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 1362: Begin Again

In the 1930’s, generational social changes away the Victorian age occurred, including sexual and social liberation. Begin Again follows four young women recently down from Oxford as they try to redefine themselves in the light of these changes.

Leslie is living at home, but she regularly visits her friends Jane and Florence in London. She has a romantic idea about the freedoms the two girls have and wants to get a place of her own in London, an artist’s studio, using her inheritance. Her mother doesn’t want her to use up her inheritance and has suggested she live with her aunt. Leslie, in truth, would like a little opposition to her plans instead of her mother’s acceptance and prefers complete independence to living with her aunt.

Jane and Florence are living the realities of the independent life, which means no servants and often very little food. Jane takes everything in her stride and doesn’t seem to have any deep feelings for anything or anyone. Unfortunately, this includes her boyfriend, Henry, who wants constant assurances of her devotion.

Florence, however, hates her office job and sometimes feels miserable about her and Jane’s lack of comforts. She feels that the girls who started work straight out of school have the advantage over her and that her Oxford education is not valued at work.

Sylvia lives in her parents’ home but has a lover, Claude. Despite their mutual devotion, Sylvia has kept Claud away from her family, assuming they will not get along. She believes in being absolutely honest and behaving honestly rather than worrying about how others are affected by this honesty. Her younger sister, Henrietta, has been taking Sylvia’s beliefs seriously, maybe more seriously than Sylvia intends, and is thinking of embarking on an affair with a middle-aged married man.

Each of the girls has to adjust her theoretical views about life to deal with reality. This is a sometimes amusing, true-to-life novel about how naive, idealistic young women learn to adapt between the gaps of Victorian and Edwardian values and Oxfordian theories and real life. I enjoyed it very much. The characters are depicted affectionately and seem very real.

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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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Review 1336: The Great Fortune

Cover of Fortunes of WarThe Great Fortune is the first book of Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy called Fortunes of War. I didn’t know quite what to think of it but am interested enough to continue.

Harriet and Guy Pringle are newlyweds on their way to Bucharest in the autumn of 1939. War is on the horizon, but Guy is in a reserved profession as a teacher at a university. It is his second year in Bucharest, and Harriet realizes very quickly that, while she is a stranger, Guy has already made a place for himself there among the English expatriates and diplomatic staff, the university staff, as well as other groups.

Harriet is not always a fan of his friends, particularly Sophie, a Rumanian student who would like Guy for herself, and Prince Yakimov, an English-born son of a Russian expatriate. Yakimov was once the companion of a wealthy woman and has been left destitute upon her death.

Although everyone is interested in the worsening news from Western Europe, they are also oddly detached. For example, Guy has been warmly welcomed into the home of the Druckers, he a Jewish banker whose son is Guy’s student. When the king’s mistress wants his oil rights, both Drucker and his son are arrested for pro-German sympathies, the son because the father’s Swiss bank accounts are in his name. Although the agriculturally rich Rumanians are supplying much of the German food, he is not released, nor do we hear much about his fate.

I thought Harriet supercilious and Guy totally oblivious of the results of his actions on others, particularly Harriet. Still, I found this period and setting interesting.

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Review 1327: Brief Lives

Cover for Brief LivesAlthough John Aubrey has been criticized as a historian, he was actually a collector, of documents, stories, and little bits of information. For a project in the late 17th century undertaken by Anthony Wood, he began collecting short biographies of Oxford scholars of his time but then expanded his collection to include other notables of the 16th and 17th centuries. From 426 lives, this book has collected the most significant 134, some as short as a few sentences while others are several pages long.

These lives do not necessarily list their subjects’ accomplishments, although most of them begin with a short biography included by the editors. Aubrey’s talent was for telling something about each person that defines him or her, makes the person seem more knowable, whether it be a physical description or a story about the person.

Aubrey was apparently a rather disorganized person, so sometimes we are amused by a story or comment that seems to have nothing to do with the subject. Although well written and entertaining, his lives sometimes use pronouns confusingly, so that you’re not always sure who he’s talking about.

