Book Review: The Mill on the Floss

The Mill on the Floss by George Elliot (pen name for Mary Ann Evans) is her second novel, published in 1860. The Floss in the title is the river which powers the mill. The mill is owned by a Mr. Tulliver, having been in his family for several generations.

Tulliver has two children, Tom and Maggie, and most of the novel’s action revolves around them. Tom is not very academic, but he’s bright in other ways. He’s pretty sure of himself, doesn’t much question whether he’s in the right, and lives by a rigid moral code.

Maggie, by contrast, is bright, affectionate, and impulsive. She’s continually misunderstood by everyone except her father, who always takes up for her and lovingly calls her “the little wench.” Her mother just thinks she’s naughty. Her coloring is darker than what’s regarded as beautiful in that day, at least by the proud Dodson family her mother comes from. Her impulsiveness gets her into trouble, even when she’s trying to do the right thing. For instance, once her aunts were all telling her mother she should do something with Maggie’s mass of hair. So Maggie goes into another room and cuts her hair herself — which horrifies the Dodson sisters. But Maggie’s no saint, as evidenced by pushing her pretty, petite, perfect cousin, Lucy, into the mud when Tom plays with Lucy instead of Maggie. Maggie especially seeks Tom’s love and approval:

Her brother was the human being of whom she had been most afraid from her childhood upward; afraid with that fear which springs in us when we love one who is inexorable, unbending, unmodifiable, with a mind that we can never mould ourselves upon, and yet that we cannot endure to alienate from us

As the children grow up, Mr. Tulliver loses a law suit that he has fought for years, plunging the family into financial ruin and himself into poor health. Tulliver blames the lawyer of his opponent, a Mr. Wakem, for his troubles and declares he’ll never forgive him. He makes Tom write in the family Bible “you’ll remember what Wakem’s done to your father, and you’ll make him and his feel it, if ever the day comes.”

Both children drop out of school to come home and help.

They had gone forth together into their life of sorrow, and they would never more see the sunshine undimmed by remembered cares. They had entered the thorny wilderness, and the golden gates of their childhood had forever closed behind them.

Tom finds a position, works hard, and engages in some trading on the side. Maggie, leafing through some of the few books they have left, comes across one by Thomas a Kempis urging a defeat of self-love by self-denial. She takes this attitude to an unnatural extreme.

One day she runs into Mr. Wakem’s deformed son, Philip, whom she had met years earlier when he was in school with Tom. Philip had developed something of a crush on her and wants to see her. Even though she thought her father was wrong in his attitude toward the Wakems, she can’t defy him. But she can’t be unkind to him, either. Philip convinces her to walk with him in an out-of-the way area and also convinces her that her self-denial, even of the pleasure of good books, is unnatural and extreme. They spend about a year meeting in private, talking about books and other things — until Tom finds out and harshly rebukes them both.

After her father’s death, Maggie takes a position away for a few years, and then comes back to town. Her mother now keeps house for her sister’s widower, Lucy’s father. Lucy wants Maggie to experience some rest and enjoyment and asks her fiance, Steven Guest, to come over for some singing and to bring his friend — Philip Wakem. Maggie explains that she can’t see Philip, but then Tom consents for her to do so in that setting. Phillip loves Maggie, but Tom has said if she chooses to marry Philip, he’ll cut ties with her.

Maggie and Stephen find themselves oddly attracted to each other. They try to fight it, mainly for Lucy’s sake. Maggie wonders if her life will always be miserable.

We can’t choose happiness either for ourselves or for another; we can’t tell where that will lie. We can only choose whether we will indulge ourselves in the present moment, or whether we will renounce that, for the sake of obeying the divine voice within us,–for the sake of being true to all the motives that sanctify our lives. I know this belief is hard; it has slipped away from me again and again; but I have felt that if I let it go forever, I should have no light through the darkness of this life.

My thoughts:

Eliot’s great strength is getting the reader inside her characters’ heads. One source called this “psychological realism.” In the first few chapters the minute play-by-play action of everyone’s thinking is a bit much: I think Eliot refines this to a better balance in later books. But the thoughts and interactions do establish everyone’s character and set us up for what’s to come.

This book is said to be somewhat biographical. Maggie’s circumstances were different from Eliot’s, but they were alike in having morally upright brothers who disapproved of their actions. Neither was considered physically attractive (at least in childhood – Maggie was deemed a striking as an adult). Both were intelligent, though Eliot received much more education. Both grew up in rural villages with an evangelical upbringing. Eliot turned away from the faith as an adult but “she had respect for religious tradition and its ability to maintain a sense of social order and morality” according to Wikipedia.

I’ll forewarn you that the book has a sad ending. Conflicts are finally resolved, but in a tragic way. When I first began to suspect the book might be headed that way, I was dismayed and hoped I was wrong.

The sad ending made me wonder what the point of it all was. Some sources suggest one aspect is the struggle between destiny and choice. Some characters and situations seem drawn toward and inexorable conclusion, but, in Maggie’s case, she valiantly fights against temptation and does what she considers the right thing. Then she’s persecuted by society worse than if she had succumbed. Another source suggested that dealing with small-town persecution is another theme.  Perhaps the similarities between Maggie and Eliot were Eliot’s way of venting. Some say it’s a book about growing up.

Though this book will never rival Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda as my favorite Elliot books, and though I didn’t like the ending, I’m still glad to have read it. Her rich characterizations, depiction of rural life, and delving into the deepest of her characters’ thoughts all make for good reading.

I listened to the audiobook wonderfully read by Laura Paton. I esocially liked the way she portrayed two of the aunts: the imperious, self-appointed head of the Dodson clan, Sister Glegg, and the gloomy hypochondriac, Sister Pullet. I also read several chapters and a few other section in the Kindle book. This book is my 19th Century classic for the Back to the Classics challenge.

Have you ever read The Mill on the Floss? What did you think?

