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?

Classics Club Spin #22

It’s time for another Classics Club Spin, in which we post 20 books from our Classics Club lists. On Monday, December 22, a number will determine which of the books we’ll read next.

So, with no further ado, here’s my list. I hope for a good one!

  1. I Go By Land, I Go By Sea by P. L. Travers
  2. August Folly by Angela Thirkell
  3. Challenge by Vita Sackville-West
  4. The Sea Hawk by Rafael Sabatini
  5. The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault
  6. Mary Lavelle by Kate O’Brien
  7. Joanna Godden by Sheila Kay-Smith
  8. Coromandel Sea Change by Rumer Godden
  9. Three Weeks by Elinor Glyn
  10. My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin
  11. The Winged Horse by Pamela Frankau
  12. This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  13. Vanishing Cornwall by Daphne du Maurier
  14. Kenilworth by Sir Walter Scott
  15. The Viscount de Bragelonne by Alexandre Dumas
  16. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  17. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
  18. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
  19. Evelina by Frances Burney
  20. The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster

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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Another Classics Club Spin

The Classics Club is having another spin. For that, we post a list of twenty of the books from our Classics Club lists, and then Classics Club picks a number, and that’s the book we read next. The goal is to read the book by October 31st.

So, here is my list for Spin #21:

  1. I Go by Land, I Go by Sea by P. L. Travers
  2. The Old Man’s Birthday by Richmal Crompton
  3. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
  4. Oroonoko by Aphra Behn
  5. The Wise Virgins by Leonard Woolf
  6. The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster
  7. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
  8. The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault
  9. Edward II by Christopher Marlowe
  10. The Viscounte de Bragelonne by Alexandre Dumas
  11. The Winged Horse by Pamela Frankau
  12. August Folly by Angela Thirkell
  13. Kenilworth by Sir Walter Scott
  14. Evelina by Frances Burney
  15. The Prince by Machievelli
  16. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  17. This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  18. Challenge by Vita Sackville-West
  19. The Sea Hawk by Rafael Sabatini
  20. My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

 

Review 1364: Madame de Treymes

If you have read Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, the situation in her novella, Madame de Treymes, will seem familiar. As Madame de Treymes was written before The Age of Innocence, perhaps Wharton was trying out some ideas in this novella that she developed more fully in the later novel.

John Durham is in love with Madame de Malrive. He knew her as Fanny Frisbee in their younger days in New York, but now she is separated from her husband and has a young child. He proposes to her, expressing himself willing to adapt to any conditions she may make, but she says her husband’s family will never agree to a divorce. She has used her leverage because of her husband’s dissolute life to keep her son and does not want to jeopardize her custody.

Fanny says that the family never explicitly states its intentions, and she never knows what they are going to do. Her sister-in-law, Madame de Treymes, seems to be sympathetic, however, and she asks John to try to discover from her the family’s intentions.

Durham arranges a meeting with Madame and is first inclined not to believe the stories he’s heard about her. However, the meeting goes badly wrong.

This novella is about the inability of the aristocratic French and the Americans of the same class to comprehend each other. A misunderstanding on both sides results in unforeseen circumstances. This novella is subtle and more of a character study than a plotted piece, about the gulf between two very different cultures. I read this interesting novella for my Classics Club list.

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Review 1343: The Expedition of Humphry Clinker

Cover for Humphry ClinkerWhen I was making up my latest Classics Club list, I looked for some 18th century fiction to add to it. The result was this peculiar novel by the Scottish author and poet, Tobias Smollett.

Smollett was known for picaresque novels, but I wouldn’t exactly call this novel that. In fact, I don’t know what to call it. The novel it reminds me most of is The Pickwick Papers,  because it is about a group of amusing people on a road trip.

Written in letter form, it starts out as a social satire. Matthew Bramble is a middle-aged hypochondriac who sets off with his family for a tour of the watering holes of England. His travelling companions are his nephew, Jeremy Melford, an Oxonian; his frippery niece, Lydia Melford; and his sister, Tabitha, who is on the hunt for a husband.

The novel begins by poking fun at the characters and the eccentric people they meet as they do the rounds of the watering holes. When they reach London, this becomes political and literary satire as well as social satire, as Jeremy visits literary salons and Matthew looks into politics.

However, the novel changes character when they travel north to Scotland. Through the polemics of a Scots lieutenant they befriend, Mr. Lismahago, we learn about the condition of the Scots peasantry and industry. These letters read almost like textbooks. Meanwhile, Smollett even introduces himself as a very minor character. Later, as the group travels south again, humor returns.

The novel is virtually plotless, the only continuing thread the fate of Lydia’s love affair with a travelling player. Humphry Clinker doesn’t even appear until 100 pages in. It was the contention of an essay I read that this novel is an example of the kind where the servant knows more than the master, but I don’t agree. Actually Humphry is pretty much an idiot.

I had a hard time finishing this novel. The humor didn’t appeal to me, nor was I enough informed about the time and place to understand some of the satire, for example, against certain literary figures who were probably recognizable at the time. The introduction calls the novel a snapshot of the whole of Britain at a time when everything was beginning to change with the onset of the Industrial Age. I have also read it is a commentary about Colonialism, but that only seems to apply to the Scottish section. I guess both of these topics might be interesting to some more informed readers.

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