Review: Cyrano de Bergerac

Cyrano de Bergerac is a play written by Edmond Rostand in 1897 but set in 1640 Paris. It became an instant success and has remained so ever since. In one sense it’s a throwback to “France’s golden age—a time when men were musketeers, women were beautiful heiresses, and the wit flashed as brightly as the swordplay” (according to SparkNotes), represented in stories like The Three Musketeers, which was published 50 years before Cyrano. Cyrano even references The Three Musketeers in places. In another sense it’s a parody of such stories. Part comedy, part tragedy, the main focus is its title character, Cyrano.

Cyrano excels in almost every area. He’s witty, an excellent poet, a superb swordsman, and he commands the respect of almost all who know him. The one area where he lacks confidence is romantic relationships, and that’s due primarily to his extremely oversized nose. He thinks no woman would find him attractive or even give him a chance, especially his cousin, Roxanne, whom he confesses to one friend that he loves. When Roxanne sends him a message that she wants to meet with him privately, he begins to hope that perhaps she could love him, and he pours out his heart in a letter to her. But when they meet, he learns that she loves a handsome young man in his regiment, Christian, and she asks him to watch over Christian.

He agrees, and when he tells Christian that he is Roxanne’s cousin, Christian confesses that he loves her but he can’t approach her. Roxanne loves “flowing words,
Bright wit,” and Christian is tongue-tied and inarticulate. The men each lament their deficiencies:

Oh, to express one’s thoughts with facile grace!. . .

. . .To be a musketeer, with handsome face!

Then Cyrano hits on an idea: they can combine their talents. He can teach Christian what to say, and that will give him an outlet for his own heart. He gives Christian the letter he had just written to Roxanne but left unsigned and tells Christian to send it to her in his name.

What could possibly go wrong with that plan?

The rest of the play shows how they each progress and carries them through various scenes, but I don’t want to give away any more details.

Some of the comedic sections are priceless, such as a lengthy exchange with Cyrano and another man who is trying not to look at or comment on Cyrano’s nose and then is questioned by Cyrano (“Is there anything extraordinary about it?…Is it soft and swinging like an elephant’s trunk? Is there a wart on the end of it? Or a fly?…Is it a phenomenon?”) When Christian, hoping for a kiss, wants to speak to Roxanne himself and can’t seem to come up with anything except, “I love thee,” Roxanne responds, “‘Tis the theme: embroider it,” and later “Gather up your scattered eloquence.” Here are just a few more samples:

Tradesman: You are not Samson!
Cyrano: I will be, my dear sir, if you’ll lend me your jaw.

Cyrano: Whom I love? Come now, reflect. The dream of being loved, even by a homely girl, is one forbidden me. Forbidden by this nose of mine that precedes me everywhere by fifteen minutes.

I enjoyed the comedy and the swashbuckling, but most of all I enjoyed the more earnest parts, such as when Cyrano is trying to coach Christian when they’re half hidden in the darkness under Roxanne’s balcony (reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet‘s balcony scene). Getting frustrated with the process, Cyrano pushes Christian out of the way and then speaks from his heart. The last few scenes, when Cyrano goes to visit Roxanne some fourteen years after the action in the previous scenes, is masterfully written. The time of day, the season, the double meaning to Cyrano’s words, and the development of the conversation all come together to form once of my favorite sections of literature with one of my favorite lines (which I can’t tell, or else you’d know the ending!)

I looked at SparkNotes and Shmoop‘s analysis a bit, and disagreed with Shmoop’s especially. They seemed to think the main theme was Cyrano’s lack of self-esteem, that if he had not been hung up on his one defect, he could have had a life of love (see the Shmoop heading “Why Should I Care?” for more on this).

But I think the theme has to do with the self-sacrificial nature of real love. A couple of times Cyrano had an opening to confess his love, but he abstained, for the happiness and then the honor of another. All the characters grow in their understanding of love, finding that it goes beyond handsome faces, stolen kisses, and “embroidered” words, but Cyrano embodies it the most.

I did not investigate translations like I did before reading Don Quixote, and I wish I had. I looked around a bit afterward and learned that one by Brian Hooker is considered the best. I was primarily looking for an audiobook version that read the actual play rather than an audio performance of it, and found that here, translated by Howard Thayer Kingsbury, and enjoyed it very much. It says it is narrated by Flo Gibson, but it is actually narrated by Grover Gardner, who did an excellent job. I also got this Kindle version translated by Charles Renauld and looked around it and the Gutenberg version, and didn’t like either of them as much, at least, as far as I compared them, which wasn’t much. For instance, where in the audiobook Roxanne tells Christian to “embroider” his words, the Gutenberg version says to “vary” them, and the Renauld version just says, “Amplify!” I don’t know which is closest to the original, but “embroider” sounds a lot better to me. But I do appreciate Renauld’s introduction and preface detailing some of the difficulties of translation, not only from a different language, but from the poetry in which the play was originally written, and his reasons for making the choices he did, ending with the admonition that those who would be critical should “Try the task!” While looking up information on translations, I came across this fascinating discussion with some examples of how different translations handle one of Cyrano’s speeches and this great article.