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent)

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Book Review: The Inheritance

In 1996, two professors going through Louisa May Alcott’s letters and journals discovered a previously unknown and unpublished manuscript. The Inheritance was Louisa’s first novel, written when she was 17. Neither the professors nor anyone else could find any other information about the novel. There was no record of it having been submitted for publication and rejected. Maybe Louisa just wrote it for fun or for her family. After the novel’s discovery, it was published in 1997.

The heroine of the story is Edith Adelon. She was discovered as a poor orphan in Italy by Lord Hamilton, who took pity on her and brought her home. There she became a companion to Hamilton’s daughter, Amy.

As the story  opens, Edith is a young woman and Amy is a teenager. Edith teaches Amy “music, painting, and Italian, and better lessons still in patience, purity, and truth,” but she’s not exactly a governess. However, she is regarded by Lady Hamilton as “poor and lowborn,” and as such, she is not allowed to mingle with “noble” guests as an equal (p. 17). Lord Hamilton died years before. Amy’s older brother, Arthur, her mother, Lady Hamilton, and her mother’s niece, Lady Ida complete the household. A friend, Lord Percy, comes for an extended visit and the young siblings learn his background: he and his brother had loved the same woman, and once Percy found out, he stepped back for his brother’s happiness. “Careless of the wealth and honor that might be his, he prized far more the purity and worth of noble human hearts, little noting whether they beat in high or low.” He visited the “poor and suffering” and still kept a hope that he “might win a beautiful and noble wife to cheer life’s pilgrimage and bless him with her love” (p. 13).

Ida hopes to attract Percy’s attention for herself, but when she sees him favoring Edith, Ida’s latent jealousy comes to the surface. Between Ida’s verbal jousts, another visitor’s ignoble intentions, and a betrayal of her kindness, Edith has her hands full.

Yet there is a secret to Edith’s background that none of them knows. But will it be revealed or suppressed and forgotten?

The story is only 150 pages and has elements of both a Gothic novel and what were called sentimental novels. It’s a very sweet story, but a little overdone in places. Edith is too good to be true. Descriptions such as this one abound: “With an angel’s calm and almost holy beauty, Edith bore within as holy and pure a heart–gentle, true, and tender” (pp. 12-13). Likewise, Percy’s “calm, pale face and serious eyes are far more beautiful than mere comeliness and grace of form, for the pure, true heart withing shines clearly out and gives a quiet beauty to his face, such as few possess” (p. 5).

But even though Louisa’s writing is understandably not as mature as her later works, and the characters are a little two-dimensional, I thought it was very sweet and a good effort on Louisa’s part for her age then.

Several years ago I saw a film version of The Inheritance which I enjoyed immensely. It must have come out not long after the book was published. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but it kept to the main points of the book. A few exceptions: it has Lord Hamilton as still living for most of the film; shows Lady Hamilton as warm and friendly whereas she is described as cold and haughty in the book; and it has Edith loving and racing horses, which was not at all in the book. I’m looking forward to seeing the film again some time now that I’ve read the story.

Thankfully Tarissa, who hosts the Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge, told me about the Internet Archive, which loans copies of books that have been photocopied page by page. It’s not quite the same as an e-book, but once I figured out how to make the page fit my iPad mini, I read it quite easily. I’m glad to know this service exists! The edition I read included a lengthy introduction by the two professors who discovered this manuscript, Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy.

I’m counting this book as my Classic Novella (250 or fewer pages) for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved and Booknificent)

Book Review: Wuthering Heights

For years I avoided reading Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. I had seen a couple of film adaptations and did not like them. But every year when I chose books for the Back to the Classics Challenge, Wuthering Heights came up as a possibility. This year, I took into account that books are usually better and fuller than their movie adaptations, and there must be some reason so many people love this story. So I put the book in my queue.

The story begins with a Mr. Lockwood taking possession of a house rental. He goes to see his landlord at a neighboring house, Mr. Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights. Being a solitary man himself, Mr. Lockwood rejoices to find out that Mr. Heathcliff seems to be of the same disposition. But on this and a subsequent visit, he discovers Mr. Heathcliff and his whole household are not just loners: they’re strange and surly, even cruel.

Wanting to find out more about the household, Lockwood asks his housekeeper, Nellie Dean, for more information. She tells him that she was housekeeper for the Earnshaw family who used to live at the Heights. They had two children, Hindley and Catherine. On a business trip, Mr. Earnshaw found an abandoned child and brought him home. The rest of the family thought the child a gypsy and did not like him. Earnshaw took Heathcliff’s part against Hindley, which incited Hindley’s further mistreatment of Heathcliff. Finally Hindley was sent away to college and Heathcliff and Catherine became close.

When Earnshaw died three years later, Hindley came back, married now, and assumed the role of master of the house. He treated Heathcliff as a common laborer.

One night Heathcliff and Catherine headed over the the neighbor’s house at Thrushcross Grange, where they peeped in the windows and made fun of the two Linton children.Then the family’s dogs came after them, biting Cathy. The family rescued and took Catherine in, sending Heathcliff back home. Cathy spent five weeks recuperating at the Grange. When she returned home, she was no longer a wild young, at least outwardly. She had seen another side of life which tamed and refined her, and she and Edgar Linton had feelings for each other. Eventually Cathy and Edgar married, and Heathcliff left.

Hindley and his wife had a son, Hareton. Hindley’s wife died and Hindley checked out of life, drowning in drink and gambling. Nellie took care of Hareton.

After three years Heathcliff returns with wealth from an untold source. He wants to renew his relationship with Cathy, who advises Edgar to allow it against his better judgment. Edgar’s sister, Isabella, falls in love with Heathcliff, despite Cathy’s warnings against him. Heathcliff only encourages Isabella’s interest out of revenge. A series of arguments result in Catherine becoming gravely ill and Heathcliff and Isabella eloping. Catherine has a daughter, Cathy, and dies.

Heathcliff returns and sets himself up at Wuthering Heights, lending money to Hindley only to ensnare him in debt. When Hindley dies, Heathcliff owns the Heights.

The rest of the book details Heathcliff’s manipulation and revenge carried out in the lives of Cathy’s daughter and his son.

