Review 1726: To Calais, In Ordinary Time

It’s 1348, two years after the battle of Crécy, which won Calais back from the French to the English. Will Quate is betrothed to Ness, the prettiest girl in his Cotswold village, but his liege lord, Sir Guy, wants him to join a group of archers on their way to defend Calais. Will would rather stay, but he bargains for a document showing he’s a free man. Sir Guy tells him he will send along the paper with Captain Laurence Haket in exchange for five pounds once he has won his fortune.

Will agrees to go. In fact, his attitude toward Ness seems ambivalent. He doesn’t seem to care that she had an affair with Haket and became pregnant. Will’s friend Hab is plainly in love with him, but Will doesn’t seem inclined.

Sir Guy’s daughter Bernadine is incensed that Sir Guy has betrothed her to a man his own age when she is in love with Laurence Haket. Inspired by La Roman de la Rose, she feels she is entitled to a more romantic life, so she runs away, following Haket on his way to Calais.

Another voice on the journey is Thomas Pitkerro, a proctor, who is sent along with the archers on his way to his home in Avignon to give last rites, if needed. Thomas is afraid of the plague, which is said to be moving north from Italy and France.

To Calais, In Ordinary Time echoes its medieval inspirations with its tale of adventures while on a journey. It does so in more than just plot, however, for it is written with only words in use in the time it was set. Thomas, who is writing letters and keeping a diary, writes in a stiff, bombastic style that thankfully loosens up . The novel is narrated in a style a little less formal than the speech of Bernadine, which contains some French modes of expression. Several times the point is made that her workers do not understand many of the words. The speech of Will and the characters around him is littered with expressions native to the Cotswolds.

This attempt is similar to that of Paul Kingsnorth in The Wake, which I read several years ago—written to be readable to modern audiences but to have the feel of Old English (in the case of The Wake, that is). This effort doesn’t seems as likely to me except in the speech of the characters of the lowest status, which has a flow to it. The dialogue between characters of higher status seems overly elaborate, even pretentious, and perhaps echoes written work of the time.

Meek doesn’t do much to get readers interested in his characters, so at first I had difficulty becoming involved in the novel. After a while, I got more interested. I read this novel for my Walter Scott prize project.

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Review 1678: The World My Wilderness

Seventeen-year-old Barbary Deniston has grown up running wild in occupied France and was a member of the enfante maquis of the French Resistance. Now that the war is over, she doesn’t seem to know the difference and is still involved with the maquis, which is hunting down collaborators. Her mother, Helen, was neglectful while happy with her stepfather, but now that he has died, they’ve had a falling out. Helen decides to send her to London to live with her father, Gulliver. Also going is her stepbrother Raoul, who is to study and learn his uncle’s business.

Barbary is a fish out of water in her father’s upper-middle-class home. He is too busy with work to pay attention to her, and his wife, Pamela, dislikes her. In many ways immature, Barbary believes her parents would reunite if it weren’t for Pamela and her baby son, so she is determined to dislike them. Her father enrolls her at the Sloane and just assumes she goes there, but she and Raoul roam the streets and find a ruined section of London that reminds them of home. Soon, they are associating with deserters and thieves.

Macaulay treats all of her flawed characters with empathy, but it was hard for me to relate to Barbary. However, this novel made me realize how chaotic post-war France and London must have been. I haven’t read any other books that deal with that subject.

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Review 1668: The Vicomte de Bragelonne

My edition of the Collected Works of Alexandre Dumas explains that The Vicomte de Bragelonne was originally published as a massive work but is traditionally published in English as either three or four separate novels: The Vicomte de Bragelonne, Ten Years Later, Louise de la Valliere, and The Man in the Iron Mask. I read the first book, which was quite long in itself.

I felt I was at a disadvantage in reading this book because it is one of the D’Artagnan novels and I haven’t read The Three Musketeers for many years or Twenty Years After ever. Although all four of the original characters appear, I felt that I didn’t understand their relationships to each other. As for the title character, who is the son of Athos, although he makes a couple of appearances, this first novel in the set is about D’Artagnan.

