Day 1090: The Vicar of Wakefield

Cover for The Vicar of WakefieldI originally selected The Vicar of Wakefield for my Classics Club list because I was trying to choose a few works from different centuries. For the 18th century, I selected this novel and a few others.

Apparently, there is some debate among scholars about whether to take this novel straightforwardly as a sentimental work or to view it as a satire of sentimental novels. Since it reminds me of nothing so much as Candide, I take it as a satire. Even the title is confusing, since the vicar leaves Wakefield for another town early in the novel.

Reverend Primrose leads a comfortable life with his family as the Vicar of Wakefield. His own private fortune is enough that he has made over his salary to various charities. However, early in the novel, he loses his fortune when the merchant he has invested it with runs off. At that point, he leaves Wakefield and his considerable salary for a much smaller salary in another town. Why he does this instead of using his salary for himself is unclear.

Although the family is now poor, Primrose is determined that they can still live happily if they simplify their lives. However, some of his family are not willing to simplify, and their troubles are not over. His oldest boy, George, has had his engagement broken off by his fiancée’s father. And things even get worse. From here on, every decision they make turns out poorly, touching everyone in the family. In fact, though trusting and ready to see the good side of everyone, Primrose shows himself to be remarkably poor in judgment. The family is cheated, deceived, and persecuted by enemies. All the time, though, Primrose tries to see the good in every situation.

This short novel moves along nicely and has a charming though inconsistent narrator in Reverend Primrose. Its narrative is occasionally interrupted, though, by philosophizing and sermonizing, which I found tedious. Some of the plot twists and masquerades are easy to predict, but overall the novel is lively and a bit silly.

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Day 903: Some Do Not

Cover for Some Do NotBest Book of the Week!
Some Do Not is the first volume of Ford Madox Ford’s tetrology “Parade’s End,” which is considered one of the great novels about World War I. For those who are interested, an excellent TV series came out a few years ago starring Benedict Cumberbatch (or maybe for those who are interested in Benedict Cumberbatch).

When we first meet Christopher Tietjens in 1912 or so, he is separated from his wife Sylvia and on a golfing trip with MacMaster, his coworker and friend from school days. We eventually learn that Sylvia was having an affair with a married man when she met Tietjens, and the paternity of their son is in question. Sylvia has run off to Europe with a lover, but Christopher has just received a letter from her asking to come back.

Christopher Tietjens is a big clumsy man who is a sort of genius with facts and figures and works for the government. (That was the one weakness of the casting of Cumberbatch, who is neither big nor clumsy, in the part, as several times he is forced to refer to himself that way, which struck me as odd before I read the book.) He is also absolutely principled and honest. He agrees to take Sylvia back because that is how a gentleman behaves.

On this golfing trip, though, complications begin that are to affect the rest of his life. A member of the golfing party is General Campion, an idiotic but well-meaning man who likes Sylvia and so thinks that any problems in the marriage must be Christopher’s fault. When Christopher helps a couple of suffragettes escape from the police, the General immediately concludes that one of them, Valentine Wannop, must be Christopher’s mistress, even though Christopher has never met her before. Later on, similar misunderstandings contrive to blacken his reputation.

Egging everyone on is Sylvia, who takes a long time to understand the character of her husband. She believes he and Valentine must be lovers and even spreads the rumor that he is sharing a mistress with MacMaster. Mrs. Duchemin, whose husband is an academic with mental issues, is indeed having an affair with MacMaster, but Christopher’s only crime is to help MacMaster financially. Some of Sylvia’s ex-lovers or would-be lovers are also eager to harm him.

Christopher does fall in love with Valentine, but he doesn’t act on it because he is incapable of treating her dishonorably. With social ruin threatening him, he goes to war.

I tried out this first volume to see if I would like it after having watched the TV series. As soon as I finished it, I ordered the other three volumes. This is a great novel, about how a completely honorable but reticent man is misunderstood and dishonored by almost everyone around him.

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Day 895: Red Pottage

red-pottageBest Book of the Week!
Red Pottage is another find for me this year of a novel by a terrific classic author. I can include Mrs. Oliphant, Dorothy Whipple, and Julia Strachey in this list of classic authors I have not read before that I really enjoyed. My Doughty Library edition says the novel contains “every ingredient for a Victorian bestseller” and mentions wickedness and greed.