My thoughts:

Wuthering Heights has had mixed reviews since it was first published. Respect for it has risen over the years: it even ranked as the number one love story in a poll several years ago. But others were shocked at it: one recent reviewer referred to it as a hot mess. Not a lot is known about its author, Emily Bronte, except that she was a very private person and she loved the moors, where the book is set. She died at the age of 30, a year after the book’s publication.

The introduction to the audiobook I listened to said one reason the book shocked people was because it had no moral. But I don’t think it needed to have a stated moral to convey the cruelty and futility of revenge. At first the reader feels sorry for Heathcliff’s being mistreated by everyone on the planet (including even Nellie and Catherine at first), and that treatment certainly contributed to his character. But his revenge exceeds normal bounds, wanting to ruin, control, and even annihilate the people and property connected with those who wronged him (near the end, when he has both houses, he speaks of arranging his will and wishes he could destroy both properties rather than let anyone have them).

Plus, I don’t think what Heathcliff and Catherine had was love. An unhealthy obsession, maybe. They both seemed motivated by selfishness than concern for each other’s good.

Also, there’s almost no “good” character. Joseph, the one religious character, curses and complains. Nellie shades the truth and outright lies. Even Lockwood takes a hand that has reached through his window and presses it against the cut glass. The daughter Catherine is better than most, but still motivated by self-will more often than not. But at least she does seek the good of her father and her cousin at times.

Still, there’s a strange fascination with the book — maybe it’s partly motivated by wondering how all these odd people and situations will end up. I had not known until a recent reading of one of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s books that “wuthering” meant a strong, even fierce wind. There is something strangely drawing about the wildness of the setting and story.

And Emily was a skilled writer. I loved how the characters revealed themselves by their conversation. Even in the opening paragraphs, Lockwood tells much about himself in his little asides and observations. Emily mastered “showing, not telling” even then.

I listened to the audiobook nicely read by Joanne Froggatt (Anna in Downton Abbey) and read over some passages in the online version. I chose this for the “Classic Tragic Novel” category of the Back to the Classics Challenge.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved and Booknificent)

Book Review: The Pickwick Papers

Charles Dickens was 24 when he was asked to contribute brief anecdotes to go along with some serial illustrations about a club of men falling into comic misadventures hunting and fishing. He didn’t know much about hunting and fishing, but he took up the idea of a men’s club. Before long the stories surpassed the illustrations in the public interest, and Dickens began asking the artists to come up with sketches for his own work. Thus The Pickwick Papers , Dickens’ first novel, was born.

Samuel Pickwick is a kindly older gentleman and the head of the club bearing his name. He decides he and three fellow club members will travel and report their findings and activities back to the club. The other Pickwickians are Nathaniel Winkle, Augustus Snodgrass, and Tracy Tupman. Part of the humor comes from the men’s circumstances not lining up with their reputations. Mr. Winkle is supposed to be a sportsman, yet botches any sportsman-like endeavors. Snodgrass is poet but never produces any verse. Tupman thinks himself something of a lady’s man, yet gets into all kinds of trouble in his romantic endeavors.

The men meet many good folks in their travels, and some of those people provide stories that make up some of the chapters. One story is spooky, another a suspenseful tale of revenge, another full of pathos involving a prodigal son.

And the men get themselves into various fixes. They find themselves right in the middle of opposing forces in a military demonstration. A fellow traveler who turns up in some of their locations cons them in various ways.  A case of mistaken identity leads to the challenge of a duel. A widow misunderstands Mr. Pickwick and thinks he is proposing, and when he doesn’t follow through, she sues him for breach of promise.

A few chapters in, Mr. Pickwick finds a man named Sam Weller working at an inn and hires him as a manservant and assistant. Their relationship has been likened to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. I didn’t see much of Quixote in Pickwick, but Sam’s “street smarts” and worldly wise ways did seem quite similar to Sancho.

In one section of the book, Pickwick goes to prison rather than pay the damages in a lawsuit. Though there is humor here as well, there’s much more satire over the prison and legal systems, foreshadowing themes that will be developed more fully in Dickens’ future novels.

The comedy of errors is not my favorite humorous style, but I really enjoyed some of Dickens’ wry side comments:

‘Mr. Pickwick!’ exclaimed Mr. Magnus, lost in astonishment, ‘what is the meaning of this, Sir? What is the meaning of it, Sir?’ added Mr. Magnus, in a threatening, and a louder tone.

‘Sir,’ said Mr. Pickwick, somewhat indignant at the very sudden manner in which Mr. Peter Magnus had conjugated himself into the imperative mood, ‘I decline answering that question.’
___

Here Mr. Peter Magnus indulged in a prolonged sneer; and taking off his green spectacles—which he probably found superfluous in his fit of jealousy—rolled his little eyes about, in a manner frightful to behold.
___

[He saw] his venerated leader at some distance off, running after his own hat, which was gambolling playfully away in perspective. There are very few moments in a man’s existence when he experiences so much ludicrous distress, or meets with so little charitable commiseration, as when he is in pursuit of his own hat.

Mr. Pickwick gazed through his spectacles for an instant on the advancing mass, and then fairly turned his back and—we will not say fled; firstly, because it is an ignoble term, and, secondly, because Mr. Pickwick’s figure was by no means adapted for that mode of retreat.

Dickens’ warmth also manifests itself:

Christmas was close at hand, in all his bluff and hearty honesty; it was the season of hospitality, merriment, and open-heartedness; the old year was preparing, like an ancient philosopher, to call his friends around him, and amidst the sound of feasting and revelry to pass gently and calmly away. Gay and merry was the time; and right gay and merry were at least four of the numerous hearts that were gladdened by its coming.

He saw that men who worked hard, and earned their scanty bread with lives of labour, were cheerful and happy; and that to the most ignorant, the sweet face of Nature was a never-failing source of cheerfulness and joy. He saw those who had been delicately nurtured, and tenderly brought up, cheerful under privations, and superior to suffering, that would have crushed many of a rougher grain, because they bore within their own bosoms the materials of happiness, contentment, and peace. He saw that women, the tenderest and most fragile of all God’s creatures, were the oftenest superior to sorrow, adversity, and distress; and he saw that it was because they bore, in their own hearts, an inexhaustible well-spring of affection and devotion.

