Day 1212: Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund

Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund is the second of two novellas by Mrs. Oliphant contained in my Persephone Press edition of The Mystery of Mrs. Blencarrow. Although I was disappointed in the first novella, I found this one much more sensational and touching. Both are about the consequences of middle-aged passion.

Those who are more aware of their British legends could probably guess where this story was going right from the beginning. It took me a bit longer.

Mrs. Lycett-Landon lives a contented existence on the banks of the Mersey outside Liverpool. She has married a successful businessman and has two cheerful children. Her son Horace is just old enough to join his father’s firm and is day-dreaming about the success he’ll make of it. Her husband Robert is an affectionate father and spouse.

Robert has been speaking of sending Horace to the London office to train with young Mr. Fareham, the nephew of Robert’s partner. However, after a business trip, Robert tells Mrs. Lycett-Landon that the London office is in disarray because of Fareham’s undisciplined work habits. He will have to travel more to London and stay longer to sort out the trouble.

Robert is home less often after that and is irritable when he is home. He looks eager to leave when he returns to London and seldom writes home. If you can’t guess what is going on, I’m surprised, but his family has no notion of it.

It is actually even worse than you’re probably guessing. The question is not so much what Mrs. Lycett-Landon discovers as what she decides to do about it.

Although it’s hard to imagine a woman dealing with this problem in the way she does, I was touched by Mrs. Lycett-Landon’s solution. I found this a much more involving story than the other. In both, the person involved holds back information, but in this one, it’s to more effect.

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Day 1202: The Mystery of Mrs. Blencarrow

Cover for The Mystery of Mrs. BlencarrowFlighty Kitty Bircham has flown to Gretna Green to elope with her swain when she discovers in the marriage record a juicy bit of gossip. The respectable and dignified widow from her village, Mrs. Joan Blencarrow, has married someone secretly. Indeed, she has been married for three years!

Kitty is so excited about her discovery that she fails to notice the name of Mrs. Blencarrow’s husband. Instead of running off with her own new husband to London as planned, Kitty goes straight home, figuring this juicy bit of news will win her forgiveness from her mother.

Soon the neighborhood is agog. Is the rumor true or not? Mrs. Blencarrow even has a visit from her own uncles trying to find out, but she only tells the vicar the truth.

I was somewhat dissatisfied with this Victorian era sensationalist novella, which is a character study rather than a mystery. Part of the truth comes out fairly quickly, but it isn’t hard to guess the other part. And we get a very unfinished story. Why did the couple marry? That’s not at all clear. Are we to believe it was from passion? That’s hard to believe considering her later reaction. What is clear is that Mrs. Blencarrow thinks she will be in disgrace if the truth comes out. But that doesn’t answer the question of why they married in the first place.

Mrs. Blencarrow is an interesting person, and this is a very short work, so a qualified approval.

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Day 1163: The Shuttle

Cover for The ShuttleAt first, I wasn’t sure I would like The Shuttle, despite my enjoyment of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s other novels. That is because it begins with an extended metaphor, rather cumbersome, about the shuttle of fate weaving together east and west. I wasn’t altogether sure which east and west she was talking about and had wild thoughts about China. But we weren’t leaving the Occident. By west she meant America, more precisely the United States. By east, England. But this introduction lasts only a couple of pages, and then we get into the action.

The novel begins with Rosalie Vanderpoel, the gentle, naive daughter of a New York millionaire. It is the early days of the migration of young, titled Englishmen to New York looking to marry money, and the relatively innocent New Yorkers don’t understand that most of these men are fortune hunters. Rosalie becomes engaged to Sir Nigel Anstruthers. Although Reuben Vanderpoel, Rosalie’s father, does not like Nigel, only nine-year-old Bettina sees him for the vicious bully that he is.

But Nigel hasn’t done his homework. He doesn’t realize that American girls don’t come with dowries nor that Rosalie won’t expect to hand her money over to her husband for handling, as an Englishwoman might. Once he realizes his mistake, he blames it on Rosalie.

Rosalie goes to live in dilapidated Stornham Court, where she is mistreated and bullied by her husband and his mother. Thinking that no man would take money from a woman, Rosalie doesn’t offer any, and it takes a while before she realizes that’s what he wants. But he doesn’t want money for the estate, just to support his vicious habits. He cuts her off from her family to make her miserable and keep control.

Rosalie isn’t the heroine of the novel, however. That honor belongs to Bettina, or Betty, who vows at the age of nine to go sometime and rescue Rosalie. And so she does, 15 years later.

This novel isn’t one of great surprises. When Betty finds Rosalie and her son alone and works to buck them up and get them ready to leave, the tension builds from the expectation of a showdown with Nigel. When Nigel finally arrives, he uses all his cleverness to foil Betty. We know who will win—we just don’t know how.

I don’t think Burnett’s adult novels were considered sensationalist, but this one certainly deals with those kinds of topics and is very melodramatic. Still, it was a fun book to read. Betty is clever and determined. You know she will win at love and defeat Sir Nigel.

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Day 1141: The Moonstone

Cover for The MoonstoneBest Book of Five!
Although the first mystery stories are credited to Edgar Allen Poe, The Moonstone is widely regarded as the first ever mystery novel. It is not a murder mystery (although it includes a murder), but is instead about the mysterious disappearance of a valuable diamond.

Rachel Verinder inherits the moonstone from her uncle on her 19th birthday. Since the diamond was ruthlessly stolen by her uncle in India and is rumored to be cursed, this gift is meant maliciously, because Rachel’s mother wouldn’t have anything to do with him.

Rachel’s cousin Franklin Blake acts as courier of the diamond, and only his decision to travel early, we learn later, may have saved his life while the stone is in his possession. The Verinder’s house is visited twice by three mysterious Indians.

