Day 1104: Vanity Fair

Cover for Vanity FairVanity Fair is a reread for me for my Classics Club list. It has been a long time since I’ve read it, though, and I was curious about whether I would have the same reaction to it.

The novel, of course, is Thackeray’s famous satire of society that follows two English girls through their launches into society and later lives. One is Amelia Sedley, the gentle, conventional heroine who has been the only girl to befriend Rebecca Sharp, the charity student. Amelia is only eager to marry George Osborne, her long-betrothed fiancé. Rebecca is determined to be a success and marry a rich man.

It may be perhaps predicted that good, honest Amelia suffers much more than conniving Becky. Early in the book, Amelia’s marriage to George is threatened when her father loses his fortune. Even though we readers already know that George cares for no one more than himself, Amelia goes into a decline.

Meanwhile, Becky makes her own improvident marriage. She runs off with Rawdon Crawley, the heir to her employer’s fortune, thinking that she will be able to bring Miss Crawley around.

The early days of both marriages are set against the backdrop of the battle of Waterloo, as both George Osbourne and Rawdon Crawley are serving officers. With them is George’s best friend, Dobbin, who falls madly in love with Amelia at first sight and helps her throughout the novel.

As a girl, I thought Amelia was completely insipid and admired Becky Sharp. But it must be said—Becky has no morals. This time through, although I still found Amelia a bit tiresome, I found myself sympathizing more with Rawdon and Dobbin.

In any case, this novel is often funny and always entertaining. Although Thackeray presents us with a conventional heroine for the time in Amelia, you can’t help thinking he had some admiration for the unsinkable Becky. By following her adventures, Thackeray shows us the foibles of members of polite society: the fights over inheritance, the sycophancy, the treatment of people as their fortunes wax and wane.

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Day 1082: Revelation

Cover for RevelationIn C. J. Sansom’s fourth Matthew Shardlake novel it is 1543. Matthew’s experiences working for Thomas Cromwell have driven him away from his former Reformist religious views, and he has been avoiding becoming involved in political cases. He has never been happier working for ordinary people in the Court of Requests.

But soon his friend Roger Elliard is murdered in a most peculiar way, and Matthew vows to Roger’s widow Dorothy that he will find the killer. This purpose forces him to work for Archbishop Cranmer, along with the Earl of Hertford and Thomas Seymour, who are all worried that Roger’s death has something to do with Lady Latimer, Catherine Parr, whom the king is courting. Their fears are because of a similar murder of Dr. Gurney, who attended Lord Latimer during his final illness. They appoint Matthew to work with Coroner Hartsnet to find the murderer.

Of course, their fears are political. Henry VIII has been turning more and more back to conservative religious views, away from the Reformists. The Seymours and Cranmer see a marriage to Catherine Parr as the only hope for Reform. The English are more and more polarized by religion, with fanatical Reformists ranting in the street on the one hand while Bishop Bonner cracks down on them on the other.

Soon Matthew is convinced that there have actually been three murders. Further, they are modeled after passages in Revelation that detail seven ghastly visitations.

Although Sansom’s Shardlake mystery novels create a fully realized world with highly developed, convincing characters, there is something about them that holds me back from complete attention. I am always mildly interested but not absorbed. In this case, the novel took me an unheard of twelve days to read. That makes me happy that I have only one more to read, the one for my Walter Scott Prize project, although since I understand there is only one more after that in the series, I may choose to finish the series.

Don’t misunderstand me. These novels have complex mysteries that are difficult to guess and are well researched and interesting. I think lots of people would and do love them. I have personally not been able to decide why I’m not that involved. Perhaps Matthew Shardlake is too depressive for me.

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Day 1025: Dolly: A Love Story

Cover for DollyDolly lives a Bohemian life in what she calls Vagabondia with her sisters and artist brother Phil, his wife, and baby Tod. They are poor, so Dolly works as a governess for her disapproving Aunt Augusta. Dolly is not pretty, but she is witty and vivacious, and at a party she attracts the attention of the wealthy Mr. Gowan.

Only Dolly’s inner circle knows that Dolly has been engaged for seven years to Griffith Donne. The couple has not married, because they can’t afford to, although they dream of the day they can. Grif is a volatile young man who gets discouraged at the lack of progress in his career and becomes jealous of Dolly’s flirtatious behavior. He has a wealthy aunt, Miss Berenice MacDowlas, but she disapproves of him.

Dolly’s troubles begin when Aunt Augusta dismisses her, declaring that her children are too old for a governess. She must find work, and she finally gets a position as companion to Miss MacDowlas. Unfortunately, she must live in, which limits her meetings with Grif. He becomes more and more upset until an unfortunately convergence of circumstances and a true emergency lead him to believe Dolly is toying with him. He breaks from her without allowing her to explain.

Burnett creates a warm family life for Dolly, and we get to know and appreciate her family. She is also good at appealing to our sympathies for her heroine.