Just as entertaining as the original subject matter is the 100-page introduction about Aubrey’s life and milieu. I have to say that he seldom says anything really negative about anyone, even if you can tell he didn’t like that person. He was plainly a good-natured man who also sometimes likes to tell bawdy stories. Centuries after his lives were written, they make a living document, bringing exceptional people back to life. I was interested to see that one of them was Venetia Digby, the main character of Hermione Eyre’s Viper Wine.

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Review 1324: All Done by Kindness

Cover for All Done by KindnessMy friend Deb recommended that I read All Done by Kindness based on a post she read by Furrowed Middlebrow. Such is the power of the web, though, that by the time I looked for it, the few copies available were expensive. I had to borrow hers.

Caper books and movies were popular in the 1950’s and 60’s, and All Done by Kindness fits the description, telling the story of a crime committed with worthy motives, a light-hearted caper with a dash of romance. It begins with a visit by Dr. Sandilands to an elderly patient, Mrs. Hovenden. Mrs. Hovenden’s family has been wealthy, but since the war, Mrs. Hovenden has fallen into hard times. She tells the doctor she is badly in debt for the first time in her life.

Dr. Sandilands offers to lend her the money, even though he can hardly afford it, but Mrs. Hovenden is too proud to take it. Instead, she offers to sell him some boxes of clothes and linen from her attic, including a box of pictures. When the Sandilands family opens the boxes, the results provide Beatrix Sandilands, the doctor’s sharp-tongued daughter, with a great deal to say, for everything is either worthless to begin with or is mouldering away. About the pictures, however, daughter Linda suggests that they consult her knowledgeable fellow librarian, Stephanie du Plessis.

Stephanie thinks that the paintings might be quite valuable, even Old Masters. She does some research that indicates they may have been removed from an Italian villa. Beatrix thinks they are worthless and wants them out of her house. Finally, the family agrees to consult Sir Harry Maximer, an art expert who has the reputation for integrity.

Here, the plot thickens, for Sir Harry recognizes the paintings as Old Masters, but he tells Dr. Sandilands they are only good copies. Why? Because he intends to have them in his own collection.

This is a charming little novel, a delightful book for when you want to read something light.

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Review 1313: Obscure Destinies

Cover for Obscure DestiniesObscure Destinies is a collection of three longish stories by Willa Cather. They are all character studies of people living in small prairie towns. I distinctly felt that the stories were based on people Cather knew during her days in Nebraska, even though one story is set in Colorado.

“Neighbor Rosicky” is about a farmer, an old Czech man whose doctor tells him at the beginning of the story that he must stop all hard work. He has a heart condition.

Rosicky has not prospered as well as some of his neighbors, but he is a kind man who enjoys life. He has an affectionate relationship with his family, but he is afraid that his oldest son, Rudolph, and Rudolph’s wife, Polly, will become discontented with the difficult life of farming and move away to the city. Rosicky has lived in London and New York and felt that he was never free until he owned his own land.

“Old Mrs. Harris” is about a woman who lives with her daughter’s family. Mrs. Rosen, her neighbor, thinks she is mistreated. Her room is a passageway in the house, and any treats intended for Mrs. Harris are either resented or appropriated by her daughter, Mrs. Templeton.

Mrs. Harris is from the South, where it was apparently commonplace to spoil young women, and where some older woman usually ran the household behind the scenes. But here she has no help besides a hired girl, and Mr. Templeton’s career has not been successful.

Young Vicky has an opportunity for a scholarship, and she has been encouraged to study by the Rosens. But the Templetons see no reason why she should go to college. Only Mrs. Harris understands.

“Two Friends” is about the friendship between two prominent businessmen in town, Mr. Dillon and Mr. Trueman. The narrator as a child loves playing at their feet each evening as they discuss Mr. Dillon’s tenant farmers, the history of the area, and other interesting topics. However, the friendship eventually founders over politics.

These stories are interesting and insightful character sketches. “Neighbor Rosicky” even brought tears to my eyes. I believe I’ve enjoyed these stories more than I have some of Cather’s novels, which is unusual for me.

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