fiancé, Tressalian, comes looking for her on behalf of her father, believing that Amy was seduced away from her home by Varney, Leicester’s master of horse.

Varney is the villain of this piece. He has Amy kept as a virtual prisoner, and eventually Amy has reason to fear for her life. So, she flees to Kenilworth, Leicester’s estate, where he is preparing to entertain Elizabeth and the court.

I fear that Scott has woven a romance with very little basis in fact, as he did with a Crusader-based novel I’ll be reviewing in a few months. First, in Kenilworth, Amy and Leicester are newly married when in fact they were married about 10 years. Next, their marriage was no secret; in fact, she was allowed to visit him in the Tower of London when he was imprisoned by Queen Mary as a relative of Lady Jane Grey. Did Leicester have a hand in her death? I read a novel a while back that posited that (it may have been Alison Weir’s The Marriage Game, but I’m not sure), but we’ll never know. More recently, historians are inclined to believe that she simply fell down the stairs. By the way, she was not being kept captive in a moldy old house but visiting friends.

So, that is a strongish negative for me, at least. I could accept a premise that Leicester ordered his wife’s death because we don’t know, but playing with the chronology of the marriage for drama’s sake (and to have a younger, dewier heroine) and making it a secret (as it was also in a movie I saw several years ago) is throwing in a bit too much fiction.

On the positive side, Scott’s descriptions of the Elizabethan court are vibrant and his attempts at Elizabethan dialogue are convincing. Also, if he was not distorting history I’d say that his plot is quite suspenseful. At the time of its publication, historians slammed The Talisman just because Scott created a fictional Plantagenet, even though he did much worse things historically in that book and in this one.

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Classics Club Spin #24

Apparently it’s time for another Classics Club Spin. For the spin, each Classics Club member posts a list of 20 books from their Classics Club list. On August 9, the club picks a number which determines the book the member will read by September 30.

So, here is my list! I find I only have about 20 books left to read!

  1. I Go by Land, I Go by Sea by P. L. Travers
  2. The Prince by Machievelli
  3. August Folly by Angela Thirkell
  4. Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare
  5. The Sea Hawk by Rafael Sabatini
  6. Oroonoko by Aphra Behn
  7. The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault
  8. The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster
  9. Joanna Godden by Sheila Kay-Smith
  10. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
  11. Coromandel Sea Change by Rumer Godden
  12. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
  13. Three Weeks by Elinor Glyn
  14. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  15. My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin
  16. The Viscount de Bragelone by Alexandre Dumas
  17. The Winged Horse by Pamela Frankau
  18. Kenilworth by Sir Walter Scott
  19. Edward II by Christopher Marlowe
  20. Evelina by Frances Burney

Have you read any of these? Which do you hope I’ll get?