The night of Rachel’s birthday dinner, the moonstone disappears from a cabinet in her sitting room. Rachel’s subsequent behavior is inexplicable. She declines to be interviewed by investigators trying to find the diamond and is uncommonly offended by Franklin’s attempts to help solve the mystery.

A house maid named Rosanne seems to be involved in some way in the crime. But perhaps she is being unfairly judged, as she has a criminal past and is trying to reform.

The Woman in White is certainly Wilkie Collins’s most famous novel, but The Moonstone has always been my favorite. An epistomological novel, it is made vibrant by the distinctive and sometimes amusing voices of the various characters, who are requested to submit their testimonies of events. I especially enjoy the sections written by Gabriel Betteridge, the house steward with a fascination for Robinson Crusoe.

logo for RIPThis reread for my Classics Club list has not changed my opinion. The Moonstone has a complicated, but not absurdly so, plot and an exotic element. Although it occasionally contains comments, especially about women and Indians, that are no longer politically correct, they reflect the novel’s time and the attitudes of the narrators.

P. S., I am also reading this for the R.I.P. challenge.

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Day 1065: Diana Tempest

Cover for Diana TempestThe plot of Diana Tempest depends on the actions of our heroine’s weak, selfish, and amoral father, Colonel Tempest. He runs off with his older brother’s young and foolish fiancée, only to tire of her after a few  years. When Diana’s mother dies shortly after her birth, he hands his daughter over to her grandmother, as he is only interested in his son, Archie.

The novel begins a few years later with Colonel Tempest rushing to the side of his dying older brother, hoping to reconcile. But his brother is so full of hatred that he formally recognizes his wife’s son John as his heir, even though he knows John is the issue of an affair between his wife and her cousin.

When John is a young man, Colonel Tempest drunkenly makes a bet that has major ramifications for his family. Even though he repents, he is unable to get out of the wager.

As a young woman, Diana and her grandmother manage to get by but have no extra resources. When Diana meets John, he falls in love with her, but she does not realize this and thinks they are friends. Later she understands she loves him, but it is after he makes a fateful discovery.

This novel fits very well into the sensationalist genre Cholmondely is known for. Its heroine and hero are likable, and it was enjoyable to read.

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Day 1048: Hide and Seek

Cover for Hide and SeekHide and Seek is Wilkie Collins’s third novel. It acknowledges inspiration from Charles Dickens and shows his influence in plot and characterization. It is getting closer to the works he is most famous for but is certainly not his best.

The novel begins in the household of Valentine Blyth, an artist. Valentine is a breezy, accepting person with an invalid wife. The one thing he fears to lose is his adopted daughter, Madonna, whose parentage is unknown. He is afraid that someone will come and take her away sometime.

Valentine himself took Madonna from the circus. She had been taken in at birth by Mrs. Peckover, a clown’s wife. Her mother died having her, refusing to speak of her people and leaving behind only a bracelet made from two people’s hair. Madonna later became a deaf/mute after an circus accident, and Valentine saved her from harsh treatment by the circus master.

Valentine has befriended a careless young man named Zach, with whom Madonna is in love. Zach in his turn befriends a rough man named Mat, who has just returned from adventures in the Americas. Here Collins’s geography breaks down a bit, for Mat speaks mostly of adventures in South America and claims to have been scalped in the Amazon, when scalping and some of the other things he mentions are definitely North American. It is through the identity of Mat that the plot thickens.

In this novel, Collins’s characters tend to be one-dimensional, and his plot is often easy to predict. Several times I was ready to quit because I felt the novel dragging. This was probably because, although most of the characters are likable, I wasn’t particularly interested in them. I think Collins is at his best in mystery plots (although this one has its mysteries), and his characterization eventually becomes much richer.

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Day 977: Far From the Madding Crowd

Cover for Far From the Madding CrowdBest Book of the Week!
I had to laugh at the blurb on my old 1960 paperback copy of Far From the Madding Crowd. It says, “She was a wanton who needed taming.” I think that says a lot more about 1960 than it does about Thomas Hardy’s novel.

Bathsheba Everdene is not a wanton, but she is a spirited, beautiful young woman. We first see her from the eyes of Gabriel Oak, a farmer and sheep breeder, as she moves house to live with her aunt. He observes that she is vain, but she takes his fancy. Soon, he proposes marriage.

Bathsheba is not interested. Still, Gabriel has fallen in love with her and stays in love. Soon, in a horrible mishap, Gabriel loses all his sheep and has to sell his farm for debts. His first thought is relief that she didn’t have to be brought low by his sudden poverty.

By this time, Bathsheba has left the area. When Gabriel is hired as a shepherd, he finds himself working for her, as she has inherited a substantial farm from her uncle. Soon, she has dismissed the thieving bailiff and put Gabriel in his place.

The bulk of the plot of this novel is about Bathsheba’s relationships with three different men—her growing friendship with Gabriel; the obsession Farmer Boldwood has for her, which is provoked by an act of mischief; and her own infatuation with Sergeant Troy, a liar and womanizer.

Far From the Madding Crowd is the first of Hardy’s Wessex novels, and it is much sunnier than any of the others. That is not to say it is light-hearted. It has many dark threads—Farmer Boldwood’s fetishist obsession, Gabriel’s ruin for a freakish reason, the fate of Fanny Robin, a supposed suicide, and a murder. Victorians would have categorized this novel as sensationalist.

With Tess of the D’Urbervilles, this is one of my favorite Hardy novels. I love its depictions of English rural life and customs of the times. I think Bathsheba is an interesting heroine and Gabriel a fine hero. I have been meaning to reread this novel since I saw the new movie last year (good, but not up to the Julie Christie classic), and I’m happy to have finally done it. Also, this is one of the few remaining books left on my current Classics Club list.

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