Day 1101: Thomas Hardy

Cover for Thomas HardyThomas Hardy has long been one of my favorite Victorian writers, so when I learned that Claire Tomalin had written his biography, I set about getting a copy. Tomalin has made a career of writing interesting and readable but meticulously documented biographies of mostly literary figures and has become one of my favorite biographers.

Tomalin shows that Hardy was a contradictory man—shy but eager to socialize in intellectual circles, resenting early snubs but nevertheless a snob himself, an inner-living man who still welcomed all who came to see him. Hardy was the son of an uneducated builder and a house servant, both of whom encouraged him in his efforts to gain an education and better himself. But in those days this was difficult, and he never achieved his dream of a Cambridge education. Instead, he went to work at 16 in an architect’s office.

Above all else, Hardy became a writer who challenged conventional attitudes toward women, sex in literature, and religion. Almost from the beginning of his career, while still writing formula novels, he ran into trouble with editors wanting to censor his work. His publication of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, with its subtitle “A Pure Woman,” caused an uproar. Although I have read many of his novels, it was fascinating to read about them in terms of events going on in his own life.

What I had not read much of is his poetry. Hardy always considered himself a poet rather than a novelist, and at the height of his career, after publication of Jude the Obscure, he caused another furor by quitting his novel-writing career to concentrate on poetry. Tomalin is obviously a fan of his poetry, and although I am not much of a poetry reader, the snippets she reproduces are musical and beautiful, and the context she gives them fascinating.

Tomalin begins her book with the story of Hardy’s regret after his first wife’s death that they had grown apart. The story of that relationship, as well as that with his second wife, is also very interesting.

Tomalin has a gift for breathing life into her subjects so that you feel as if you understand them, at least a little. If you have any interest in Thomas Hardy, you’ll find this a compelling book.

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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 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 1015: Tales of Mystery and the Macabre

Cover for Tales of Mystery and the MacabreAs I am familiar with an Elizabeth Gaskell who wrote relatively realistic (for a Victorian) novels about ordinary people in different stratas of society, I was surprised to find this collection of strange and gothic tales. That shouldn’t have surprised me, though, because the supernatural and the fantastic were preoccupations of the Victorians. Séances were popular, and many reputable people believed in the supernatural.

That being said, these stories are not Gaskell’s best. When I looked them up, I was surprised to find that she wrote them later in life. They are about what you’d expect from the genre, though less fantastic and not really scary. Straight narrative dominates over dialogue and scenes.

In “The Old Nurse’s Story,” a little orphaned girl goes to live in a relative’s house that is haunted by the ghost of another little girl. In “The Squire’s Tale,” a new neighbor is found to be a robber and murderer. “The Poor Clare” is a story about a woman who inadvertently curses her own granddaughter.

I found three of the stories too tedious to finish. “The Witch Lois” is about an unsuspecting English girl who arrives in Salem, Massachusetts, to live with relatives just in time for the witch scare. “Curious, If True” seems to be about a lost traveler who comes upon a party of fairy tale characters. And “Disappearances” is a string of short anecdotes about people vanishing that did not seem to link up.

So, a disappointing book this time. Almost all of the main characters are women, and them so virtuous and retiring that they weren’t very interesting.

Happy holidays!

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Day 990: Cripps the Carrier

Cover for Cripps the CarrierAlthough Cripps the Carrier has behind it a serious adventure plot, it is mostly a comedy of rustic characters in a rural countryside around Oxford. One of these characters is Zachary Cripps, an honest, god-fearing carrier of goods, who acts as a deux ex machina.

But the novel begins with the disappearance of Grace, the beloved young daughter of Squire Oglander. No one even knows she is gone when Hetty Cripps, coming along by a deserted quarry with an evil reputation, sees some men burying a woman. It is a freezing night, and by the time the weather has let up enough to dig her up, the girl’s face has been smashed by the rocks. But the body that is buried has a mass of hair that appears to be Grace’s.

So, Grace is presumed dead, and her elderly father is stricken with grief. Only her suitor, Russel Overshot, won’t believe she is dead.

We soon learn that she is not dead. She is hidden away and believes she is following her father’s orders. Who is keeping Grace, though, and why?

There is a lot to enjoy in this novel—some rustic humor, some adventure, some danger, a dastardly villain, and some likable characters. Until recently, of R. D. Blackmore’s novels, I had only read Lorna Doone, but I enjoyed reading this, and I will continue to seek out more Blackmore.

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Day 985: That Lass o’Lowrie’s

Cover for That Lass O'LowriesThat Lass o’Lowrie’s is Frances Hodgson Burnett’s first novel, written in the style of Realism. It is set in a Lancashire mining town and features a lot of Northern dialect.

The lass in question is Joan Lowrie, a miner’s daughter. She is a tall, strong, proud woman who has survived years of abuse at the hands of her father. At the beginning of the novel, she dresses partly in men’s clothing and works in the mine as a pit girl.

She attracts the attention of a young mining engineer, Derrick, and his friend Paul Grace, a curate. Later, Derrick finds her injured by her father and helps her, after which she promises to pay him back for his help. When Derrick has a dispute with Lowrie, who would like to revenge himself by ambushing Derrick, she follows Derrick home in the dark every night to protect him.

Grace himself is in love with the rector’s daughter, Anice. But Paul Grace is small and unprepossessing and doesn’t hold out much hope. He also has problems being accepted by the miners, who distrust clerics and think he is too small and refined to heed.

This novel deals with the difficulties of the miners’ lives and of their grievances against the owners. Although it sympathizes with them, it’s true that the only bad men in the novel are Lowrie and his buddies, as well as one son of an owner, who debauches a foolish girl that Joan befriends. It is in taking care of this girl’s child that Joan begins to want to learn more womanly ways and arts.

This novel provides some interest, but it is not one of Burnett’s best. The dialect can get old. Unlike the other books in dialect I’ve read recently, the dialect is not confined to minor characters, since Joan is from a poor background (although it’s easier to understand than Walter Scott’s Scottish dialect). The only relief we get from it is from the upper-class characters, Derrick, Grace, and Anice.

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