“I’m afeered I’ve not done by you quite wot I ought to have done; you’re a wery kind-hearted man, and I might ha’ made your home more comfortabler. I begin to see now,” she says, “ven it’s too late, that if a married ‘ooman vishes to be religious, she should begin vith dischargin’ her dooties at home, and makin’ them as is about her cheerful and happy, and that vile she goes to church, or chapel, or wot not, at all proper times, she should be wery careful not to con-wert this sort o’ thing into a excuse for idleness or self-indulgence. I have done this,” she says, “and I’ve vasted time and substance on them as has done it more than me; but I hope ven I’m gone, Veller, that you’ll think on me as I wos afore I know’d them people, and as I raly wos by natur.”

I also enjoyed seeing in seed form what would become classic Dickens: memorable characters, highlighting of the needs for social justice and reform, sweet reunions, comedy and tragedy. He had also already developed a knack for setting up the ends of chapters to foster eagerness for the next.

I listened to the audiobook superbly narrated by Simon Prebble.

While Pickwick doesn’t surpass A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield as my favorite Dickens novels, I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. Mr. Pickwick, Sam, and some of the others will live on in my memory as some of Dickens’ most endearing characters.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent Thursday)

Book Review: How Green Was My Valley

How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn is the story of a family in a Welsh mining village in the 1800s. The story begins with the narrator, Huw (pronounced like Hugh), looking back over his time in the valley just as he is getting ready to leave it as an older man.

Huw remembers his somewhat idyllic childhood. Most of the men in the valley worked in the coal mines. They’d come home en masse covered with coal dust, take a bath, and enjoy a fine meal prepared by their wives. Saturdays were special: payday. Every wife would dress in her second-best and bring a chair outside her door. Her husband would put his pay for the week in her lap. After a bath and a good dinner, then they’d go shopping.

Huw was the youngest son. Most of his brothers worked in the mines and contributed to the family coffers, so they were well-off, comparatively, and able to help others when times were hard. Huw was in an accident after which he could not walk for five years. Even after he could walk, his legs were spindly. Huw was educated by a village woman until she had taught him all she could. Then she prepared him for the national school. There he was a target, both because he was so slight and because he was the new kid. When he came home beat up, his father taught him how to defend himself.

Fighting was a big part of life then. People fought over slights, over speaking to a man’s daughter without asking his permission first, over just about any real or perceived infraction.

Huw’s memories trace the progression of his family, his own coming to manhood, Mr. Gruffydd (Griffith), the town minister, troubles and triumphs in town and at school. Trouble with the mines affected most of the families, and arguments flew back and forth about the best way to handle them. Some, including some of Huw’s brothers, were for unions, some for striking. And the slag heap, made up of waste from the mines, continually grew into a bigger blight on the landscape, eventually choking off life from the river and the land.

I’m not one to see symbolism behind every element in literature, but the slag heap is such a presence through the book that it must symbolize something. I’m not sure exactly what, though. Man’s progression, which so often ends up  harming his environment? Man’s inherent corruption, which affects everything he touches? Maybe a bit of both.

Llewellyn is a beautiful writer, with a musical lilt to much of his prose. I listened to the audiobook wonderfully narrated by Ralph Cosham, and enjoyed hearing the lyricism of the book that way. I also checked a print copy from the library and enjoyed rereading a few passages.

There is beauitful to watch a mountain sleeping, and other mountains in the other valleys rising up like bits of blue velvet to make you feel you could cut a piece and wear it for a coat, to dance in above the fat clouds.

O, there is lovely to feel a book, a good book, firm in the hand, for its fatness holds rich promise, and you are hot inside to think of good hours to come.

There is good a cup of tea is when you are feeling low. Thin, and plenty of milk, and brown sugar in the crystal, in a big cup so that when your mouth is used to the heat you can drink instead of sipping. Every part of you inside you that seems to have gone to sleep comes lively again. A good friend of mine is a cup of tea, indeed.

I knew she was laughing, but she looked as though she were crying, with golden tears unsteady in her eyes, and her eyes gone lovely blue to call for pity, big, and round, like a little girl wanting to be carried, and turning down her mouth, only a little not to be ugly, and a tremble in the chin, and with hair almost the colour of a new penny about her face and hanging down three feet, with stray ones shining like the strings of a harp across her eyes and down her cheeks.

There is a wholeness about a woman, of shape, and sound, and colour, and taste, and smell, a quietness that is her, that you will want to hold tightly to you, all, every little bit, without words, in peace, with jealousy for the things that escape the clumsiness of your arms. So you feel, when you love.

Men lose their birthrights for a mess of pottage only if they stop using the gifts given them by God for their betterment. By prayer. That is the first and greatest gift. Use the gift of prayer. Ask for strength of mind, and a clear vision. Then sense. Use your sense. …Think long and well. By prayer and good thought you will conquer all enemies.

Never mind what you feel. Think. Watch. Think again. And then one step at a time to put things right. As a mason puts one block at a time. To build solid and good. So with thought. Think. Build one thought at a time. Think solid. Then act.
____
Well,” my father said to her, and looked at her.

“Well,” my mother said to him, and looked at him.

In that quietness they were speaking their own language, with their eyes, with the way they stood, with what they put into the air about them, each knowing what the other was saying, and having strength one from the other, for they had been learning through forty years of being together, and their minds were one.”

When Huw was sent to take some things to a neighbor having a baby, he thought doctors brought babies in their bags. The daughter of the woman having the baby told him otherwise and brought him to a window to watch to prove her point. Traumatized, he went home, and eventually his parents found out. He thought he was going to get in trouble, but his father just said:

Listen to me. Forget all you saw. Leave it. Take your mind from it. It had nothing to do with you. But use it for experience. Now you know what hurt it brings to women when men come into the world. Remember, and make it up to your Mama and to all women. . . And another thing let it do . . . There is no room for pride in any man. There is no room for unkindness. There is no room for wit at the expense of others. All men are born the same, and equal. As you saw to-day, so come the Captains and the Kings and the Tinkers and the Tailors. Let the memory direct your dealings with men and women. And be sure to take good care of Mama.