This novel was marred for me, however, by my dislike of Grif. The core problem between him and Dolly is that Grif does not trust her, but Dolly takes the blame because of her flirtatiousness, a Victorian conclusion, for sure (and worse, the novel accepts the problem as her fault). Even in their ultimate misunderstanding, when Grif refuses to listen to her very good reason for missing their date, Dolly blames herself. Well, obviously attitudes have changed, but these days his behavior would raise all sorts of red flags. I very much preferred the behavior of Mr. Gowan, who proves to be a true friend. So, I guess in this case I am guilty of judging a book by today’s standards.

And, to give away a plot point, Dolly goes into a decline. I thought that she was an unlikely character to do so. So, a mixed reaction to this one, one of Burnett’s first novels.

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Day 976: The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer

Cover for The Wicked BoyDuring a scorching 1895 July in East London, Robert Coombes murdered his mother while she was sleeping. He and his younger brother Nattie continued to live in the house for ten days with their mother locked in her bedroom, decaying. They hocked items from the house for money and attended a cricket game and a play. They told neighbors and relatives their mother had gone to Liverpool to visit her sister. They invited a laborer named John Fox to live with them, and they all slept downstairs in the parlor. Their father was away at sea at the time.

When the boys’ Aunt Emily forced her way into the house and found the body, Robert told her that his mother had beaten Nattie and that Nattie had asked Robert to kill her when he gave the signal. This story later seemed to have been forgotten, and Nattie testified against Robert in trial.

This crime was shocking to the Victorians, and there were many theories about it, from the morally debilitating effects of the penny dreadfuls Robert loved to ideas about children’s innate base instincts that must be covered over by civilizing influences. No one really knows why Robert killed his mother, but journalist and writer Kate Summerscale has her ideas.

link to NetgalleySummerscale was able to follow Robert’s movements to Broadmoor Asylum after his committal and traced his career in World War I as an instrumentalist and stretcher bearer. At first I wondered where the epilogue was going but figured it was connected with the opening of the novel, about a fleeing boy.

I found this book very interesting. Although most of it focuses on the crime and trial, I found this story of a murderer’s redemption satisfying.

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Day 971: Basil

Cover for BasilSuch a deal. Last spring I purchased the collected works of several writers from Delphi Classics in e-book form. I made my choices from authors whose works I thought may not all be available in hardcover, which I prefer. Wilkie Collins was one of them, although I already own copies of several of his novels.

I also decided to tackle these works in the order in which they appear in each collection, which is often in order of publication. That may not have been the best idea, because in some cases, although not all, it subjects me first to the novels that are, shall we say, less polished. In the case of Collins, I found his first novel, Antonina, unreadable. It is his only historical novel, set in Roman times, and it features turgid prose and overblown pseudo-archaic dialogue.

Basil is his second novel, and here he gets right into the sensationalist fiction for which he was known. The first thing I want to say about it is that usually I try not to judge an older book by modern standards, especially in regard to customs or mores. But I am going to have to address this subject a bit later on. First, I’ll tell you what the book is about.

Basil is the younger son of a very proud, wealthy upper-class man. Basil has always striven to please rather than to disappoint his father, unlike his older brother. But one day Basil decides on a whim to take an omnibus home. Such daring! On the bus, he sees a beautiful young woman and falls madly in love with her. To his dismay, he learns she is the daughter of a linen draper named Sherwin. Even though Basil knows his father will never approve, he enters into a secret marriage with Margaret. However, he agrees with her father’s demand that he live apart from her for a year, never to see her alone during that time.

Although any child could see through the cupidity behind this demand and understand that it was suspicious, Basil goes through with it. He marries Margaret when he has known her about a week and spoken to her only a handful of times.

Already, before the plot even thickened, I was close to putting the book down. I don’t like femme fatale plots, and it was clear this was going to be one. Collins does not even attempt to fool us that this is going to come out well, because Basil says at the beginning that he is writing the manuscript while living alone and in disgrace.

But here is where I might be judging the book based on modern ethos. What occurs between Margaret and Basil gives me the creeps. He follows her home from the bus and bribes her servant to tell him when she is going out. He ambushes her on her walk. Then after one conversation, he arranges the marriage with her father. If you’re thinking that marriages at that time were all arranged, it is clear by Mr. Sherwin’s reaction that this was a very unusual situation. That he leaps to take advantage only shows his greed. Basically, I had a hard time not thinking of Basil as a stalker, when I believe we’re supposed to be impressed by his virtue in offering marriage rather than something else. A stalker and an idiot.

Then Mr. Mannion returns and things get a little more interesting. Mr. Mannion is Mr. Sherwin’s confidential secretary, who has been doing business for him in France. Mr. Mannion is described as a handsome man with a wooden face. He seems to be a person originally from a higher class. It is clear to the reader that something is going on among Mannion, Margaret, and Mrs. Sherwin that Basil doesn’t notice.

