Review 1999: Edith Trilogy Read-Along: Dark Palace

The Edith Trilogy Read-Along calls for the second book to be read during July. This second book, Dark Palace follows Edith and the fate of the League of Nations from 1931 through the end of World War II. Although most of it is set in Geneva, Edith also visits Australia and the United States.

This novel begins roughly one year after the close of Grand Days. Edith and Robert have been married about a year, but Edith feels she has misunderstood Robert’s character. For one thing, he is not really dedicated to the success of the League, and she sometimes finds him crass. She takes the opportunity of Ambrose Westwood’s return to Geneva and Robert’s departure to cover the Spanish Civil War to rekindle her unusual affair with Ambrose.

At the League, she is considered an expert on protocol but still does not have an official title. At the beginning of the novel, she and other League officers are excitedly preparing for the conference on disarmament they are hosting.

This novel, like many middle novels in a trilogy, has a less focused plot than the first. Edith, at one point, considers moving back to Australia and visits the newly founded Canberra to fish for a job. But Canberra barely exists, and her fellow Australians don’t seem impressed by her accomplishments. The novel skips in an episodic way through several events during the war.

There are times in the novel when Edith’s didacticism is really annoying. What the novel does have, however, is a deeply affecting conclusion.

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Review 1887: Edith Trilogy Read-Along: Grand Days

I decided to participate in the Edith Trilogy Read-Along hosted by Brona of This Reading Life, but my copy didn’t arrive until June 29th, so I am late for the first one, which was to be read in June. I hope to be on time for the second in the series. This series introduces me to Frank Moorhouse, a highly regarded Australian writer.

On a train from Paris to Geneva to work at the newly created League of Nations, Edith Campbell Berry meets Major Ambrose Westwood, who will be a more senior officer in another section of the League. Edith is naïve and dedicated, a quirky person who has her Ways of Going but is determined to become more cosmopolitan than her Australian roots have made her so far. On the train, she and Ambrose share a kiss.

Edith and her coworkers are excited to be working for this important organization with its worldwide focus and its aim to prevent war. Edith conscientiously studies diplomacy from Ambrose and other senior officers and makes contributions of her own, enough to attract their attention and mentorship.

She does not always make the right choices and finds herself in some ridiculous situations. She also begins an affair with Ambrose, whose unusual proclivities lead her in unexpected directions.

At first, I wasn’t sure how much I liked Edith, particularly her habit of listing and examining what she thinks she knows and her almost aggressive questioning of ideas until she’s sure she understands them. I also noticed that she seemed not to pay much attention to events developing in Europe toward the end of the 20’s. But eventually I was charmed by her.

There were some pages toward the middle of the book when she was enumerating ideas that I skipped after reading several paragraphs, and shortly thereafter, when she was contemplating her poop, a scene I know was supposed to be funny, I was not amused. Still, I’m interested to read Cold Light, the next novel, especially because the book cover description contains a detail that I hope is wrong.

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Review 1868: The Swiss Summer

When Lucy Cottrell’s friend takes her to visit an elderly friend, Lady Dagleish, she has no idea how her immediate plans will be affected. Lady Dagleish is sending her companion, Freda Blandish, to spend the summer at her chalet in Switzerland to inventory its contents, and Lady Dagleish tells Lucy she must go along and spend the summer in the chalet, inviting any friends she wishes.

All during her marriage, Lucy has fallen in with her husband’s ideas for a holiday, he preferring to stay in England or Scotland and near convivial friends. But Lucy has yearned for the alpine meadows of her honeymoon, for quiet and beautiful scenery, so she is surprised but delighted by Lady Dagleish’s invitation.

Lucy is thrilled to arrive at a beautiful, large chalet high up in the mountains. Although she was not impressed by Mrs. Blandish when she met her, Lucy herself is an amenable person, and at first things go well. Then Mrs. Blandish’s teenage daughter Astra arrives and makes it clear that Lady Dagleish doesn’t like her and wouldn’t want her there. Mrs. Blandish asks Lucy not to tell her, and Lucy reluctantly agrees.

Lucy finds she likes Astra but is dismayed to learn that Mrs. Blandish expects more guests—paying guests—her friend Mrs. Price-Wharton and her family, and she expects Lucy to keep quiet about it. Utta, the Swiss housekeeper, is certain these people should not be there, but she doesn’t know what to do about it.

Finally, Lucy’s own guests arrive, her godson and a friend who are mountain-climbing in the area. The two young men begin to make friends with Astra and snobbish friend Kay Price-Wharton. Lucy does not quite have the quiet holiday she desired.