Another interesting comment about women came when he and one sister had to do all the dishes for their large family, and he commented, “A man will never know a woman until he knows her work.”

One of the funniest parts was when the village school teacher came to the house to drill Huw before his examination for the English school. She gave him a math problem about how long it would take to fill up a bathtub with so many gallons going in and two holes letting so much out the bottom. Huw’s mother, a smart woman in her own right but not much on “book learning,” can’t get over the silliness of someone pouring water into a tub with holes. Then when they move on to decimals, she wants to know who came up with that idea and who says what that little dot is supposed to do.

One somewhat disturbing part was when a small girl was “ravaged,” and the men of the village sought him out and took his punishment into their own hands.

“To hand her murderer over to the police will give him an extra day to live, which your daughter was denied,” said Mr. Gruffydd. “He shall be fed and housed until the day he meets the rope, but your daughter will lie beneath the dead wreaths long before then, and the rope gives a good quick and clean, without blood, without pain, without torture of the soul and body. Is justice done, then, with a rope about the neck of a man, and his victim, a child of seven years, torn and twisted, long in her grave?”

“No,” said the crowd.

“Shall we burn him?” asked Mr. Gruffydd. “But if we do, he will die a death of honour, for martyrs died in the flame. What then?”

“Give him to me,” said Cynlais Pritchard.

“Is that your common decision?” Mr. Gruffydd asked the crowd.

“Yes,” they all shouted back.

“Take him,” said Mr. Gruffydd, “and as we do with him, so shall we do with the next, if next there is. And remember, if you bury him, however deep, you pollute innocent ground. Burden not the earth with such.”

Though the people were God-fearing, sadly, Huw saw Christ as only a man.

There is a smattering of “damns,” “hells,” and such. There is one description of teenage fondling and another of a sexual encounter that are written metaphorically, but still more graphically than I am comfortable with.

Though much of the book has a nostalgic feel, to me it ended up sad. Nearly everyone has passed on and the slag heap is about to crush what’s left. Huw muses:

But you have gone now, all of you that were so beautiful when you were quick with life. Yet not gone, for you are still a living truth inside my mind. So how are you dead, my brothers and sisters, and all of you, when you live with me as surely as I live with myself.

Llewellyn was of Welsh decent and portrayed this as something of his own history. After his death, it was discovered that he had not been in Wales until well after the book was published. He knew people from Welsh mining families and drew from their conversations.

The 1941 film version with Roddy McDowall and Maureen O’Hara remains popular even today. I saw it years ago but I remember little from it. I’d like to watch it again some time.

Book Review: A Little Princess

PrincessIn A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, seven-year-old Sara Crewe has grown up in India with her beloved father. Her mother had died years before. Now the time has come for Sara to go to a boarding school in England.

Her father takes her to Miss Minchen’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies. Because he is rich, he provides for Sara to have her own room, maid, and carriage. Because Sara’s father is rich, Miss Minchen fawns over Sara and sets her as her “star pupil.” Privately she dislikes Sara. Because Sara is so elevated, the older popular girls immediately dislike her.

Sara herself is largely unaware of what being rich means. She seems much older than she is, quiet, thoughtful, and serious. But she has a sweet disposition and befriends other outcasts, like the overweight and not very smart Ermengarde, a motherless younger child named Lottie, and the scullery maid Becky.

Sara likes to pretend, and her most frequent pretend is that she is a princess – not because she is haughty or thinks herself entitled to be a princess, but to remind herself to act as a princess would act. Acting as a princess helps her not to lash or or slap people, even when they deserve it.

Suddenly Sara’s world is turned upside down when her father dies amidst a massive business failure. With no time to mourn or even adjust to the news, Sara is relegated to the attic and now has to work at whatever Miss Minchen assign to her. Sara has no other relatives and apparently there is nothing like children’s protective services in that day and time: Miss Minchen is now responsible for Sara and her upkeep, so she’s determined that Sara will earn her keep.

Sara still pretends to be a princess to help her act right, and she pretends that she is a prisoner in the Bastille to make her situation a little more palatable. But she is sad and miserable. Demands are made on her all day, she’s scolded and denied food for the least infraction. She visits with Becky, who has the attic room next to hers, but Lottie and Ermengarde can only come up when they can sneak in unawares.

At Sara’s lowest point, she wakes up to find “a dream come true” in her attic room – a fire in the grate, good food, warm bed coverings, a stack of books. Where could they have come from?

Though A Little Princess isn’t written exactly in the style of a fairy tale, it has many fairy tale elements: a “princess” in disguise or down on her luck, facing various trials, hidden away in a dark place, only to have things change and put to rights at the end with the villains getting their due comeuppance.

I searched a bit to try to discover Burnett’s purpose in writing the book. I couldn’t discover anything except that Wikipedia said “The novella appears to have been inspired in part by Charlotte Bronte’s unfinished novel, Emma, the first two chapters of which were published in Cornhill Magazine in 1860, featuring a rich heiress with a mysterious past who is apparently abandoned at a boarding school.” Perhaps she just wanted to write a fairy tale set in her time. But Sara certainly seems to be an exemplary heroine: not perfect (she admits to having pride and a temper), but constant in her character, kindness, and interest in others no matter what her circumstances. Maybe Burnett set up a character children could look up to and emulate.

But one factor that stood out to me was the way people treat others based on their economic status. Sara was the same person in good times or bad. Neither she nor her father asked or expected that she be out on a pedestal when they were rich, and certainly no one deserves to be treated as Sara and Becky were just because they were poor. The difference came in how others perceived them. Sure, there are some rich people in every age who feel entitled and deserving of pedestals and accolades. But we need to treat people with kindness and consideration no matter what their circumstances.

There’s some mention of “magic” in this book, but it’s not as pervasive as in The Secret Garden. The view of English imperialism and Indian servants might be offensive to modern sensibilities.

I had never read this book, that I can remember, but some years ago I saw a film version which I’d like to see again now.