Hugh Scarlett has been having an affair with a married woman, Lady Newhaven. At first he thought he was in love with her, but now he has recognized her for who she is—a shallow and stupid beauty. He has already decided to break with her when he meets Rachel West at a party. At one glance he decides that Rachel is the woman to make a better man of him.

Rachel has also attracted the attention of Dick Vernon, a wine grower from Australia who is visiting his friends and family. Rachel likes him, but she is thinking of others.

Rachel has an unhappy past. Once the daughter of a wealthy man, she lost her fortune with her father’s death. For seven years she struggled to support herself, living in London’s East End and working as a typist. At that time, she fell deeply in love with an artist, Mr. Tristram, and was devastated when she realized he had no intention of marrying her. At the beginning of the novel, she has inherited another fortune and still believes herself in love with Mr. Tristram. Now that she has a fortune, though, she is looking like a much better prospect to him.

Another important character is Hester Gresley, an author who has been Rachel’s friend since childhood. Although Hester is better born than Rachel, her fortunes have suffered as Rachel’s have improved. She lives with her brother James, a rector who disregards her talent as a novelist and can only see his own point of view. James’s wife is jealous of Hester, and the children lovable but noisy. Hester finds herself unable to work during the daytime, so she stays up into the morning working, only to be accused by her sister-in-law of laziness.

Red Pottage is a story about morals and manners. That sounds boring, but it is quite satirical at times, while at other times it brought me to tears. The central conflict begins shortly after Hugh meets Rachel, when Lord Newhaven confronts him about Hugh’s affair with his wife. He makes Hugh a challenge, that they draw “lighters” (matches? straws?) and whoever draws the short one must take his own life within four months.

To complicate matters, Lady Newhaven eavesdrops on this conversation but does not learn who drew the short lighter. Then foolish, self-centered Lady Newhaven confides in Rachel, along with her assumption that if her husband dies, she will marry Hugh.

The story turned out just about how I thought it would, but I found the journey completely gripping. Another success from my Classics Club list!

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Day 883: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Cover for Salmon Fishing in the YemenI enjoyed the movie Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, a light romantic comedy, so I picked up the novel. Although most of the same elements are there, the novel is a bit darker and more satirical, the emphasis on government idiocy.

Dr. Alfred Jones is a scientist for the National Centre for Fisheries Excellence. He loves his work but is taken aback when he receives a letter about assisting with a project to establish salmon in the Yemen, to be sponsored by a wealthy sheik. Fred thinks the idea is scientifically absurd and ignores it.

But government officials in the prime minister’s office get wind of the project and see it as a possible source of good publicity about the relationship between the U.K. and the Middle East. The outcome is that Fred is ordered to follow through on the project.

Fred is pleasantly surprised at the apparent competence of the project manager, Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, but it is when he meets the sheik that he begins to have an interest in the project. The sheik is a devoted fisherman who has an outlandish but possibly feasible plan for his project.

Fred’s marriage isn’t going smoothly. His no-nonsense wife Mary has accepted a temporary posting to Geneva without consulting him. She is far better paid than he is and is dismissive in her attitudes toward his career, even when a political shift toward the project gets him fired and he is taken on by Harriet’s company at a lot higher salary.

Harriet also has some personal problems. Her fiancé Robert has been posted somewhere in the Middle East, and she is no longer receiving his letters. Nor can she get any information about him from the Marines.

This novel is epistolary, told completely in emails, Fred’s diary entries, letters, transcripts of interviews, and newspaper articles. It is occasionally funny, almost ridiculously satirical, and a little bit sweet. However, if you are hoping for the movie ending, you will be disappointed, because in the movies, the boy always has to get the girl, especially if he’s played by Ewan McGregor. In fiction, things can be more complicated.

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Day 716: The Siege of Krishnapur

Cover for The Siege of KrishnapurThe Siege of Krishnapur, the second in J.G. Farrell’s trilogy about the British Empire, is a novel of ideas, full of the mordant humor and irony that characterizes the first book, Troubles. Farrell based his novel on the true-life 1857 siege of Lucknow, during which British residents held out for five months against attacks from Indian sepoys.