One place where translations differ greatly is near the end when Cyrano speaks of the one thing he can take with him when he dies that no one can take away from him. Some translations say “plume,” others say “panache.” The audiobook said “plume,” and I admit it didn’t make sense to me at first. Renauld says in his introduction:

Now, what is this panache upon which “Cyrano” sets such a high value? To understand it is to appreciate, to miss it is to miss the meaning of the play. An explanation of it is, therefore, not out of place in this introduction.

The panache is an external quality which adds colour and brilliancy to internal things already worth having for their own intrinsic value. Its main justification is personal bravery…The panache is literally a high plume, or bunch of plumes, that waves high above a commander’s head-gear…There is magnetism in the panache…Henry the Fourth said to his soldiers; “you will find it always on the path of honour and duty.” The panache, too, is essentially joyful. “Cyrano” is joyful, in spite of a life that would breed discouragement and bitterness in almost any heart but his.

That sheds light on this earlier speech of Cyrano’s when someone criticizes his clothes:

It is my character that I adorn.
I do not deck me like a popinjay ;
But though less foppish, I am better dressed :
I would not sally forth, through carelessness.
With an insult ill wiped out, or with my conscience
Sallow with sleep still lingering in its eyes.
Honor in rags, or scruples dressed in mourning.
But I go out with all upon me shining,
With liberty and freedom for my plume,
Not a mere upright figure ; — ’tis my soul
That I thus hold erect as if with stays,
And decked with daring deeds instead of ribbons.
Twirling my wit as it were my moustache,
The while I pass among the crowd, I make
Bold truths ring out like spurs.

And it also sheds light on one place where they are battling Spain, and a cadet comes in with “a collection of shabby hats spitted on his sword, their plumes bedraggled and holes through the brims,” “spoils of war” he gathered from the enemy’s camp.

So it does look like the theme has to do with panache, brave, magnetic, joyful flair. But I still think it has to do with love as well.

There are multiple film versions of the play – I’d love to check out Jose Ferrer’s, one of the most famous ones, if I can find it. I did find this scene of it:

I had seen this play at least once, maybe a couple of times, years ago, and remembered the basic story line, but I am so glad I read (or listened to) it now. There was so much to enjoy about it, and I feel sure I’ll read it again in the future.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday)


Book Review: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Jeckyll and HydeIn a way it’s too bad that most modern readers know the premise behind The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. We miss a lot of the build-up of the mystery the other characters are trying to solve. But it’s still an enjoyable story.

It begins in Victorian-era London when a lawyer, Mr. Utterson, is taking a walk with his cousin when they pass a door that stirs a memory for the cousin, Mr. Enfield. Once Enfield was walking in the same area when he witnessed a young girl being trampled by a man. He and the crowd around them insisted that the man pay the girl immediately for damages, and the man went into the particular door they’re now passing to obtain a check written on the account of a reputable man in the city. Enfield describes the man negatively, saying he seemed deformed, though Enfield couldn’t put his finger on exactly what was wrong with him. When he mentions that the man’s name is Hyde, Utterson stops him, for he knows who Hyde is and wishes to avoid gossip.

But the incident increases Utterson’s concern. His friend and client, Dr. Jekyll, has just changed his will to leave everything to Hyde, and Utterson feels sure that the account Hyde drew on was Jekyll’s. He fears Hyde may be blackmailing Jekyll, but Jekyll says Hyde is no one to worry about.

Some time later, a maid witnesses Hyde killing a man in the street who turns out to be a member of Parliament and another of Utterson’s clients. Hyde seems to disappear after that, and Jekyll says he has cut off ties with him. But then all of a sudden Jekyll stops going out and receiving visitors. One day when Utterson happens to see him through a window and stops to talk for a while, Jekyll seems glad to see him at first, and then suddenly with a look of horror slams down the window. Then one night Jekyll’s butler, Poole, come to Mr. Utterson to say that something is terribly wrong: his master has been locked in his laboratory for days and now doesn’t sound like himself. Utterson comes with Poole, and they decide to break down the door. What they find I will leave you to discover, but a couple of letters left for Utterson explain what has been going on.

As most readers know (and if you don’t know and don’t want to, skip this paragraph!), Hyde and Jekyll are the same man. What’s perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book to me is Jeckyll’s reasons for his experimentations. He had struggled with the conflicting parts of himself wanting to do good or evil, and decided to see if he could separate them – not in order to filter out the bad and therefore conquer it, but so the bad side could do what it wanted without restraint and without consequences such as marring the good name of Jekyll.

