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 1153: Bleak House

Cover for Bleak HouseI 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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Day 1139: Framley Parsonage

Cover for Framley ParsonageIn the fourth of the Barsetshire Chronicles, we meet some old friends and make some new ones. Of particular interest to Framley Parsonage are two occupants of the parsonage, Mark Robarts and his sister, Lucy.

Mark Robarts is a young clergyman who has been remarkably lucky and successful because of his friendship with Lord Lufton and his patronage by Lord Lufton’s mother, Lady Lufton. Instead of slaving away at a curacy like most clergymen of his age, he has the living at Framley, given to him by Lady Lufton, at a very good income. His lovely wife, Fanny, was chosen for him by Lady Lufton and makes him very happy.

Perhaps Mark has been too lucky, for he begins to think that his good fortune is due to his own efforts. He is a good man, but he is still only twenty-six. In any case, he ignores Lady Lufton’s prejudices against a set of people headed by Lord Omnium, her particular enemy, and accepts an invitation to Gatherum Hall. He believes he can better himself through acquaintance with the politicians he will meet there.

At this gathering, he is befriended by Mr. Sowerby, an insolvent member of parliament. Mr. Sowerby talks him into signing a bill for him for 500 pounds, promising repayment (reminding us of a similar subplot in Middlemarch). But Sowerby has no means by which to pay. Later, Sowerby talks Mark into compounding his error by signing another bill for £400. Mark is now in debt for his entire yearly salary.

Lucy Robarts, Mark’s sister, comes to live at Framley Parsonage after her father’s death. Lady Lufton has been trying to match her son with the beautiful Griselda Grantly, daughter of archdeacon Grantly, but Lord Lufton falls in love with Lucy. Lady Lufton is not at all in favor of the match.

Among these new acquaintances are old friends and acquaintances. The wealthy Miss Dunstable, whom Frank Gresham’s family wanted him to court in Doctor Thorne, is now being sought in matrimony by Mr. Sowerby. Doctor Thorne and his niece, Mary, also make an appearance. And the Grantly’s were, of course, prominent characters in the first two novels. We also see a lot more of Bishop and Mrs. Proudie than we have since The Warden.

I am really enjoying this series, and I like how Trollope ties in all of the characters so that some who are important to one book appear as minor characters in another. Trollope examines in this novel the standards of behavior expected of a gentleman, particularly a clergyman. Mark Robarts has broken with those standards, and as slight as his offence may seem, is forced to pay the consequences.

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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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