Review 1741: Classics Club Dare 2.0: The Bride of Lammermoor

If you’re not familiar with the plot of The Bride of Lammermoor, you might be wondering why I picked it for the Classics Club Dare 2.0, Time to Get Your Goth On. It’s not a gothic horror story common for the time but one of Sir Walter Scott’s historical novels about a doomed love. However, the ending, which I’m not revealing, puts it in a more appropriate category as do the dark local legends and prophesies of withered old dames (perhaps witches), not to mention the ruined tower.

Edgar, Master of Ravenwood, is from a proud Scottish family of distinguished lineage. His profligate father, however, did his best to waste the family estate and finished things off by fighting on the wrong side of the revolution. With other parties in power, lawsuits filed against the estate by William Ashton, Keeper of the Great Seal of Scotland, have resulted in almost all of the Ravenwood property being turned over to Ashton and in an early grave for Ravenwood’s father. The impoverished Master has sworn vengeance against Ashton.

Ashton, however, is a politician, and he hears that the political situation is changing. Things may be looking up for the Marquis of A___ and thus for his relative, the Master. After the Master saves Ashton and his beautiful daughter Lucy from a wild bull, Ashton tries to befriend him, even encouraging him to spend time with Lucy and Ashton himself considering the benefits of a marriage between the two. Against the Master’s better judgment (and supernatural warnings), he begins to fall in love with Lucy. They become betrothed, but Lucy wants it kept secret from her family.

Some meddling from a neighbor who is not a friend of the Master’s leads Lady Ashton, staying with friends away from home, to hear the rumors that her daughter is engaged to him. She is his implacable enemy, so she swoops home to Ravenwood Castle just as the Marquis of A___ comes for a visit. The Master has been residing there at Ashton’s invitation, but Lady Ashton unceremoniously throws him out. He has already agreed with Lucy, however, that he will consider himself betrothed until she herself releases him. Then he goes off to make his fortune.

This novel was quite hard going for me at times, particularly in the sections and whole chapters that are in Scottish vernacular. These are the parts concerning the common people, and some of them are supposed to be funny, especially the ones about the machinations of Caleb Balderstone, the Master’s only servant, as he tries to hide what everyone already knows—that his master is destitute. I just felt they slowed down the action as well as being hard to understand and not that funny.

The action, however, eventually gets going and really picks up toward the end of the novel. I read the second half twice as quickly as the first.

Related Posts

Guy Mannering

Waverley

Kenilworth

Review 1736: #1976 Club! 1876

When I was selecting a book to read for the 1976 Club, I realized I had read only one book by Gore Vidal and that so long ago I could barely remember it. So, I picked 1876.

Vidal’s sometime-narrator Charles Schuyler is returning to America after almost a lifetime in Europe, where he was documenting European events for the American press. He is accompanied by his daughter Emma, the widowed Princess d’Agrigente. Their circumstances are dire. Schuyler’s fortune was wiped out in the Panic of ’73, and when d’Agrigento died unexpectedly, Schuyler was shocked to find that the Prince’s debts exceeded his fortune. So, Schuyler has come back to America with two goals—to help get Governor Tilden elected as President in the next election so that he will be granted a post and to find a wealthy husband for his daughter.

They first return to New York. It is the Gilded Age, and they are at once drawn into the opulent but vulgar world of robber barons, the Astors and others, who now that they are loaded are trying to become the heads of society. Vidal uses this section to draw sketches and repeat gossip about many of these figures. The first section of the novel reminded me very much of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. I recognized some characters, although here they go by their real names.

I was about 100 pages into this social whirl, observed with a great deal of snark, when I began to wonder where the plot of the novel was. It eventually emerged, with almost creaking slowness, as the events of the election of 1876, told with a great deal of bias.

Now, I’m not an expert on this period, but I recently read Ron Chernow’s biography of President Grant. In it, he made the point that Grant’s ruined reputation was partially a result of the number of Southern historians who predominated from the post-Civil War years up well past World War II. Well, Vidal has certainly read them, for he does his best to continue trashing Grant. Governor Tilden is running as a Democrat, but not once do his characters mention, for example, the dire results for the South if a Democrat was elected that year. At this time, Federal troops were still posted in the South because people—particularly black men—were still being murdered years after the war. Vidal glancingly mentions but shrugs off suggestions that people were being “discouraged” from voting Republican and says that Grant dispatched troops to some Southern cities to meddle with the vote. Grant sent troops to avoid more deaths and to allow people to vote the way they wanted to. In any case, the result of the election for the South was the same, because the Republican candidate, Rutherford Hayes, promised the removal of troops from the South to get more votes, thus ending Reconstruction and setting the South back years in its recovery and in civil rights.