I had learned to dwell with pleasure as a beloved daydream on the
thought of the separation of these elements. If each, I told myself, could be housed in separate identities life would be relieved of all that was unbearable: the unjust might go his way delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path doing the good things in which he found his pleasure and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil.

When Jekyll becomes alarmed at how far Hyde has gone and resolves not to let him out any more, Stevenson masterfully describes incomplete repentance which isn’t true repentance.

It was Hyde, after all, and Hyde alone, that was guilty. Jekyll was no worse; he woke again to his good qualities seemingly unimpaired; he would even make haste, where it was possible, to undo the evil done by Hyde. And thus his conscience slumbered.

Yes, I preferred the elderly and discontented doctor, surrounded by friends and cherishing honest hopes; and bade a resolute farewell to the liberty, the comparative youth, the light step, leaping impulses and secret pleasures, that I had enjoyed in the disguise of Hyde. I made this choice perhaps with some unconscious reservation, for I neither gave up the house in Soho, nor destroyed the clothes of Edward Hyde, which still lay ready in my cabinet.

As the first edge of my penitence wore off, the lower side of me, so long indulged, so recently chained down, began to growl for licence.

I sat in the sun on a bench; the animal within me licking the chops of memory; the spiritual side a little drowsed, promising subsequent penitence, but not yet moved to begin.

Elisabeth Elliot once wrote that she was dealing with guilt over something she had done and was astounded by it, thinking, “That’s just not me.” She was brought up short by the realization that it was indeed her fault, that she couldn’t blame it on provocation or circumstances. Even if she had been provoked, she could have looked to God for help to respond rightly. That jarred me, because I was too prone to blame my bad reactions on the circumstances that caused them rather than my innate sinfulness. It’s telling that Jekyll blamed Hyde’s wrongdoings on Hyde alone as if he were a separate being rather than actually himself. The first step in gaining any kind of victory over the Hyde in each of us is to recognize and own the fact that he is us.

I don’t know much about Stevenson himself. A quick perusal of the Wikipedia article about him says he grew up in a religious home but declared himself an atheist in his twenties. He recognized just how horrible what the Bible calls our “old man” or “flesh” could become, and seemed to realize that it couldn’t be reigned in just with conscience. I don’t know if he ever knew that we could be completely liberated from its penalty and power only through Christ: “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:24-8:1a).

This is a short book: paperback copies are less than 100 pages, and the audiobook I listened to was only 2 hours and 19 minutes. So for those who might like to read classics but are intimidated by their length, this one might be good to try. Even though I knew the basic story, I gained much by reading the book. I started out listening to an audiobook, but though the narrator was fine in the narrative, he was terrible with the character’s voices, so I switched to the 99 cent Kindle version. I chose it for the horror/Gothic category of the Back to the Classics challenge. I’m not into horror at all and thought I might skip this category until I read Rebekah’s review of this book. I am thankful for both of those influences leading me to read a book that I would have been unlikely to pick up otherwise.

(Sharing with Literary Musing Monday, Inspire Me Monday, Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)




Book Review: Don Quixote

The only thing I really knew about Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes was the famous tilting at windmills scene. When one of the categories for the Back to the Classics challenge was a classic published before 1800, as I searched titles, this was one of only a couple that I was interested in. I was dismayed to see that the audiobook was 36 hours! One paperback copy I saw was 992 pages! But I plunged in.

Don Quixote starts out as nobleman Alonso Quixano in Spain. He loves reading about tales of chivalry to the point that he loses his senses, believes the stories to be true, and decides to bring back knighthood by becoming a knight errant himself, much to the dismay of his niece and housekeeper. He chooses the name Don Quixote for himself (or Don Quixote de La Mancha in full) and finds an old suit of armor and cleans it up. When he discovers the helmet has pieces missing, he constructs them out of pasteboard. He renames his old horse Rocinante. Every knight has to have a lady love, so he chooses a farm girl from a neighboring village, unbeknownst to her, and renames her Dulcinea del Toboso (at the beginning it is said that he was once in love with her, but later he confesses that he has never even seen her).

Thus he sets off to seek adventure. But most of his encounters meet with little success. People think he is crazy, so some of them fight against him. Other times he mistakes what’s going on, like thinking windmills are giants or sheep are an army of invaders. Once he got so caught up in a puppet show that he began to think the action was real and slaughtered the villainous puppets. When confronted with reality, he concludes that some enemy enchanter changed things, like making the giants into windmills at the last moment.