This novel has some likable characters and some not so likable. It is full of the beauties of Switzerland in the 50s, and like another novel, The Enchanted April, made me want to go to its setting immediately. I had to laugh at all the references to the characters’ healthy red (or tanned) faces, though. This novel is charming, with just a hint of the sardonic.

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Review 1651: Three Weeks

I realized earlier this month that the deadline I set myself for finishing my Classics Club list is coming up this summer, with about a dozen books left. I’ve been reading lots of classic novels, just not necessarily the ones on my list. I have also read many of the ones on my list but just haven’t posted my reviews yet. So, I decided I was going to have to accelerate my schedule of reviewing and reading them in hopes of getting all my reviews posted on time. Here is one of them.

Elinor Glyn was a romance novelist at the turn of the 20th century whose works were considered scandalous at the time. Three Weeks is the story of a young English man who has an affair with an older Russian queen.

Naïve young Paul Verdayne fancies he is in love with the parson’s daughter, so his mother ships him off for a tour of the continent. He is young and sulky and hates Paris but, being a sportsman, enjoys Switzerland. While in Geneva, he becomes fascinated with a striking woman who is traveling only with her servants.

This mysterious woman, about ten years older than Paul, takes him in hand and begins opening his mind to art and ideas. Soon, they begin a torrid affair. But this affair must remain secret, because there is danger.

First, I found it difficult to buy that this sophisticated, cultured woman would fall madly in love with a gauche, uncultured young man whose only interest is his dog and horses and whose only attraction is his good looks.

Next, Glyn’s writing is florid and overwrought. It is often cloying and downright silly. The style resembles that of writers from the Romantic movement, which was well over by the time Glyn was writing. I have an idea that Glyn may be the type of writer Forster was mocking in A Room with a View.

Finally, the idea that Paul could become informed and educated just by spending three weeks with his mistress is ridiculous. The novel doesn’t say that he is interested in being more informed but that he comes back from his experience poised and culturally literate, enough so as to impress people with his elegance. Right.

In short, this is a really silly book.

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Review 1424: Little

Best of Ten!
Often I don’t read reviews attentively or more often I don’t remind myself what a book is about before reading it, so I didn’t realize for some time that Little is a fictional biography of Madame Tussaud. It is an idiosyncratic one, to be sure.

Marie, often called Little for her small stature, is familiar with loss. In 1760, when she is five, her father dies. Her mother never recovers from it, and shortly after she and her mother take up residence with Doctor Curtius, for whom her mother is employed as a servant, her mother commits suicide.

Doctor Curtius is one of many peculiar characters, Marie not excepted, who occupy the novel’s pages. He is a very odd creature, unused to others, who models body parts in wax to be studied by anatomists. Marie is not dismayed by his peculiarities and is entranced by his wonderful collection of body parts. So, he begins teaching her to draw and model objects in wax.

At Little’s suggestion, they model the entire head of some subjects. Soon, they have a business of selling heads of themselves to customers. Dr. Curtius is mistreated by the hospital, so when a traveling Frenchman, Louis-Sébastian Mercier, suggests they move to Paris from Switzerland to model great men, they do.

Shortly after they arrive in Paris, Doctor Curtius falls under the influence of their landlady, the Widow Picot, who soon has Little working for the entire family, not just Doctor Curtius, even though Little has never been paid. Madame Picot makes no secret that she would like to get rid of her. In the meantime, she and Doctor Curtius begin by modelling the heads of famous criminals. By now, the French Revolution threatens.

Little is narrated in a sprightly, whimsical fashion even when it relates things that are not so pleasant. That, and the pervading personality of its main character, are two of its charms, even as it becomes darker. This is a strange and wonderful novel.

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Day 1245: Moriarty

Cover for MoriartyDespite not being a fan of Sherlock Holmes-based contemporary mysteries, I read Moriarty because I recently enjoyed Magpie Murders. In this case, Sherlock Holmes does not appear, and the only link to the older mysteries, aside from a few characters, is Moriarty himself.

The novel begins right after the Reichenbach Falls incident, when both Holmes and his nemesis, Moriarty, are assumed dead. The body of one man, identified as Moriarty, is found.

Shortly after the incident, two detectives arrive on the scene. One is Frederick Chase, an investigator from Pinkerton’s in the United States. The other is Inspector Athelney Jones from Scotland Yard. Chase reports that he has been following Moriarty with information that he was meeting with Clarence Devereaux, a criminal mastermind from New York who purportedly wants to join forces with Moriarty. No one has ever seen Devereaux, but the Pinkertons understand he suffers from extreme agoraphobia. Chase and Jones team up to find him.