In the beginning of the novel, Louis XIV is a young king, but he has been under the control of Cardinal Mazarin for most of his life. D’Artagnan is the lieutenant of the musketeers, and he overhears when Charles II of England comes penniless to the king to ask for money and men to take back his kingdom. Louis’s finances are kept strictly in the Cardinal’s hands, so Louis goes to the Cardinal to ask for the money or men. The Cardinal, who has made himself wealthy at the kingdom’s expense, tells Louis there is no money and he can’t spare any men. When D’Artagnan sees Louis send Charles away with nothing despite wanting to help him, he resigns in disgust, determined to help Charles.

D’Artagnan’s friend Athos, now the Comte de la Ferre, also wants to help Charles. He was present at the beheading of Charles’s father and knows the Charles I buried a million livres at Newcastle. Athos determines to fetch the money.

This novel seems disjointed. More than half of it deals with the two missions on behalf of Charles, while the rest deals with Louis finally coming into power and sending D’Artagnan on a mission. Perhaps as a complete work, with all its parts, it would seem more coherent, but at this time I was not willing to put in the time to read the whole thing.

I read this for my Classics Club list.

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Review 1653: The Parisian

Midhat Kamal is the son of a wealthy textile merchant from Nablus in Palestine. His father more or less deserted him with his second marriage after his mother’s death and lives in Cairo, visiting a few times a year. When Midhat is 19, in 1914, his father decides he should study medicine in France and arranges for him to stay with a French professor of anthropology, Frédéric Molineu, in Montpellier.

Unfortunately, Midhat falls in love with Molineu’s daughter, Jeanette. Although his feelings seem to be returned, Midhat discovers a betrayal that makes him flee Montpellier for Paris. In Paris, he works on developing a reputation as a bon vivant and womanizer, only peripherally involved in his friends’ discussions about Arab nationalism.

Nonetheless, returning to Nablus, he almost immediately adopts the life his father demands, learning how to run the Nablus store in preparation for moving to Cairo and finding a wife. Events, however, will turn the course of his life again.

Although the novel covers the beginning of the fight for Arab nationalism against the British and French, which sounds interesting, as well as the time period of World War I, Hammad is hampered by her choice of main character, for Midhat is so self-absorbed through most of this book that he hardly seems to know what’s going on around him. This detachment affects the readers’ relationship to the novel, making me feel detached from its actions. Further, although there is a weak link between the first part of the book and the rest, there seemed to be little connection except that Midhat’s self-absorption is related to this character he has created for himself, the Parisian. I found the love affair unconvincing in any case.

For a historical novel set in an interesting time and place, there is very little sense of that time or place. So, not a big recommendation from me for this novel, which I read for my Walter Scott project. It is well written, but although important things happen in the novel, the action is at such a remove that it feels as if nothing is happening, if that makes any sense.

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Review 1587: Captain Paul

Quite a few years ago now, I bought the collected works of several 19th century writers in ebook form from Delphi Classics and resolved to read them all, starting from the earliest works. I didn’t get very far—read one or two novels by each—before life got in the way of my project and I forgot it. But recently, I thought I would occasionally interject one of those novels into my regular reading, and the first one is Captain Paul by Alexandre Dumas, his second novel.

Now, this novel is quiet peculiar, for Dumas was inspired for it by James Fennimore Cooper’s The Pilot, which is about John Paul Jones. I haven’t read The Pilot, but it seems that Dumas has taken some liberties with Jones’s life if not with Cooper’s book. In particular, while naming his character Paul Jones, as Cooper apparently does in his book, and using some actual episodes from John Paul Jones’s life, he makes him a Frenchman (he was, of course, Scottish-American), and he gives him an entirely fictional but romantic lineage as the illegitimate son of a French count (although JPJ was born on an estate, the son of a gardener, so maybe Dumas was making some sort of assertion about his birth).