Along the way he also encounters other people and hears their stories. My favorite one of these involved a well-to-do woman renowned for her beauty. All sorts of men fell in love with her, but she wouldn’t have them and went off to live alone as a shepherdess. She’s thought to be cruel since she won’t return anyone’s affection. Don Quixote comes upon a funeral of a shepherd who died over his love for this woman and her lack of love for him. While the other shepherds are telling the story, the beautiful shepherdess comes upon the scene and delivers what I have dubbed The Lament of Beautiful Girls Everywhere, saying, in the modern vernacular, “Look, I can’t help it if I am beautiful. God made me that way: it’s through no effort of mine. I can’t fall in love with someone just because he falls in love with me, so give me a break already!” One of the more famous of these is the tale of Lothario, who was unwillingly drafted by his friend to woo his wife, thinking that if she passed this test, he would be sure of her love. Lothario resists at first, then lies saying he has made attempts when he has not, and finally the inevitable happens and he falls in love with his friend’s wife, leading to a “lothario” in our day meaning a man who seduces women.

The book we have today contains two parts. Cervantes wrote the first and was in no particular hurry to write the second, until someone else wrote a book about Quixote. Then he wrote the second part in which he makes many digs at this interloper and his work and ends it in such a way that no one can credibly write any more about his character. Nowadays both parts are published in one book.

Quixote takes three journeys, or sallies, two in the first part and one in the second. He goes alone the first time, but for the second two he takes a farmer as a squire, Sancho Panza. Sancho goes back and forth between admiring Quixote in some ways, particularly his bravery, to wondering about his sanity. He stays with him, though, mainly because Quixote has promised his an island to govern at some point.

The story is told by a narrator as if studying the works of a Cide Hamete Benengalie and his research on Quixote, lending a supposed air of authenticity to the story.

My thoughts:

It’s obvious that the story is meant as a farce. Just the mental picture of what translator Ormsby calls the “unsmiling gravity” of Quixote in old banged up armor with a pasteboard helmet (and later a barber’s bowl for a helmet) on an old horse talking in lofty language like a knight of old is comical, as are Sancho’s lamentations over what Quixote is doing or wants him to do and Sancho’s constant stringing together of proverbs.Cervantes even pokes fun at himself: in one scene, Quixote’s friends are going through his books and getting rid of the books of chivalry most likely to cause the Don the most problems and come across one by Cervantes and comment on it. Then in the second part, he addresses some mistakes in the first part tongue in cheek (like Sancho’s mule, Dapple, being stolen and then appearing in Dapple with no explanation) by saying it was a mistake of the printer, and so on. I enjoyed this kind of humor.

I particularly liked some of the phrasing. Cervantes, in the scene above describing his book that Quixote supposedly read, is said to have “more experience in reverses than verses.” Quixote is often described as lean, even gaunt, and one line speaks of “cheeks that seemed to be kissing each other on the inside.” One girl “did not measure seven palms from head to foot, and her shoulders, which overweighted her somewhat, made her contemplate the ground more than she liked.” My absolute favorite line is: “With a blunt wit thou art always striving at sharpness.”

But a lot of the humor is not to my taste. For instance, in one chapter, Quixote and Sancho and another man are sleeping in something like a stable of an inn. The other man is waiting for a woman to join him. Quixote sees her come in and thinks she is there to test his virtue, so he sets her down beside him to tell her why he must remain true to Dulcinea. The other man sees the Don holding the woman there apparently against her will and starts fighting him. Quixote thinks it is an enemy and fights back. The woman is thrown onto Sancho’s bed, and he, being startled, starts punching her, not realizing she’s a woman. It ends up a free-for-all, Three Stooges style. In fact, there is quite a lot of beating up in the first part.

In both parts there is a lot of setting Quixote up for situations and then laughing at him behind his back, but it’s more concentrated in the second part. Just about all the major characters in the book, even Sancho and the Don’s closest friends, have no trouble deceiving him and laughing at him. In fact, when a friend comes to deceive Quixote into coming home for a year in the hopes that his “madness” might thereby be cured, he is told by someone else, “May God forgive you the wrong you have done the whole world in trying to bring the most amusing madman in it back to his senses. Do you not see, senor, that the gain by Don Quixote’s sanity can never equal the enjoyment his crazes give? … if it were not uncharitable, I would say may Don Quixote never be cured, for by his recovery we lose not only his own drolleries, but his squire Sancho Panza’s too, any one of which is enough to turn melancholy itself into merriment.” And this laughing at someone who is impaired plus setting him up for further laughs is not my kind of humor, either.

It’s a little crude in a couple of places.

Don Quixote seems pretty foolish at first, but by the end of the book I had grown quite fond of him. More than anyone else in the book, he maintains his integrity. He has his flaws, but he operates under the laws and ideals of chivalry unwaveringly, even when it costs him. As is said of him near the end of the book, he “was always of a gentle disposition and kindly in all his ways, and hence he was beloved, not only by those of his own house, but by all who knew him.”