This, however, is not an easy quest. Every time the two men get a lead, someone is murdered. Soon, the two investigators must fear for their own lives.

I found this novel clever, but there was something missing from it. I don’t know how else to describe my reaction. I was just a little underwhelmed, even though there were twists and turns.

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Day 1111: The Gustav Sonata

Cover for The Gustav SonataUntil the very end of The Gustav Sonata I wondered what its point was. It is a novel detached from its characters even as it puts them through events that should make us sympathetic. Further, although it is set in a specific time and place, there is little feel for what it was like then and there. This effect is in strong contrast to Tremain’s two novels about Merivel, set in Restoration England.

The novel begins in 1947, when its main character, Gustav Perle, is five years old. Although Gustav is Rose Tremain’s exact contemporary, parts of the novel are set earlier, before Gustav was born.

Gustav’s father died when he was a baby. He was a member of the police force for their small town in Switzerland, but he lost his job before Gustav was born, under circumstances that Gustav’s mother does not fully understand. All she knows is that Erich died “helping the Jews.”

Gustav’s mother Emilie has raised him without a shred of affection but only with criticism. The lack of affection is tempered somewhat by his lifelong friendship with Anton, whom he meets the first day of Kindergarten. Emilie does not like Gustav’s friendship with Anton, because Anton is Jewish. But Anton and Anton’s family are all Gustav has, really.

Anton is always a self-absorbed person. He is nervous and highly strung, a musical prodigy. Anton’s mother thinks he will become a famous musician, but he is terrified in competition and performs badly.

An important theme in this novel is Swiss neutrality and its correspondence with personal neutrality. Gustav, although faithful to his friends, is always concerned with self-mastery and holds back from his own life events. But so does this novel hold back from its characters, as if observing them through a glass.

I found this novel interesting but not involving. I think it took too long to get to its point. It is another novel for my Walter Scott prize project.

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Day 569: The Castle of Wolfenbach

Cover for The Castle of WolfenbachThe Castle of Wolfenbach is one of several “horrid” novels referred to in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. All of these novels, as I reported awhile back, are packaged together in a book for Kindle, so I thought I’d try them out.

This novel begins in the wilds of Switzerland on a stormy night when a mysterious young lady asks for shelter for herself and her servant at a small cottage. The inhabitants of the cottage take the fugitives to the nearby Castle of Wolfenbach for more comfortable accommodations. This castle is not being occupied by its owner but is maintained by two servants, and the castle’s upper floors are reputed to be haunted.

The young lady, Matilda Weimar, is not afraid of ghosts, however. She sleeps upstairs, and although she hears noises and sees lights across from her bedroom window, she goes the next day to explore that part of the castle. There she finds in residence an older lady and her female servant. The castle servant Joseph knows they are there, but his talkative wife does not.

Matilda explains why she is a fugitive. She has never known her parents, but was raised by her uncle. Lately, her uncle has begun showing her attentions that make her uncomfortable. What made her flee was that she overheard the housekeeper advising him to sneak into Matilda’s bedroom at night and claim her for his own.

The older lady, the Countess of Wolfenbach, offers to tell part of her story to Matilda, but Matilda asks her to wait until the next day. However, that night there is a disturbance, and Matilda visits the “haunted” area of the castle the next day to find the countess’s attendant murdered and the countess gone. When Matilda was leaving the countess the day before, however, the countess offered to send a letter to her sister in Paris asking for refuge for Matilda. Soon Matilda is on her way to the Marchioness of Melfort in Paris.

Matilda and her friends have many more adventures, in which Matilda unfailingly demonstrates her purity and honor. The evil Herr Weimar chases after her and tries to remove her from her friends, telling her that he is not actually her uncle but found her by the roadside. A young count falls in love with her, but her scruples about her unknown lineage do not permit her to accept his proposal of marriage. Temporarily, she retires to a convent.

The plot of the novel is quite convoluted and involves several kidnappings, pirates, murders, deathbed confessions, scandalous rumors, defamation of character, and other food for melodrama. Characters are mostly either good or evil, although all the evil people repent. Dialogue is elaborate and ceremonial.

This novel is not terribly scary to modern sensibilities, nor does Parsons do a very good job of creating suspense. But The Castle of Wolfenbach, which was written in 1793, is an early effort in what is essentially a genre of potboilers. Although Matilda is so good and does a lot of fainting, she at least shows some occasional evidence of spunk. Even as scary as its contemporary audiences found it, there is little doubt of a happy ending.

WolfenbachI was disappointed not to find a spooky cover available for this novel, although the one for the collection I am reading isn’t bad, so I attach a picture of this scary castle. It came up on a search for the cover, but I actually have no idea at all where it came from.