The 1876 election was stolen from Tilden, and the story of it might have been interesting if more impartially handled. Instead, Vidal makes Tilden the only honest politician in a country riddled with corruption (it was, but I doubt Tilden was the only honest man) and plays down the skullduggery engaged in by the Democrats.

Further, there are too many characters in this novel to keep track of and they are too lightly characterized. Vidal seems more interested in relating scandalous tidbits and making up epigrams.

Then there’s the description on the novel cover, which should have tipped me off about how I was going to feel about it. I know that authors don’t write the blurbs, but it’s he that calls his historical novels “Narratives of Empire.” Now there’s a guy who takes himself seriously. The cover says, “With their broad canvas and large cast of fictional and historical characters, the novels in this series present a panorama of the American political and imperial experience as interpreted by one of its most worldy, knowing, and ironic observers.” Oh, man.

Related Posts

The Age of Innocence

Grant

The Fall of the House of Walworth: A Tale of Madness and Murder in Gilded Age America

Review 1731: Old Filth

From his birth and continuing through his adolescence, Edward Feathers was abandoned or taken away from every person he loved. As an adult, he was a still, stiff man unable to love.

After the death of his wife, Betty, Sir Edward, or Old Filth as he is known in the world of law where he is a prominent lawyer, begins re-examining the events of his past. He also makes attempts to connect with people important to him, but these attempts are abortive. Slowly, all the things he has never spoken of are revealed.

Written in sterling prose, Old Filth is a mesmerizing story about the Raj Orphans, children who were shipped to England at an early age from the Far East. The novel is touching and completely gripping. And for those who loved it like I did, hooray! It’s the first of a trilogy.

Related Posts

The Cat’s Table

The Garden of the Evening Mists

The Singapore Grip

If I Gave the Award

Having reviewed the last book from the 2020 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction shortlist, it’s now time for my feature where I decide whether the judges got it right. Frankly, 2020 was an odd year, with several books that, while interesting, really didn’t do it for me. In fact, quite a few of them cultivated distance between the reader and the work.

As I often do, I’ll start with the books I liked least. One is The Parisian by Isabella Hammad. This novel covers the beginning of the fight for Arab nationalism and the First World War, so it should have been interesting. However, Hammad writes it from the point of view of a man who distances himself from the action by the persona he invents for himself.

Another distancing book was The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey, which was the winner for 2020. It is about the relationship between the artist Edward Hopper and his wife Jo. It is slow moving and mostly a character study about a self-absorbed man who seemed to live his life in the interior of his own mind. I felt that although Jo was depicted as jealous and demanding, she was upset about something understandable—her career coming so much secondary to his and in fact his disdain of her work.

To Calais, In Ordinary Time by James Meek is a little more experimental than the other nominees. It is about a 14th century journey from the Cotswolds to Calais, and it is written only in words in use at the time. It also reflects, in tone and plot, its medieval inspirations. However, Meek doesn’t do much with his characters, so I had difficulty becoming involved in the novel.

The Redeemed by Tim Pears was the third book in his West Country Trilogy, and it is set during the last years and the aftermath of World War I about a man who has to make his own way after becoming homeless as a boy. Having spent three books with these characters, I found the conclusion of the trilogy anti-climactic. I actually thought the first book was best.

Joseph O’Connor has written a novel about 30 years in the life of Bram Stoker, with Shadowplay. I found this novel involving and interesting. It’s about Stoker’s work with the Lyceum Theatre and his relationship with two famous actors, Ellen Terry and Henry Irving. It even has just a bit of a supernatural influence.

Although it took me a while to get into A Sin of Omission by Marguerite Poland, I found it absolutely heart-rending by the end. It is based on the life of a native Anglican missionary to South Africa, about a man whose upbringing sets him apart from his own people as well as his English white patrons. This novel is my choice for the 2020 award.

Review 1728: A Sin of Omission

A Sin of Omission opens with Stephen Mzamane making a long journey to see his best friend, Albert Newnham, across the region known in the 19th century as Kaffraria on the Cape of South Africa. During this journey, the novel looks back on his life.

Picked up as a starving child in the bush by Reverend Basil Rutherford, Stephen is raised at a mission to become an Anglican priest. Once his family learns where he is, his father brings his older son, Mzamo, there too, reasoning that the boys will not succeed unless they learn to be English. The Ngqika tribe has been driven off its lands by the British, and because of a prophecy that foretold the British would leave if the people destroyed their crops and animals, his father has killed his cattle and burned his crops. Although he is an important man, he has to work on the roads to avoid starving.

The Church is making it a practice to raise the sons of important natives as British clerics in an attempt to convert the people. Both Stephen and Mzamo are intended for this program. However, Mzamo is rebellious while Stephen is dedicated and devout, so Mzamo is ejected from the program.