So while the book will probably never go down as one of my all-time favorites, I am glad to have read it. I enjoyed much of the writing. It’s nice to know the full story now, especially as cultural references to Quixote abound. I’m listening to Cyrano de Bergerac now, and even that references Quixote. And then there is this recent cartoon from xkcd:

When I was trying to discern which translation would be best to read, I came across this discussion, which said that a newer one might be more accessible to the modern reader, but an older one like John Ormsby’s catches more of the nuances of the original language. And if I am going to read a classic like this, I want those nuances. 🙂 I found a Kindle version of Ormsby’s translation which I would highly recommend, especially his preface. He also gives a brief biography of Cervantes, telling how his travels supplied some of the characterizations and scenes and how he he was a captive in Algiers for a time, which comes out in the character of a soldier in the same situation in the book. He describes how even the geography of La Mancha, for those who know it, lends itself to the irony of the book with what he calls its monotonous landscape with “nothing venerable” about it as being an unlikely place for launching a glorious hero.

I primarily listened to the audiobook narrated superbly by Roy McMillan, with some dipping into the Kindle version already mentioned. The only thing that would have made it better would have been if it had been read with a Spanish accent – that would have enhanced the Spanish flavor of the book. But he did a wonderful job with the different characters’ voices and perfectly portrayed the “unsmiling gravity” of Don Quixote.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)




Book Review: Lavender and Old Lace

Lavender_and_Old_LaceLavender and Old Lace by Myrtle Reed, written in 1902, opens with 34-year-old Ruth Thorne coming to occupy her aunt’s cottage while her aunt is away. She’s never met her aunt, Miss Jane Hathaway. Miss Jane has never forgiven her sister for running away to elope, but for whatever reason, she decides to establish relationships with her niece. However, she ends up having to leave before her niece arrives, so Ruth finds only Hepsey, the farm-girl working as the maid, at the house. Her aunt left a letter with various instructions, the most mysterious and inexplicable of which was to leave a light burning in the attic window every night.

Ruth worked for a newspaper in the city, but has six months off to house-sit for her aunt. Bored and restless, she explores her aunt’s attic, the first “real attic” she’s ever been in, until she comes across her aunt’s unused wedding dress and some newspaper clippings about a couple’s wedding and the wife’s death. At first Ruth thinks the couple had been friends of her aunt’s, but then surmises that the man was Aunt Jane’s lost love who married someone else. Feeling she’s intruding into her aunt’s privacy, she leaves the attic and vows to stifle her growing curiosity.

She visits her aunt’s best friend and neighbor, Mary Ainslie, who is thought a little odd by the community because she never leaves her home. But Miss Ainslie has a reputation for being kind and sending things to people who need help. Ruth finds her gracious and beautiful, and they soon become friends. Miss Ainslie also leaves a lamp burning in her window at night for unknown reasons.

Soon Ruth has unexpected company: a young man named Carl Winfield looks her up at the recommendation of his editor. Carl works for the same newspaper as Ruth but has developed a problem with his eyes and is ordered not to read or write for several months. He’s staying in town, and their excursions eventually blossom into romance.

In fact, there’s a lot of romance happening in the book:

  • Ruth and Carl
  • Hepsey and a young man, Joe
  • a long lost love recovered
  • a long lost love forever gone

Ruth comes across as somewhat prickly at first, easily offended and angered. Carl is laid-back and merry-hearted, and once they got to the point where they expressed their feelings for each other, I enjoyed their banter and their relationship.

There is a bit of a mystery with one of the characters having an unknown connection with another that, to me, was pretty easy to put together, but no one in the book did until they came across evidence of it. The one person who did know of it, for some reason, never tells anyone else. There’s also the mystery of the lights in the windows and why Miss Ainslie never leaves her home. There’s one odd section where two people have the same dream of an old man saying the same thing to them.

The title comes from Miss Ainslie, who has dark violet eyes, always wears some shade of purple or lavender, and scents all her things with lavender. She often, if not always, wears lace as well. Various types of lace are mentioned often in the book: “Ruth was gathering up great quantities of lace—Brussels, Point d’Alencon, Cluny, Mechlin, Valenciennes, Duchesse and Venetian point.” I think in those days it was a precious commodity, possibly made by hand.

The emotions in the book seem a bit overwrought sometimes:

Ruth was cold from head to foot, and her senses reeled. Every word that Winfield had said in the morning sounded again in her ears. What was it that went on around her, of which she had no ken? It seemed as though she stood absolutely alone, in endless space, while planets swept past, out of their orbits, with all the laws of force set suddenly aside.

The earth trembled beneath Ruth’s feet for a moment, then, all at once, she understood.

That may be due to the author’s being twenty when she wrote the book, or it may be due to the times.