I didn’t like the cover (pictured above) of the audiobook I listened to, but I enjoyed the wonderful narration by Virginia Leishman.

C. S. Lewis said the best children’s books are good reading for adults, too, and I agree. I very much enjoyed getting acquainted with this classic.

(Sharing with Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

 

Two Reading Challenge Wrap-ups

I have been finished with these two challenges for months, but just have not written the wrap-up posts for them until now.

Karen at Books and Chocolate hosts the Back to the Classics Challenge for reading classics at least 50 years old.

I enjoy this challenge because I was not exposed to many classics as I grew up, and this challenge inspires me to expand my horizons and explore books I might not otherwise read. I’m happy to report that I have read all 12 classics on my list (I actually read 13, but no extra points for extra books. 🙂 ). The titles link back to my reviews:

  • A 19th century classic. Villette by Charlotte Bronte (1853)(Finished 6/30/18)
  • A 20th century classic (published before 1968). The Story of My Life by Helen Keller (1903)(Finished 3/31/18)
  • A classic by a woman author. Adam Bede by George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans)(1859)(Finished 5/19/18)
  • A classic in translation (Any book originally written published in a language other than your native language.) 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (1870)(Finished 1/26/18)
  • A children’s classic. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911)(Finished 2/3/18)
  • A classic crime story, fiction or non-fiction, which she goes on to say can be a detective or spy novel. The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton. (1908)(Finished 1/18/18)
  • A classic travel or journey narrative, fiction or non-fiction. Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne (Finished 2/17/18)
  • A classic with a single-word title (no articles). Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (Finished 3/12/18)
  • A classic with a color in the title. Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls (1961)(Finished 3/17/18)
  • A classic by an author that’s new to you. He Fell in Love With His Wife by Edward Payson Roe (1866)(Finished 4/8/18) and Invincible Louisa: The Story of the Author of Little Women by Cornelia Meigs (1933) (Finished 6/25/18)
  • A classic that scares you (due to its length or it intimidates you in some way). The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo. (1831)(Finished 8/4/18).
  • Re-read a favorite classic. Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace, (1880)(Finished 4/17/18)

Karen allows for three children’s classics, and I am counting Where the Red Fern Grows, The Secret Garden, and Journey to the Center of the Earth for those. I’m not counting 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea because nothing I read about it indicated it was written for children.

Karen likes for us to let her know how many entries we earned for her drawing: I earned three. She also requests an email here: mine is barbarah06 (at) gmail (dot) com.

I enjoyed all of these except Journey to the Center of the Earth, but I think my favorite is He Fell in Love With His Wife. Adam Bede would be a close second. Frankenstein was the biggest surprise.

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Adam at Roof Beam Reader hosts the TBR Pile Challenge to encourage us to get to those books on our shelves, Kindles, or TBR lists. For this one we had to name the books we were going to read, along with two alternates (in case we couldn’t get through a couple on our list). The books for this challenge had to have been published 2016 and earlier.

I read thirteen books altogether. Titles link back to my reviews.

  1. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (Finished 2/3/18)
  2. The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton (Finished 1/18/18)
  3. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (Finished 3/12/18)
  4. Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls (Finished 3/17/18)
  5. Adam Bede by George Eliot (1859)(Finished 5/19/18)
  6. He Fell in Love With His Wife by Edward Payson Roe (1866, Finished 4/8/18)
  7. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (1870, Finished 1/26/18)
  8. Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne (Finished 2/17/18)
  9. Ghost Boy: The Miraculous Escape of a Misdiagnosed Boy Trapped Inside His own Body by Martin Pistorious (2013, Finished 1/8/18)
  10. Going Like Sixty by Richard Armour. Set this one aside, disappointed in the content.
  11. Sins of the Past by Dee Henderson, Dani Pettrey, and Lynette Easton (2016, Finished 3/28/18)
  12. Another Way Home by Deborah Raney (2015, Finished 4/16/18)

Alternates: Anchor in the Storm by Sarah Sundin (2016, Finished 5/7/18) and Mozart’s Sister by Nancy Moser (2006)(Finished 1/28/18)

I enjoy both of these challenges and plan to participate in them again next year. Karen already has the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge categories here.

I’m still working on the Mount TBR Challenge and the Literary Christmas Challenge.

Book Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo was published in 1831 but set in the Paris of 1482.

Quasimodo was a deformed child left at a place where foundlings were deposited for anyone who might want to take them in. He had so many physical issues that one of the gossipy women observing him declared it “must be a sin to look at such a thing.” A priest came by, saw the child, and adopted him.

The priest, Claude Frollo, had been a promising scholar when his own parents died. In compassion he took in his younger brother, Jehan, and raised him, and thoughts of what would have happened to Jehan if Claude had not been available compelled Claude to take in Quasimodo.

But several years later, Jehan became dissolute, preferring drinking and carousing to studying. Quasimodo, “From his very first steps among men…had felt himself, later on he had seen himself, spewed out, blasted, rejected. Human words were, for him, always a raillery or a malediction. As he grew up, he had found nothing but hatred around him. He had caught the general malevolence. He had picked up the weapon with which he had been wounded.” Quasimodo became the bell ringer for Notre Dame and loved the bells as he did no one else except Claude, but the bells made Quasimodo deaf. He was unable to benefit from the study Claude longed to impart. Thus, “Claude, saddened and discouraged in his human affections, by all this, had flung himself eagerly into the arms of learning, that sister which, at least does not laugh in your face, and which always pays you, though in money that is sometimes a little hollow, for the attention which you have paid to her. Hence, he became more and more learned, and, at the same time, as a natural consequence, more and more rigid as a priest, more and more sad as a man.” His insatiable thirst for knowledge led him to delve “further, lower, beneath all that finished, material, limited knowledge; he had, perhaps, risked his soul, and had seated himself in the cavern at that mysterious table of the alchemists, of the astrologers, of the hermetics.”

Further drawing Claude away from anything good and right was his lust for a gypsy girl named Esmeralda, who used to dance in the streets with her tambourine and have her goat perform tricks to earn money. Claude deemed that his unhealthy obsession for Esmeralda must be due to some sorcery on her part.