As author Pankaj Mishra explains in the introduction, this siege and similar incidents generated at the time a popular romantic genre of fiction, wherein two young English people meet in India just before the rebellion and bravely withstand privation to prevail in the end. In The Siege of Krishnapur, Farrell is among other things satirizing this genre.

George Fleury arrives in Calcutta with his sister Miriam just before news of the first sepoy rebellions. Like Farrell’s protagonist of Troubles, Fleury is an unformed young man, and worse, he tends to the pedantic. He is inclined to the romantic and likes to lecture about the supremacy of feelings and ideas over the new plethora of objects and inventions resulting from the current Industrial Revolution.

In Calcutta, Fleury and Miriam meet another brother and sister, Harry and Louise Dunstable, offspring of one of Krishnapur’s doctors. Harry is a young lieutenant, and Louise is thought to be the prettiest (English) girl in India. Fleury is taken by her, but she spends her time flirting with the young soldiers.

Once the young people reach Krishnapur, it is not long before the rumors of trouble turn into reality. The Collector, who is in charge of the district, has been paying attention, though. The others have been ridiculing him for surrounding the Residency with trenches and sending his wife home to England.

The Collector can’t quite comprehend why the natives would want to attack the British, who in his mind are bringing them the wonderful benefits of civilization. He himself attended the Great Exhibition and has filled his house with some of the marvels exhibited there, including electroplated busts of some of the great poets. (Shakespeare’s head turns out later to make a great cannonball; Keats’ does not.)

Once the British are under attack, there are thrilling yet funny descriptions of the fighting, bravely and innovatively conducted by Harry and the other soldiers, who have limited resources, and incompetently assisted by Fleury. Fleury is continually arming himself with some bulky and impractical weapon. Inside the Residency, the British begin by maintaining strict social levels and having tea parties. Once Fleury and Harry have rescued Lucy, a suicidal fallen woman, from her bungalow outside the compound, the other ladies are horrified at having to share quarters with her, even though they are sleeping on billiard tables.

Many vibrant characters inhabit this novel. The Padre is an Anglican clergyman who endlessly tries to convert his flock’s thoughts into more pious channels, haranging them even in the midst of battle. Dr. Dunstable is so incensed by the more modern treatments of his rival, Dr. McNab, that he challenges him to verbal debates and eventually gets himself killed trying to prove Dr. McNab is wrong about the cause and treatment of cholera. Even when Dr. Dunstable’s death proves Dr. McNab is right, the supposedly rational and enlightened British still somehow believe he is wrong. The Magistrate is so interested in phrenology that he shocks everyone by feeling the back of Lucy’s head to determine its amativeness and is slapped for it.

As conditions in the Residency deteriorate, the true nature of the British rulers of India emerges, petty, jingoistic, and chauvinistic, caring little for the natives, who do not appear much in the novel except as servants or attackers. In one revealing speech, an opium grower rejoices at how much money has been made by forcing the Indians to grow opium and then using it to addict the Chinese. In fact, it was just at this time that the 8th Earl of Elgin stopped to hear about the rebellion in northern India while he was on his way to China to force the Chinese emperor to admit British opium dealers.

The novel tells a great story, while still being full of wit and philosophy.

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Day 707: Don Quijote

Cover for Don QuijoteI know. This is not the spelling of “Quixote” most people are accustomed to seeing, but it is the one used in my Norton Critical Edition, translated by Burton Raffel. And a sprightly translation it is.

Don Quijote is the story of an old man who has studied the popular chivalric romances so much that they have addled his brain. He declares himself a knight errant and takes to the road seeking adventure. Accompanying him is a neighboring farmer, Sancho Panza, who he has convinced to come with him as his squire in exchange for a share in certain rewards. In particular, Sancho has his heart set on the governorship of an island.

Don Quijote doesn’t just look for adventure. In the first book, he hurls himself at every passer by, convincing himself that windmills are giants, a barber is a knight, an inn is a castle. Above all else, he worships his lady, the beautiful Dulcinea, whom he has never met but whom Sancho remembers as a muscular peasant girl.