But quite a lot of the writing reminded me of Lucy Maud Montgomery, though her first book, Anne of Green Gables, was published six years after this book. The relationships and romances and quarrels are similar to hers, as are some of the descriptive passages:

Have not our houses, mute as they are, their own way of conveying an impression? One may go into a house which has been empty for a long time, and yet feel, instinctively, what sort of people were last sheltered there. The silent walls breathe a message to each visitor, and as the footfalls echo in the bare cheerless rooms, one discovers where Sorrow and Trouble had their abode, and where the light, careless laughter of gay Bohemia lingered until dawn. At night, who has not heard ghostly steps upon the stairs, the soft closing of unseen doors, the tapping on a window, and, perchance, a sigh or the sound of tears? Timid souls may shudder and be afraid, but wiser folk smile, with reminiscent tenderness, when the old house dreams.

The rain had ceased, and two or three stars, like timid children, were peeping at the world from behind the threatening cloud. It was that mystical moment which no one may place—the turning of night to day. Far down the hill, ghostly, but not forbidding, was Miss Ainslie’s house, the garden around it lying whitely beneath the dews of dawn, and up in the attic window the light still shone, like unfounded hope in a woman’s soul, harking across distant seas of misunderstanding and gloom, with its pitiful “All Hail!”

That night, the gates of Youth turned on their silent hinges for Miss Ainslie. Forgetting the hoary frost that the years had laid upon her hair, she walked, hand in hand with them, through the clover fields which lay fair before them and by the silvered reaches of the River of Dreams. Into their love came something sweet that they had not found before—the absolute need of sharing life together, whether it should be joy or pain. Unknowingly, they rose to that height which makes sacrifice the soul’s dearest offering, as the chrysalis, brown and unbeautiful, gives the radiant creature within to the light and freedom of day.

One of my favorite lines occurred after Ruth and Carl profess their love, but he has to return to the city for a doctor’s visit: “She had little time to miss him, however, for, at the end of the week, and in accordance with immemorial custom, the Unexpected happened.”

The ending was bittersweet – in fact, one character’s whole story was mostly shaded that way – but overall the book was a sweet, clean read.

I listened to the free audiobook at Librivox, which was, unfortunately, read with almost no expression. I enjoyed going over some passages at Project Gutenberg, where one can read the whole book online. I had thought that a movie was made of this in the 40s, but the only movie of it I found mention of was made in the 20s. I may have been confusing it with Arsenic and Old Lace, another classic film and book I’ve not yet read or seen.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books and Literary Musing Monday)




Book Review: Old Yeller

I loved the movie version of Old Yeller when my kids were little. I don’t know if I knew then that it came from a book, but I’ve been wanting to read the book by Fred Gipson for years. When I was searching for a classic about an animal for the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge, plus a shorter classic after finishing a very long one, this fit the bill on both counts.

Old YellerThe story is told from the point of view of Travis, the fourteen-year-old oldest son of a family in Texas in the 1860s. Though the family lived off the land easily, they didn’t have much in the way of “cash money.” Some of the settlers were joining a cattle drive to a town some 600 miles away, and Travis’s dad decided to go. He left Travis as the “man of the house,” with the responsibility of a man: shooting game for food, keeping critters out of the corn, protecting the family from Indians and wildlife, milking the cows, looking after his Mama and little brother, Arliss, marking the new pigs, and not waiting for his mom to tell him to do things.

Travis felt “pretty near a grown man” and welcomed the opportunity to prove himself. With the exception of being able to reign in Little Arliss, he put in full days of work and did a good job. He was especially gratified when his mother waited supper for him, just like she did for his dad when his work ran late.

But then one day a scruffy, yellow ugly dog showed up on the property and stole some of the family’s meat. Little Arliss claimed the dog immediately, and their mom was willing for him to have him. But Travis hated him especially because of his thieving but also because he was ugly and seemed worthless.

But it wasn’t long before the dog proved it could learn and be a big help to the family, herding hogs, chasing off bears and wolves, etc. And it wasn’t long before Travis loved the dog even more than Little Arliss.

That made it all the harder when tragedy struck, which the author speaks of on the first page.

I love “coming of age” stories, especially the character has to stretch him- or herself farther than they think they can go (Keep the Lights Burning, Abbie, is another favorite along these lines.) I also enjoyed the peek into this era. It used to be a regular thing for a teenager to be trained to do an adult’s work, though they weren’t often left with it all on their shoulders like Travis was. Sometimes I wonder if that would be a better thing than not expecting young people to take on adult responsibilities until they’re out of college or later. Then again, it was a hard life, and I enjoy the fact that young people now have avenues to explore in their teens that young people didn’t have then. I also can’t imagine being nearly alone on the edges of a settlement while a husband is away for months with no means of communication for all that time, and having to patch up serious injuries of both boys and animals and take on the extra work that they can’t do while injured.