In the novel, Captain Paul, unaccountably donning two disguises in the first few pages, takes onboard his ship a prisoner of France that he is supposed to deliver to the prison island of Cayenne. The crew is not supposed to speak to the prisoner, but his conduct during a battle with an English ship leads Captain Paul to ask for the story of the prisoner, Hector de Lusignan.

Six months later, Captain Paul visits Count Emmanuel d’Auray, who originally delivered Lusignan to the ship, to tell him he knows he imprisoned Lusignan unlawfully. Lusignan’s crime was to fall in love, without fortune, with d’Auray’s sister, Marguerite, and have a child with her. While d’Auray got rid of Lusignan, his mother, the Marchioness, removed Marguerite’s child. Now, they are trying to force her to marry a fop who has promised d’Auray a commission. Captain Paul announces his intention to get Lusignan a pardon and remove Marguerite’s child from wherever it is hidden. But when he learns Marguerite still loves Lusignan, he decides to help the lovers.

There are more secrets to come, including Captain Paul’s own identity.

This is a short, fast-moving novel once you get over your bemusement about poor John Paul Jones. It is entertaining, but after all the action is over, Dumas couldn’t resist adding an Epilogue, which tells us how everyone ended up and also contains more of Jones’s real (maybe) exploits. The Epilogue, therefore, is about as long as two or three of the chapters, and everything bogs down tremendously. This is the addition of an inexperienced writer, and we all know he improved.

By the way, I believe that the figure depicted on the cover above (which is not the edition I read) is actually supposed to be Alexandre Dumas’s father, who was a famous general.

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Review 1556: Dark Enchantment

I was delighted to receive a review copy of Dark Enchantment from Tramp Press from their Recovered Voices series and decided to time my review for the season. This is especially felicitous because the movie from another Dorothy Macardle book, The Uninvited, has been my family’s go-to Halloween movie for years. This is another entry for RIPXV.

After three years of teaching, an occupation that Juliet Frith likens to drudgery, she is exhausted and unwell. Her employers, eager for her to leave because of newspaper stories about her mother, have summoned her father to take her away. Frith is an actor who can’t afford to support Juliet and doesn’t know what to do with her, but for now they are vacationing on the Côte d’Azur.

On a day trip to visit villages in the Alps Maritimes, Juliet is taken ill at an inn, so Frith makes arrangements for them to stay the entire week. Juliet improves rapidly and befriends the pregnant wife of the innkeeper, Martine, so Frith arranges for Juliet to stay there when he has to leave for a job. Juliet will be working half-time at the inn for the length of Martine’s pregnancy. It helps that Juliet has met Michael, studying trees in the nearby forest.

The lives of all the villagers are soon wrapped up in drama because of Terka, a beautiful Romany woman who is missing an eye. She has a reputation as a sorceress, and the villagers are terrified of her. Although Juliet thinks Terka is being treated unfairly, Martine’s husband René is foremost at trying to drive her out of the area, so she has turned her attentions to poor Martine as well as others. Things begin to get ugly.

This novel develops slowly at first, but it has appealing characters and kept my interest. Although the threat foretold for Juliet doesn’t really pan out, she becomes deeply involved in the fortunes of Martine and René. I enjoyed this light read very much.

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Review 1551: The Grey Woman

Here’s another book for RIPXV.

This novel opens with an unnamed narrator, a traveler in Germany, who meets a pale woman known as The Grey Woman. When he asks for her story, she gives him a letter she wrote to her daughter. This letter contains her story.

As a young girl in 1778, Anna Scherer is very beautiful. A miller’s daughter, she is invited to visit a school friend in Karlsruhe, where she stays with the Rupprechts. She is a shy girl, but she makes a conquest of her social better, a Frenchman named Monsieur de la Tourelle. She is pushed by Frau Rupprecht into receiving him and accepting his gifts, and the next thing she knows, she is engaged to marry him even though he makes her feel uncomfortable.

