Review 1706: Milton Place

Milton Place is sort of an update of King Lear—set in the 1950’s. It is partially drawn from de Waal’s experience and is one of two novels published posthumously.

Mr. Barlow, the elderly owner of Milton Place, receives a letter one morning from Anita Seiler. She is the daughter of a girl he fell in love with long ago in Austria, but unfortunately he was already engaged. Anita tells him that she no longer has ties in Austria and would like to come to England, asking him to recommend her to someone for work. He writes back inviting her to stay.

His daughter Emily is a busybody who thinks it’s time he sold Milton Place and moved somewhere smaller where he can be more comfortable. It’s true that the place is cold and shabby, but Mr. Barlow is comfortable in the few rooms he uses and loves his garden. However, Emily is already setting out on a plan to have the county request the house for a home for unwed mothers. When Emily hears about the new house guest, she is certain that Anita is after her father’s money.

Anita and Mr. Barlow get along beautifully, and he wants her to stay. She feels uncomfortable staying as a visitor, so she begins cleaning all the vacant rooms and making the house more cheerful.

Things change, though, with the arrival of Tony, Mr. Barlow’s beloved grandson, on break from university.

One plot line of this novel bothered me a bit. I want to be a little mysterious about it, but my difficulty hinges on how adult an 18-year-old boy is. I admit there is probably a difference of opinion on this, that clearly in the novel there is, and that this idea changes over time. That is, an 18-year-old of either sex is now considered less of an adult than they would have been then, and then less than 50 years before.

This caused a problem for me, but I found the novel beautifully written and affecting.

A Thousand Acres

King Lear

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Day 685: A Thousand Acres

Cover of A Thousand AcresBest Book of the Week!
A Thousand Acres is a powerful novel set mostly in 1979 rural Iowa. It evokes a completely realized world that is complex and secret.

Ginny Smith has lived on the family farm all her life. Her husband Ty farms alongside her father, Larry Cook, and she and Ty live on what used to be their neighbor’s property, which Larry has bought to make his thousand acres of land. Ginny’s sister Rose also lives on the farm, and her husband Pete works with Larry as well, a bit less comfortably. The women’s youngest sister Caroline is a lawyer in Des Moines.

Ginny is proud of her family’s accomplishment in creating a fine, well-run farm out of the swampland her great-grandparents bought sight unseen. It soon becomes clear that the farm and the relationship to the land is the most important thing to her family—to all of the families in the area.

At a local barbecue, Larry makes an unexpected announcement. He will create a corporation of the farm and hand it over to his three daughters. Ginny, who is mild-mannered, is taken aback and has doubts, but she does not say anything. Rose seems to be enthusiastic. Caroline simply says “I don’t know,” at which point, Larry petulantly cuts her out. When she tries to approach him later, he slams the door in her face.

Harold Clark, another older farmer, has his prodigal son Jess return after an absence of many years. Almost immediately, he begins to favor Jess over his more loyal and hard-working son Loren.

If this all is beginning to sound familiar, it should, for A Thousand Acres is a modern re-imagining of King Lear. This novel, however, turns the original on its head, for we see it from the point of view of the two “greedy” sisters. In fact, Smiley accomplishes a rather clever trick, because while the neighbors and townspeople see events occur that, from their points of view, seem parallel to those of the play, the readers of the novel are conscious of a whole new layer of information, about how two old men lie and exaggerate when they don’t get their way, and how family secrets fuel Ginny’s timidity and Rose’s rage.

This novel presents complicated, flawed characters in a fully realized setting. It is really excellent and thought-provoking.

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King Lear


Day 375: King Lear

Cover for King LearKing Lear is about fathers and their children–in particular, how two fathers misjudge their children, mistaking flattery and trickery for love, and push away those who sincerely love them. It is also about the responsibilities of power.

We all know the plot. King Lear has three daughters, Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia. As he is an old man, Lear wants to rid himself of the cares of governing while keeping the title and prerogatives of his office. So, he proposes to divide his property among his daughters but first sets them a silly test of telling him how much they love him to determine the sizes of their gifts. Regan and Goneril reply fulsomely, but Cordelia, who is not comfortable with expressing feelings, replies with restraint. Lear, who had planned to give her the biggest piece as she is his favorite, banishes her and splits his kingdom between the two other sisters.

In a parallel story, the Duke of Gloucester has two sons. His eldest, Edgar, is legitimate, while Edmund is not. Edmund, who is a lot like Iago but with more cause, decides to take all that Edgar has, so he forges a letter that makes it seem as though Edgar is trying to tempt Edmund into murdering their father. He also keeps Edgar away from Gloucester by making him think that he, Edmund, is on Edgar’s side and telling him that Gloucester is angry.

In both cases the fathers, without considering their own experiences of their children’s qualities, throw away the loving child and favor the conniving children.

One metaphor throughout the play is that of sight. Neither father can see what is plainly before him. Gloucester actually loses his sight during the course of the play, and Lear goes mad before he can see clearly.

Madness also factors heavily in the play. Lear is driven mad with grief when he sees his older daughters for what they are, while Edgar pretends to be a madman to hide from his brother and father. Of course, madness is exciting in the theatre because a mad character is allowed to say anything, but Lear’s lines seem very obscure to me, unlike Hamlet’s when he was pretending to be mad.

This play seems to me to be rather disorganized. A lot of time is spent wandering around on the moors, with different characters running into other characters. I confess to finding that part tedious. Cordelia, who in one way is so important to the play, spends most of it offstage, while the fool, who is a dominant character at the beginning of the play, is ruthlessly killed in the middle of it. I am not sure of the point of the scene where Edgar makes his father think he has committed suicide by leaping off a cliff. All in all, this play seems rather messy to me.