Probably my favorite part of the book is the advice Travis’s dad gave him when he returned and heard all that had gone on in his absence:

That was as rough a thing as I ever heard tell of happening to a boy. And I’m mighty proud to learn how my boy stood up to it. You couldn’t ask any more of a grown man… It’s not a thing you can forget. I don’t guess it’s a thing you ought to forget. What I mean is, things like that happen. They may seem mighty cruel and unfair, but that’s how life is part of the time. But that isn’t the only way life is. A part of the time, it’s mighty good. And a man can’t afford to waste all the good part, worrying about the bad parts. That makes it all bad.

I listens to the audiobook very nicely read by Peter Francis James. he did a good job with the expression as well as the accents. It’s been a long while since I’ve seen the movie version, but it seems to have followed closely to the book except for drawing out the climax more.

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Book Review: Middlemarch

I had not heard of Middlemarch by George Eliot (pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans) until the last several years, and whenever I looked at a description of it, it sounded rather vague – something about a community in pre-Reform-era England. That’s like saying Jan Karon’s Mitford books are about a community of people in the fictional town of Mitford, NC. They are, but that’s a pale description of the richness and depth of the characters. Yet it’s hard to know how else to describe the books in just a few sentences to someone unfamiliar with them. As I planned for the Back to the Classics challenge for this year, I decided to give Middlemarch a try, trusting that since I saw it recommended so often, it must be worth reading.

There’s not a single overarching plot to the book: it’s about the journeys of several people in the town. So it might be best to try to describe it a little by discussion some of its characters.

Dorothea Brooke is the main character, a teen-age orphan with her younger sister under the care of a benevolent older single uncle. Dorothea is ardent, serious, and pious. Though wealthy, she dresses plainly and is only interested in wealth as a means of doing good. A neighbor, Sir James Chettam, is very much interested in her, but she’s not interested in him at all except as a potential match for her sister, Celia. When a much older clergyman, Edward Casaubon, takes notice of her, everyone she knows protests against the match, but Dorothea is drawn to the marriage as a means of doing a great good by helping him in his work and a means of growth as she can increase her knowledge by sharing in his. She is sadly disappointed, however, because Casaubon is aloof (on their honeymoon in Rome, he leaves her alone while he’s off doing research for his book: he even suggested that Celia come with them as a companion for Dorothea!) and doesn’t allow her into the realm of his work until he becomes ill later on.

Tertius Lydgate is a young doctor new to the town. He was orphaned and cared for by wealthy relatives, but there was no closeness between them, and they were miffed when he chose a career in medicine, so he’s basically on his own. He’s ahead of his time medically (one source pointed out his use of a stethoscope, which was available but not routinely used at the time), but the older, established doctors don’t like the new guy coming in with new ways, and he unwittingly offends them, so he has an uphill battle starting out. But his success and availability with the people he does treat gives him an inroad into the community.

The Vincy family consists of two parents and four children, two of them grown. The father is the mayor, and he and his wife tend to live beyond their means and spoil their children. They want their son, Fred, to become a clergyman due to the position’s respectability and are paying for his education; however, he has no interest in or aptitude for it, so he drops out. But he has no other talents and is counting on getting an inheritance from an uncle. He’s in love with Mary Garth, but she won’t have him if he goes into the clergy (because she knows it would not be a good fit for him) and if he continues to be idle. The daughter, Rosamond, is beautiful, cultured, proper, genteel, and charming, which over-shadows her thoroughly self-centered nature. She sets her sights on Lydgate, thinking he is wealthy and of a higher social standing due to his family connections. He had not planned to marry for a long while and at first enjoys just flirting with Rosamond, but eventually he succumbs to her charms, and they marry.

Though things start out well for the Lydgates, they soon run into trouble when their expensive habits exceed Lydgate’s income. He insists they should economize, something totally unheard of for her: she insists he should find more or better-paying work or appeal to his family. She finds out he’s not as wealthy or well-connected as she thought; he finds out the selfish core under her beautiful exterior. Her unwillingness to bend and his extenuating financial circumstances set him up for trouble later in the book.

Will Ladislaw is Edward Casaubon’s younger cousin whom he is helping financially. Will is an artist who doesn’t know quite what he wants to do with his life, so he is traveling and painting. At first Will doesn’t like Dorothea, but as he gets to know her better, he’s grieved at her “wasting” herself on Casaubon. Will also becomes friends with the Lydgates, which leads to some trouble later on.

Nicholas Bulstrode is a banker and pillar of the community. He’s quite religious, but in a way that rubs others the wrong way. Much later in the book, an old associate comes to town for other reasons, discovers Bulstrode lives there, and blackmails him with the threat of sharing some shady dealings in his past which would destroy his reputation in the community.

