Day 1296: The Battle of Life

Cover to Dickens Christmas booksAs has been my tradition for several years, only missing the year I moved to Washington, I am reviewing one of Dickens’s Christmas books for the Christmas season. I only have one left, so I’ll have to think up a new tradition in a couple of years.

The Battle of Life begins with a section about a battle that was fought years before on the site of the main characters’ home. I thought that since Dickens’s Christmas books often involve ghosts, this battle might be the source of a ghost story, but no. Apparently, this section is just an extended and rather laborious metaphor.

In any case, we soon meet the Jeddlers, who are celebrating some important birthdays. It is the birthday of Marian, the younger and more beautiful Jeddler sister, who is provisionally engaged to Alfred Heathfield, Dr. Jeddler’s ward. It is also Alfred’s birthday. This day he will be released from his wardship and travel to the continent to study medicine. In three years, he will return and marry Marian, if they are both so inclined. There is something odd, however, in the way in which Marian bids farewell to her sweetheart, looking at her sister Grace all the while.

Illustration from The Battle of LifeIn the second part, the plot thickens. It is three years later. Alfred is due back, but another player has entered the scene. Michael Warden has ruined himself with his spendthrift ways and meets with his solicitors, Snitchey and Craggs, to discuss how he might save himself. Snitchey and Craggs have already appeared as Alfred and Dr. Jeddler’s solicitors and provide some of the typical Dickens comedy, along with their wives. During this meeting, Warden states his intention of eloping with Marian Jeddler. Could Marian be contemplating an elopement just when Alfred is due home?

This novella about two sisters each of whom is ready to sacrifice her own happiness for the other is a little predictable but makes a touching, if slightly sappy, story. As one of Dickens’s Christmas books, I would rate it below A Christmas Carol but above the others, especially The Chimes. I have one more to read, and next Christmas will show how well I liked it.

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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 sensation 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 1180: Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes

Cover for Travels with a DonkeyMary Stewart’s My Brother Michael is the first place I heard of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey. It is a short travelogue of a journey Stevenson took in 1878 in the remote Cévennes area of southern France with only a donkey for company.

This book is full of descriptions of the people and scenery and relates with some humor the author’s struggles with Modestine, the donkey. It also tells some of the legends and history of the area, which was the site of a religious revolt by the Camisards, a sect of the Huguenots, in the 17th century.

Although this history is interesting, for my tastes Stevenson spent too much time discussing religion, particularly as he asserts at one point in the book that he does not believe in God. Yet, he makes comments that sound like he does believe. He has several discussions about religion with people he meets on the trip, and he muses on the subject.

It seems natural to compare this work with that of Patrick Leigh Fermor, particularly the trip he made as a youngster through Europe. But Fermor’s work is at once more sparkling, witty, and erudite, although the type of content is the same. I felt that this book was only of moderate interest.

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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 sensation fiction, 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 1153: Bleak House

Cover for Bleak HouseBest of Five!
I just love Bleak House. I hadn’t read it for years, so I was happy to pick it up as one of the last books on my first Classics Club list. Note: with this book, I have finally posted my last review for my first Classics Club list. I will soon have my second list posted at the link above.

At first, the novel appears to follow two distinct stories, that of the orphan Esther Summerson and that of the household of Lord and Lady Dedlock, but we find that these stories are entwined. Peopling the novel are countless other unforgettable characters.

Esther has had a sad childhood, but her life begins to improve when an unknown benefactor first takes her education in hand by sending her to school and then employs her to be the companion of Ada Clare. Ada, with her cousin Richard Carstone, is another orphan, and both are parties to the famous lawsuit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. As they are wards of the court, a distant cousin, Mr. John Jarndyce, has agreed to be their guardian.

Dickens was famous as a social activist, and one of his targets here is the Courts of Chancery, where wills are proven. Jarndyce and Jarndyce is a famous case in Chancery that has been going on for years and has driven countless possible legatees to ruin. Mr. Jarndyce refuses to deal in this case and hopes to encourage Richard and Ada to leave it alone.

Esther makes a happy home for herself and Richard, Ada, and Mr. Jarndyce at Bleak House, Mr. Jarndyce’s home. But as Richard grows older, he fails to settle to a profession and devotes more and more time to the lawsuit. He is sucked in. And that is more a shame because Ada, whom Esther calls her darling, is in love with Richard.

At the Dedlock’s, a mystery begins that eventually takes up much of the novel. Lady Dedlock is beautiful and stately but deeply bored. However, one day when the Dedlock lawyer, Mr. Tulkinghorn, comes with papers to sign, Lady Dedlock glimpses some handwriting and promptly faints. Lady Dedlock has a secret, and Mr. Tulkinghorn is determined to find it out. Mr. Tulkinghorn is inexorable.

As with any Dickens novel, Bleak House is filled with entertaining characters. There is Mrs. Jellyby, who is so taken up by a charity for Africans that her children are neglected and her house is a disaster. Her unfortunate daughter, Caddy, covered in ink when we first meet her, becomes an important secondary character. One of Mr. Jarndyce’s friends is Harold Skimpole, who professes himself a mere child in worldly ways and proceeds to leech off his friends. There are many other notable characters, but one of the most interesting is the detective, Mr. Bucket. At first he seems rather sinister, but we soon change our minds about him.

Above all, there is Dickens’ style, which carries you along with the story. He makes you laugh, he makes you cry, and as always, he shows sympathy for the unfortunate, especially for children. It is easy to see from Bleak House, which many consider his masterpiece, why he was the most popular writer of his time.

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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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