Don Quijote is both a parody of the chivalric romances and a satire against the Spanish conquistadores. Its most important distinction is that it is considered the first modern novel. I found volume one to be amusing in a sort of slapstick style, as Don Quijote’s adventures always go wrong and end up with him and Sancho Panza being beaten up.

Volume two was a little too much of the same, though. In a bit of metafiction, Cervantes lists some of the things readers criticized from the first volume and then attempts to avoid them. So, for example, the two adventurers are not beaten up as often. However, both volumes contain long disquisitions on such topics as marriage, poetry, chivalry that don’t all translate well into modern times.

Finally, after Don Quijote had himself lowered into Montesino’s Cave to see its wonders and then fell asleep and dreamt a bunch of nonsense and never even saw the cave, I had to stop. Quijote was in the midst of recounting his ridiculous dream, which he took for reality, and it seemed to go on and on. I leafed ahead, looking for the end of it, never found the end, and finally lost patience. I fully believe, since apparently someone else published a book about our hero after the first volume came out, that Cervantes only brought Quijote back out on the road so that he could kill him off at the end.

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Day 613: Brave New World

Cover for Brave New WorldIt has been many years since I first read Brave New World, and I didn’t remember very much at all of this acid dystopian novel. It takes a bitter, satiric look into the future from 1931, and like the best of futuristic novels, is somewhat prophetic.

Bernard Marx is an unusual misfit in a society structured around the contentment of its people, or contentment as is rigidly defined there. Family units no longer exist. Society is strictly tiered. Everyone is artificially born, and the lower castes are cloned in multiples. Each caste is conditioned chemically and psychologically from before birth to be content with its lot, the mental and physical abilities of the lower castes chemically limited.

Everything is designed around productivity and consumption. People spend their leisure hours in pursuit of pleasure and get their daily dose of the drug soma. The arts are obsolete, supplanted by a very limited science.

At first it seems as though the discontented Bernard will be the hero of this novel, but there actually is none. He likes Lenina Crowne but is afraid to approach her for fear of being rejected. Lenina is a bit attracted to Bernard and is getting flak from her friends for being too exclusive of late, for there is no concept of faithfulness in this society: “everyone belongs to everyone.” So, she agrees to go with Bernard on a trip to New Mexico to view the savages—remnants of society, apparently American natives, who have not been civilized and live within a barbed wire reservation.

Lenina is too conventional a girl to enjoy this trip, horrified by the dirt and squalor of life that is not antiseptic. But Bernard, who has heard his boss’s story of a lost girlfriend in New Mexico years ago, is intrigued to find this woman, Linda, and her son John, actually born of his parent. John is an outcast of his culture, because he is the son of a woman considered a whore for behavior her own culture believes is normal. He has educated himself from Shakespeare’s complete works. Bernard gets permission to bring Linda and John back to London, setting in train unforeseen consequences.

Huxley apparently firmly believed that future societies would be controlled by drugs and psychological conditioning. It is his interest in cloning and the power of propaganda that strikes more modern readers. I’m willing to bet he paid attention to the then-current theories of eugenics that were particularly popular in England and Germany. His choice of Henry Ford as a godlike image for that society is telling not only for Ford’s invention of the assembly lines, clearly a model for Huxley’s vision of the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre, but also for Ford’s own interest in eugenics.

I couldn’t help comparing Huxley’s vision of sexual freedom with that of Heinlein in Stranger in a Strange Land, a book I really hated. There are other similarities too, John the Savage almost standing in for Heinlein’s alien-born Messiah, only finally shunning what he views as an immoral society rather than trying to start a religion. I think Huxley’s ideas are much more insightful, though.

That being said, I enjoyed this re-read only moderately. I appreciate Huxley’s deadpan humor, but a late section of the book, where Mustafa Mond explains his choices in life, is a bit too much like a sort of reverse didacticism, by which I mean that Huxley is not trying to make us agree with him, but trying to show us what is wrong with Mond’s ideas (or maybe I’m wrong—I believe Huxley thought that such controls over society were inevitable). In any case, any kind of didacticism in a novel is a good thing to avoid. Still, reading this novel after such a long time was an interesting experience.