When Quasimodo was publicly punished for a crime that Claude put him up to, Esmeralda was the only person who took pity on him and offered him water. That act of kindness caused Quasimodo to love her, though he knew his love would never be returned.

Claude’s jealousy led to an assault for which Esmeralda was blamed. Quasimodo rescued her and hid her in the cathedral. But massive misunderstandings all around led to multiple tragedies.

My thoughts:

I have not seen any of the film versions of this book, but from what I understand, many of them twist the ending to be more upbeat. There is no happy ending in this book, except maybe for the playwright and the goat. In fact, it’s so dark and seemingly hopeless, I pondered for a long while what it was all for.

Some have said, due to the fact that the Hugo’s original title was Notre-Dame de Paris, and most of the action in the novel takes place in and around the cathedral, that it is the main character. One reason Hugo wrote this book was to call attention to the value of the Gothic architecture in the city and to rouse support for preserving it. Many of Paris’s buildings had been damaged over the centuries and new construction or repairs were not always in keeping with the Gothic style. One chapter in the book talks about how literature will “kill” architecture as a means of expression.

But on another level, this novel depicts a very human story. I can’t believe that it is all about the cathedral.

It could be about the destructive power of lust. Most of the tragedies that came raining down on almost everyone stem from Claude’s obsession with Esmeralda. Some of the others came or were exacerbated by a lust for power. Early in the novel, a playwright wanders into the wrong part of town and is put on “trial” by the riffraff of the city. Later, two different trials by the proper magistrates show themselves to be no more just than the underground kangaroo court. Even one scene involving the king shows his misplaced priorities.

It could be about the mistake of judging by appearances. Quasimodo, of course, was obviously misjudged from day one, which had an effect on his character. A captain, Phoebus is misjudged, but on the other end of the scale: because he is so handsome, people think he is good, when in reality he is a cad. Esmeralda is misjudged for her beauty but also for her ethnicity: gypsies were not respected, and she is constantly accused of sorcery or other crimes just because she is a gypsy. One of my favorite parts is a song Quasimodo sings outside Esmeralda’s window, translated by Project Gutenberg as follows:

Look not at the face, young girl, look at the heart. The heart of a handsome young man is often deformed. There are hearts in which love does not keep. Young girl, the pine is not beautiful; it is not beautiful like the poplar, but it keeps its foliage in winter. Alas! What is the use of saying that? That which is not beautiful has no right to exist; beauty loves only beauty; April turns her back on January. Beauty is perfect, beauty can do all things, beauty is the only thing which does not exist by halves. The raven flies only by day, the owl flies only by night, the swan flies by day and by night.

It could be about the nature of real love. Claude thinks he loves Esmeralda but his affection is dark, destructive, and self-centered. Esmeralda thinks she loves the captain, but her warm feelings are based on his looks and an act of kindness he rendered toward her. She’s totally blind to his real nature. Quasimodo, though not a good character, shines in his love for the bells and the cathedral – some say he is the soul of the cathedral, and without him, the building “seems deserted, inanimate, dead…like a skull which still has holes for the eyes, but no longer sight.” He loved Claude, but it was a love based on “gratitude carried to its extreme limit.” But his love for Esmeralda causes him to extend himself and sacrifice for her benefit. When he rescues her from the gallows, for the first time the mob sees him as “really beautiful,” at least for a time. Personally I like this view the best.

It could be about fate. In Hugo’s introduction, he describes “rummaging about” Notre Dame coming across the word “ANNAKE” inscribed on one of the walls. Later someone in the book defines the inscription to mean “Fate.” That did not make much sense to me, as the troubles in the book came often from wrong choices rather than outside forces. But Wikipedia defines the word as “a personification of inevitability, compulsion and necessity.” That makes more sense considering who inscribed it and why. The Wikipedia article also quotes Hugo in a collection of his poems, Toute la Lyre:

Religion, society, nature; these are the three struggles of man. These three conflicts are, at the same time, his three needs: it is necessary for him to believe, hence the temple; it is necessary for him to create, hence the city; it is necessary for him to live, hence the plow and the ship. But these three solutions contain three conflicts. The mysterious difficulty of life springs from all three. Man has to deal with obstacles under the form of superstition, under the form of prejudice, and under the form of the elements. A triple “ananke” (necessity) weighs upon us, the “ananke” of dogmas, the “ananke” of laws, and the “ananke” of things. In Notre Dame de Paris the author has denounced the first; in Les Misérables he has pointed out the second; in this book (Toilers of the Sea) he indicates the third. With these three fatalities which envelop man is mingled the interior fatality, that supreme ananke, the human heart.

I’m still sifting through what that means.

I chose The Hunchback of Notre Dame for the “classic that intimidates you” category of the Back to the Classics Challenge. It intimidated me due to its length, due to the fact that the subject matter didn’t naturally draw me, and due to Hugo’s penchant for rabbit trails. I have come close to reading it many times and then backed away, but Tarissa’s review encouraged me toward trying it.

There were fewer side discussions here than there were in Les Miserables, one of my top three favorite novels, and this book is not as long as Les Mis. But Les Mis ends triumphantly and beautifully even though it ends sadly. And even though darkness pervades Les Mis, light shines through. There’s little light in Hunchback. I was stunned to find much more sensuality in Hunchback, even though a major character in Les Mis is a prostitute. I thought Les Mis was fairly discreet, but Hunchback goes into much more detail in Frollo’s thoughts and in the captain’s nearly successful seduction scene. On the other hand, sometimes it sounds worse than it is: Esmeralda is described as “half naked” when she is taken to the gallows, but she is in a shift (something like a slip) with her legs uncovered: that hardly constitutes being “half naked” in our day, but it would have been indecent then.

So, I have mixed emotions about the book. I am glad to have read it, but it will never go down as a favorite. But I did enjoy the way Hugo developed the characters and their psychology. And, as most classics do, this book had me pondering different aspects of it for days after finishing it.