The novel becomes darker and more complicated than I anticipated. Does this save it? Well, it kept me reading, but no, not really. Collins hasn’t yet figured out how to structure a narrative. He includes pages of fretting that are supposed to make us sympathize with Basil but instead are annoying. For example, after the main action ends in the wilds of Cornwall, he includes several letters. This technique allows him a bit of a cliffhanger (in more ways than one) while also leaving room to tie up loose ends. But the last three or four pages are almost entirely unnecessary, and they seem to go on and on.

My conclusion? Read some Wilkie Collins but not this one.

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Day 917: Neverwhere

Cover for NeverwhereI haven’t read any Neil Gaiman except a book about a witch that he wrote with Terry Pratchett. That one was very silly, but I thought I should read some more Gaiman since he is so popular. I should maybe mention that fantasy is not usually my genre, with notable exceptions.

Richard Mayhew is happy with his life. He is a successful young investment counselor and is engaged to a beautiful but demanding woman. One night when they are on the way out for an important dinner with his fiancée’s boss, he finds an injured girl lying on the sidewalk. The girl is filthy, and Richard’s fiancée wants him to call an ambulance and leave her there. But Richard picks her up and takes her to his apartment.

We have already met the girl, being chased by two villains named Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar through dirty dark tunnels. When the two men come to Richard’s apartment looking for the girl, he says she is not there.

The girl’s name is Door, and she asks Richard if he will go somewhere for her and fetch the Marquis de Carabas. Doing this favor takes him to a strange world underneath London. Richard returns Door to the Marquis, but once she is gone, he realizes he can’t return to his own world. When he tries to, people can’t see him. He finds he has no job, no fiancée, and his flat is in the midst of being let to someone else. He returns to the other world to get help from Door.

Door is the daughter of Lord Portico, a family famous for opening things. Recently, her entire family was slaughtered by Croup and Vandemar, and she wants to find out who ordered it and why. When she returns home to find her father’s diary, it tells her to go to Islington, a legendary angel. Richard finds himself accompanying Door, the Marquis, and Door’s bodyguard Hunter on a dangerous quest through this alternate world that makes its home in the London underground, with characters whose names play on the names of underground stations.

At times this novel seems quite juvenile. In fact, partway through I started trying to figure out if it was intended for adults at all. This is because the humor often seems to be aimed at 14-year-old boys, for example, a villain who is constantly eating live slugs and pigeons. But the Introduction states that it is meant for adults, to do for them what books like the Chronicles of Narnia did for Gaiman as a child.

For this adult, anyway, it fails. I was mildly sympathetic to Richard’s plight, but the book doesn’t do enough with the characters to get us more interested in them. And I wasn’t enamored of Gaiman’s vision of a filthy, mud-filled underworld of strange beings.

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Day 911: A Place Called Winter

Cover for A Place Called WinterI read A Place Called Winter for my Walter Scott Prize project, the second book I’ve read for the 2016 list. Like one of the other books I read recently for that project, Arctic Summer, it has as a major theme the main character’s homosexuality. However, I found myself feeling much closer to the characters and more interested in the plot of this novel than I did for Arctic Summer.

At the beginning of the novel, Harry Cane is being treated, or rather mistreated, in an asylum in Canada. Shortly thereafter, he is transferred to an experimental center that treats the patients much more humanely. We understand that Harry has committed a crime, but we don’t know what it is. Between short chapters about his life at the center, we learn what brought him there.

The story of Harry’s life begins when his wealthy father dies. His brother Jack is still in school, and Harry undertakes his education and expenses. Harry is a man of no occupation who feels that he would like one, but he doesn’t know what to do about it. He feels vaguely that he would like to work an estate or a farm but thinks he has to be born to it. A shy man with an occasional stammer, he likes reading and horses. Eventually, he marries a shy woman, Winnie, who informs him on their wedding night that she loves someone else. Nevertheless, he cares for his wife and loves his daughter.

An investment recommendation by his brother-in-law takes a large part of Harry’s inheritance, and Harry and his family are forced to move in with his in-laws. He is an innocent-minded person, so it is not until he meets an actor named Browning that he realizes he is homosexual. He begins an affair with Browning, but then disaster strikes. His affair is exposed to his in-laws by a blackmailer and Harry is forced out of the family. Even his brother Jack, whom he loves, is pressured by his wife not to correspond with him.

Now totally alone, Harry emigrates to Canada and ends up in Saskatchewan, which is just being opened to settlement by the arrival of the Grand Trunk Railway. On shipboard, he meets Troels Munck, who finds him a position where he can learn farming and then helps him purchase a homestead. Munck, though, is a bully, and from the moment Harry meets him, we know that relationship will not end well.

link to NetgalleyHarry finds that a farmer’s life suits him. He settles in, works hard, and makes friends. But we know where he is at the beginning of the book, so the tension builds as we find out how he got there.

Although the time spent to get him to Canada, where the book really captured me, seems a little long, by the time he gets there, we know Harry very well. He is a kind and polite person, but he earns our respect when he finds his niche. Eventually, I became deeply involved in his story. It was also interesting in its details of early homesteading and treatment of mental illness.

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