Stephen is eventually sent to Canterbury to be educated at the Missionary College. There, although he is a fish out of water, he becomes best friends with a fellow student, Albert Newnham. Unfortunately for this friendship, Albert eventually chooses to marry a girl who is completely unsuited to be a missionary’s wife and is racist.

Things begin to go wrong after the young men take an ill-considered shortcut so as not to be late for tea, but Stephen only begins to learn the fruits of this event when he returns to Africa. Although he still needs to pass Greek and Latin exams to become a priest, unlike his white fellows, he is given a post far from any libraries or tutors. The job he expected to get working at the missionary college with his beloved Mfundisi Turvey, principal of that college, eventually goes to Albert. Instead of being give a post together, as promised, they are separated. In fact, Stephen is alone because the nearest cleric to his post is racist.

Stephen is also no longer a part of his own people, although his brother plays a large part in his fate. The major events of this novel are initiated when he learns of his brother’s death.

This novel is partially based on the life of Stephen Mtutuko Mnyakama, a missionary of the Anglican Church of the Holy Trinity. Although it didn’t initially pull me in, I eventually found it absorbing and heart-rending. This is a novel I probably wouldn’t have discovered had it not been for my Walter Scott project.

Related Posts

Things Fall Apart

The House Gun

Sex and Stravinsky

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.

Related Posts

The Wake

The Last Hours

The Illuminator

Review 1723: A Fugue in Time

Godden attempts something unusual in A Fugue in Time. She makes a house that has held the same family for a century into a sort of conscious entity and tells the story of the family in collapsing time.

It’s World War II, and old Rolls Dane has received notice that the 99-year lease on his house has elapsed and the owners want it back. The house was the one his parents moved into upon their marriage, and it has been the scene of many events, including his own unhappy love affair.

Rolls has been leading a reclusive life with only one servant left in the big house, and he is not pleased when his great niece, Grizel, an American officer, comes to ask if she can stay in the house. Later, Pax Masterson, an RAF officer being treated for burns, comes to visit the house that he’s heard about all his life from his mother, Lark, the girl Rolls’s father brought home many years before after her parents died in a railway accident.

Although I eventually got involved in this novel, its basic premise seemed at first affected and I didn’t think it was going to work. Early on, for example, there is a five- or six-page description of the house that slowed momentum to a standstill. Then, the shifts in time sometimes take place within the same paragraph, and at first it’s hard to grasp the when. There are some cues, for example Rolls’s name changes from Roly to Rollo to Rolls.

This is not one of my favorite Godden books, but the idea behind it is an interesting one. It reminded me a little of A Harp in Lowndes Square, in which images and sounds of the future and past reside in a house.

Related Posts

A Harp in Lowndes Square

The Lady and the Unicorn

Pippa Passes

Review 1719: The Nonesuch

Often when I am in the middle of some hefty nonfiction book, I take a break by reading some sort of light fiction. I was reading a biography of Lyndon Johnson when I thought I hadn’t read any Georgette Heyer lately, so I picked The Nonesuch out of my library.

The inhabitants of the village of Oversett are all interested when they hear that Sir Waldo Hawkridge, known as the Nonesuch, has inherited Broom Hall from the miserly Joseph Calver and will be arriving to look it over. The young men are excited to see this notable whip. Up at Staples, kindly Mrs. Underhill is dismayed to learn that Sir Waldo has arrived with a lord, his young cousin Lord Lindeth, for her unprincipled but beautiful ward, Tiffany Wield, has announced that she means to marry into the nobility. Tiffany’s governess/companion, Ancilla Trent, remarks with her customary humor and calmness that they will just have to convince Tiffany she is wasted on anyone under a Marquess.

Lord Lindeth meets Tiffany after she carefully arranges an encounter while he is out fishing. When Waldo sees her and her affect on Lindeth, he is dismayed. However, he is much struck by Ancilla. It is Ancilla who does not have a high opinion of Corinthians, the set to which Waldo belongs.

As usual with Heyer, this novel is full of likeable characters, humor, and an engaging hero and heroine. I tend to like Heyer’s sillier plots best, because they are so funny. This is not one of them, but I enjoyed it very much just the same. A perfect Covid-era lightener. (I re-read it last January.)

Related Posts

The Convenient Marriage

Sprig Muslin

Cotillion

Review 1718: Literary Wives! The Amateur Marriage

Today is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs.

Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

* * *

It’s December 7, 1941. Michael Anton is working in the family store in an Eastern European Baltimore neighborhood when Pauline comes in with some neighborhood girls. It’s apparent to everyone that he’s a goner. Excitement is in the streets because of that day’s declaration of war against Japan, and in the impulse of Pauline’s excitement, Michael enlists.