Forgive the lack of page numbers for the quotes: I listened to the audio version marvelously narrated by Bill Homewood. I got a paperback copy from the library to go over some parts, but it was a modernized translation. So I ended up using the Gutenberg version online to look up certain sections.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: Villette

Villette was the last book written by Charlotte Bronte (another was published posthumously but was actually her first book). I had only recently heard of Villette, but since Charlotte penned one of my top three novels, Jane Eyre, I thought I’d give it a try.

Villette is a semi-autobiographical novel based on parts of Charlotte’s life. She and her sister, Emily, had taught for a time in a boarding school in Brussels, Belgium. They both went back to England when their aunt died, and Charlotte returned to the boarding house alone. Villette is a fictional town in France, but based upon Brussels. By the time Charlotte started writing this novel, she was the only remaining sibling of the original five in her family, and she well captures that feeling of being all alone in the world.

The story’s heroine is Lucy Snowe. After some unexplained tragedy in her family, Lucy was left totally alone and needing to make her own way in the world. She heard that some French families hired English-speaking governesses for their children, so she took what money she had and went to France though she knew almost no French and no one in the country. She met a young English girl, Ginevra, on the ship, who went to a French boarding school. After getting lost in Villette, Lucy found herself on the doorstep of the same boarding school run by a Madame Beck. Lucy begged for a job doing anything at the school. She was hired to take care of Madame Beck’s children, but eventually she was asked to teach English at the school.

Lucy on the outside seemed like a quiet, almost mousy person (someone called her a shadow), but inside her feelings ran deep. Charlotte named her Snowe on purpose (she was originally going to go with Frost) to portray how she seemed to other people.

In addition to the ups and downs at the school and encounters with the spoiled Ginevra, Lucy came across her godmother and his son in town, who, unknown to her, had moved to Villette. The son was a teenager at the beginning of the book but became a doctor. Later Lucy encountered a father and daughter she had also met at the beginning, and had several run-ins with an abrasive fellow teacher, M. Paul Emanuel.

One article I read said “Everyone loves Paul Emanuel.” I did not. He constantly criticized Lucy and tended to dominate, not letting her leave for lunch when he wanted to talk to her, locking her up in the attic to learn lines for a school play he was directing. Later he is shown to have several redeeming qualities, but I never got over the initial dislike.

Since France was primarily a Catholic country Lucy stood out as one of the few Protestants. M. Emanuel and a priest took it upon themselves to try to convert her, but Lucy stood firm. Lucy had no use for Catholicism (” the CHURCH strove to bring up her children robust in body, feeble in soul, fat, ruddy, hale, joyous, ignorant, unthinking, unquestioning”), but came to believe that “there are good Romanists.” She and M. Emanuel eventually came to an understanding that they both trusted in “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” and they left each other’s religious affiliations alone after that. The priest, however, thwarted some of her interests later.

Though there are several aspects to the story, it’s primarily a psychological drama of sorts with Lucy’s highs and lows, known mostly just to herself. There are comic moments in Lucy’s asides to herself, especially in her conversations with Ginevra. But Lucy gets so low at one point, when she is left alone at the school during a long break with a mentally disabled student and then falls ill, that she has a breakdown. One passage that’s characteristic is Lucy’s encouraging of herself:

Courage, Lucy Snowe! With self-denial and economy now, and steady exertion by-and-by, an object in life need not fail you. Venture not to complain that such an object is too selfish, too limited, and lacks interest; be content to labour for independence until you have proved, by winning that prize, your right to look higher. But afterwards, is there nothing more for me in life—no true home—nothing to be dearer to me than myself, and by its paramount preciousness, to draw from me better things than I care to culture for myself only? Nothing, at whose feet I can willingly lay down the whole burden of human egotism, and gloriously take up the nobler charge of labouring and living for others? I suppose, Lucy Snowe, the orb of your life is not to be so rounded: for you, the crescent-phase must suffice. Very good. I see a huge mass of my fellow-creatures in no better circumstances. I see that a great many men, and more women, hold their span of life on conditions of denial and privation. I find no reason why I should be of the few favoured. I believe in some blending of hope and sunshine sweetening the worst lots. I believe that this life is not all; neither the beginning nor the end. I believe while I tremble; I trust while I weep.

Some article I read herald the novel’s “feminism” and Lucy’s independence, but here she shows a longing for a “true home,” someone “dearer to me than myself.” I read that she wanted to write a sad and unfulfilled ending, but her father (and I think perhaps others) urged a conventional happier one. The ending is a little ambiguous, so readers can interpret it whichever way they like.

There are several parallels between Villette and Jane Eyre. Both protagonists are women alone; neither would be considered beautiful; each has a rather unconventional romance with an unlikely suitor. There is even a bit of gothic mystery in both: Jane’s Mr. Rochester is found to have a mad wife locked up in an unused part of the house; Villette’s boarding school has a legend of a dead nun who haunts the place, which Lucy encounters a couple of times (though later a logical explanation is found for the appearances).

One downside to Villette is that much of the conversation is written in French with no translation. That posed a problem for me to listen to the audiobook since I know almost no French. Thankfully I found an annotated copy of the novel at the library with translations and other notes, but it was disjointing to have to look up passages later after reading them.

I listened to the audiobook wonderfully read by Davina Porter. Though I enjoyed the novel, Jane Eyre is still my favorite Bronte work.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday)

 

Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge

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Tarissa at In the Bookcase hosts the Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge this month. You can find details and prize information here.

I’d like to read at least two books for the challenge.

  • A biography,  Invincible Louisa by Cornelia Meigs
  •  A Long Fatal Love Chase by Louisa. This was one of her “sensational novels” that she, like Jo in Little Women, wrote for quick money. It was recently rediscovered and printed. It will be interesting to see that side of Alcott.

I may also try to listen to Little Women again. I have read it several times and listened an audiobook of it at least once. I recently watched the new PBS remake, and I know they arranged some parts out of order, but for others I am not sure if I am remembering the book or the 1994 film. At any rate, I am hankering to go through the book again. I am making good time on my Back to the Classics challenge, so I think I have time for a detour. 🙂 But we’ll see.