After their marriage, de la Tourelle takes her to his castle in the Vosges Mountains, where she feels that the servants spy on her. He makes her cut all ties to her family and tries to control her every movement, not allowing her even to go for a walk. The saving grace is Amante, the servant he hired to be her lady’s maid.

Aside from being a stern and controlling husband, de la Tourelle has a fearsome secret, which Anna and her maid discover by accident.

This novel is typical of the gothic genre that was popular in its time, except that it is much more believable than most that I have read, not including any supernatural elements. I took it to be one of Gaskell’s earlier works, and it may have been, because it was published the year of her death, in 1865. It is very short, easy reading, although the antique-sounding dialogue is a bit cumbersome. Luckily, there’s not much of it.

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Review 1530: The Last of Chéri

The Last of Chéri is the second novella by Colette about Chéri and Léa. I try to avoid spoilers, but in this case I can’t avoid one, although it is actually about the previous novella, Chéri.

At the end of Chéri, Léa, Chéri’s middle-aged lover, made a sacrifice of her own love by separating from the young Chéri so that he could grow up. Now, it’s six years later. World War I has intervened, during which Chéri received a medal he didn’t exactly earn. His wife, Edmeé, is heavily involved in running a hospital and is in love with its lead physician. During the war, Edmeé and Charlotte, his mother, took over managing his fortune, a task that he was good at, and he doesn’t know how to ask for it back. His friends have been killed or have gone to work. In short, Chéri feels no purpose in life. The old ways of living for pleasure are dead, and in any case, he finds them boring.

Chéri hasn’t thought of Léa for years, but with her he was loved. He wonders if he can return to her.

I frankly didn’t much like the Chéri of the first novella, but I have more sympathy with thirty-year-old Chéri, even though I regret the solution he finds for his problem. Ultimately, this book is an indictment of how he was raised, and I eventually found it touching.

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Review 1525: Manga Classics Les Misérables

I never wanted to read Les Misérables after seeing an old movie that started out with Jean Valjean bashing in the head of a kindly priest who had taken him in, all during an attempt to steal the church silver. That made me turn it off. However, just for grins, I decided to give the Manga Classics version a try.

This, of course, is the story of the redemption of the escaped prisoner Jean Valjean and his pursuit by the policeman Javert, set against the background of the Paris Uprising.

Obviously, I can’t tell how faithful it is to the original even though I have also seen the musical, but there are a lot of characters, so I’m guessing they made a good attempt. The art is not as beautiful as I’ve found in a few graphic novels (although it’s classic Manga style), but the characters are well drawn and easy to tell apart, and the story is easy to follow. I haven’t read any other Manga, so I can only compare it to other types of graphic novels, and it is definitely more dependent upon text than some that I have read (but not all).

As to the quality of the edition, there were some pages in which the tops of the letters were chopped off, although you could still read them.

Did I enjoy it? It was okay. The story seems full of schmaltz, but it was interesting enough for me to consider putting the original on my next Classics Club list.

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Review 1494: #1920Club! Chéri

I haven’t read any Colette for a long time, so I thought it would be fun to read Chéri for the 1920 Club. It is the story of Léa, a middle-aged but beautiful courtesan, and her young lover, called Chéri, set in 1913.

Léa has been with her spoiled, childish lover since he was a very young man, but now his mother, Madame Peloux, thinks it’s time he was married. So, he and Léa prepare to part. Once parted, though, they both realize that they loved the other more than they thought.

Colette’s world of wealthy and stylish early 20th century Parisians is in some ways more foreign to me than stories about cultures much further removed. I couldn’t help feeling how sterile are lives lived only for pleasure. Also, I don’t really understand the attraction of a young man who behaves like a petulant child. But this is part of the realization that Léa finally has, that it’s about time he grew up.

The descriptions of people, rooms, and clothing are evocative and lovely. Despite my not being over fond of it, this is a masterly examination of the human heart.

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