Michael is injured during training, so he never goes to war but instead marries Pauline. Michael is steady, perhaps a little stolid. Pauline is emotional, reacting to every little thing and often over-reacting. The Amateur Marriage follows what is really an ill-assorted couple through their marriage—children, deaths, family crises—and beyond.

Tyler is excellent in her minute observations of everyday life. She sees the cracks in the American dream and reveals them with empathy. I enjoyed this novel, although at times Pauline drove me crazy.

What does this book say about wives or the experience of being a wife

At first, I thought Tyler was going to show how this admittedly mismatched couple could still make a lasting marriage, but that turned out not to be the case. The couple come together almost completely by chance, and later, when we learn about Pauline’s previous dating career and her career while Michael is in the service, we realize that if Michael had gone to war, Pauline would almost certainly have found someone else before he got back.

In the beginning of the relationship, the chemistry between them works pretty well, even though they obviously go into marriage with different expectations. Michael, for example, believes they will continue to live above the store, while Pauline assumes they will buy a house in the suburbs even though they can’t afford one. Michael at first seems relatively unambitious, while it is Pauline’s ideas that push him to do better than his parents’ store. The difficulties come when the chemistry starts to wear off.

This novel depicts a couple a little older than my parents although more conservative. In fact, in many ways they resemble my parents, some in temperament and others generationally. However, frankly Pauline is sometimes so volatile that I don’t know how anyone could live with her. It seems as though someone more expressive than Michael would make her feel more secure but would be even more likely to fight with her. And some of the things she says when she’s upset, which in later years seems like all the time, are really nasty.

Although Tyler isn’t explicit about this, I can’t help thinking that a lot of Pauline’s unhappiness comes from the sterile suburban life that my mother also lived, because the Antons do eventually move to the suburbs. Theirs is a typical 50’s marriage, with Michael away working a lot and not as involved with his children as he could be, with Pauline taking all the responsibility for the house and child care.

Pauline, a social girl, is isolated in the suburbs except for neighborhood parties and gossip by the pool or visits back to the old neighborhood (which, however, was not her old neighborhood, but Michael’s). However, she also cultivates a helplessness that I found shocking, when later in life she can’t light her own pilot light or shovel her own driveway.

Literary Wives logo

Michael is a little more of a mystery because we don’t hear from him as often. He makes the same kind of mistakes as my father did, for example, buying practical gifts instead of frivolous or romantic ones. They fight about money, but he has had a careful immigrant upbringing of scrimping and saving, while hers has been more privileged—and she does seem to do some reckless spending.

I also felt this novel showed how people tend to concentrate on the negatives of their relationship when they’re at odds. It is only when things are long over that both Michael and Pauline begin to remember some of the things that brought them together in the first place.

Related Posts

Monogamy

Alternate Side

Happenstance

Review 1713: The Narrow Land

As a young child, Michael Novak was rescued during World War II and sent to the States as part of a program for orphaned children. There, he was adopted by the Novaks. At 10, he is still extremely fearful and full of routines he follows to calm himself. So, he is resistant when Mrs. Novak tries to put him on a train, the first step in a journey to spend the summer on Cape Cod with the Kaplans. Finally, he decides to go.

On the island in 1950 live the artist Edward Hopper and his wife Jo. Although they tend to be standoffish with the vacationers, Michael forms a friendship of sorts with Jo. And it’s really the relationship between Edward and Jo that this book is about.

Edward has been having a dry spell, and he seems preoccupied with trying to find a woman he painted a few years before. She is right under his nose in the person of Katherine Kaplan, Mrs. Kaplan’s daughter, who is dying of cancer. He has seen her and noted the resemblance, but she is no longer dyeing her hair blond. He is an introvert who spends most of his time in his own head.

Jo is extremely jealous of him and thinks he pays too much attention to Olivia, Mrs. Kaplan’s daughter-in-law, when it is really Olivia paying attention to him. Jo is in fact irrationally and violently angry at times, particularly when she feels she had to abandon her career when she became his wife. Although Jo has some moments of self-awareness, I really think Hickey treats her harshly as a character. Granted, I know nothing about the couple’s life, but Hickey shows her making a fool of herself at a party with her airs and graces and spiteful remarks about other people.

Hopper is not very nice to Jo and belittles her art, although I read about that and found she had some standing as an artist.

This novel, which I read for my Walter Scott project, was slow moving, and for a long time I couldn’t tell whether it was going anywhere. Sometimes that doesn’t bother me, but in this case I had a hard time staying interested. The novel does have a payoff in the end, but it is more character study than plot-based.

Related Posts

That Old Cape Magic

The Blazing World

Suzanne