There are multitudes of other characters, but these are the main ones, and their lives and situations intersect at various points. The plot moves fairly slowly by modern standards, though the book does contain riveting moments of suspense in places. But Eliot’s main strength is her pathos in getting into the heads of her characters and sharing their hearts. We know minutely what they are thinking and groan, laugh, or cry along with them.

Multiple themes emerge throughout the book. One of the top ones is marriage. The two main marriages are fraught with trouble, but others by contrast exhibit great sharing and warmth. Those who weathered great trouble on their way to marriage seem to fair better than the ones who encountered it afterward. Another theme is what some sources called “self-determination.” This was an era when there were pretty strict expectations upon people, especially women, and those who bucked the system weren’t looked kindly upon, but in this book those seemed most likely to succeed.

Eliot’s vast knowledge in a number of areas shows up here, mainly in literary references but also in politics and science. There are quite a number of biblical allusions throughout: I read in one source that Eliot started out as religious but “lost her faith” after reading about “higher criticism” of the Bible.

I think my favorite character is Dorothea. She seems a little stiff at first, but eventually she grows into the warmest, most human person in the book. Another favorite is Mr. Garth, Mary’s father, whose kindly and wise ways permeate all his actions, and I enjoyed the warmth of his family’s home scenes. The one I sympathized and ached with most by the end was Lydgate, but I can’t say why without revealing too much.

One source said that the book was kind of an anti-fairy tale, that the characters didn’t ride off happily in the sunset with all problems solved like many other books of the era. But I disagree: several found some degree of happiness, though they still had problems. Another said that Dorothea never reached her full potential, but I disagree again. In one of my favorite quotes of the book, Eliot seems to me to be saying that though some of the characters wanted to do “great things,” they found instead greatness in the “little things”:

Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

A few other favorite quotes:

It is a narrow mind which cannot look at a subject from various points of view.

And certainly, the mistakes that we male and female mortals make when we have our own way might fairly raise some wonder that we are so fond of it.

What we call our despair is often only the painful eagerness of unfed hope.

We are all humiliated by the sudden discovery of a fact which has existed very comfortably and perhaps been staring at us in private while we have been making up our world entirely without it.

Sane people did what their neighbors did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.

A prig is a fellow who is always making you a present of his opinions.

It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self—never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardor of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted.

‘You must love your work, and not be always looking over the edge of it, wanting your play to begin. And the other is, you must not be ashamed of your work, and think it would be more honorable to you to be doing something else. You must have a pride in your own work and in learning to do it well, and not be always saying, There’s this and there’s that—if I had this or that to do, I might make something of it. No matter what a man is—I wouldn’t give twopence for him’— here Caleb’s mouth looked bitter, and he snapped his fingers— ‘whether he was the prime minister or the rick-thatcher, if he didn’t do well what he undertook to do.’

I feel like I am not doing the book any justice, but I hope I have given you a little picture of what it’s about. I listened to the audiobook, superbly read by Juliet Stevenson. Later on I got the corresponding Kindle version, and some of the notes there would have provided me with more detail, especially to Eliot’s literary allusions, if I had been reading it all along, but I wouldn’t trade it for the experience of listening to Stevenson’s narrations. Her voice for each character as well as her intonations and expression truly enhanced my enjoyment of the book.

I’ve spent over 35 listening hours with these characters, and I am going to miss them.

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Book Review: Twelve Years a Slave

12-years-a-slaveSolomon Northup was a free black man living in New York in the early 1800s. His father had been a slave and was freed, and his mother was free. His father became a farmer, eventually owned his own land, had the right to vote, and educated his children. Solomon married Anne Hampton and they had three children. Anne was a noted cook and worked for different hotels and taverns. Solomon was a professional violinist, but the inconsistency of his opportunities to play led him to supplement his income by a variety of other jobs, often carpentry.

When he was 32, he met a couple of men who said they were circus performers on their way back to Washington, D.C. They planned to give several performances along the way and asked him to come with them and play his violin. Anne was away and he thought he would be home soon, so he didn’t notify her. Slavery was legal in Washington, so they advised him along the way to obtain papers declaring his freedom.

One afternoon after the group stopped in a saloon he became terribly ill. He went back to his hotel room in not a very good state (probably drugged). “The memory of that night of horrible suffering will follow me to the grave,” he later wrote. During the night some men came to his room and said they were taking him to a doctor. On the way he became “insensible” for an unknown period of time, and “when consciousness returned, I found myself alone, in utter darkness, and in chains.” His papers and everything else were gone.

He later discovered he was in a slave pen within sight of the US Capitol building. When someone finally came into his cell and he protested that he was a free man, he was severely beaten.

He was eventually taken to Louisiana, his name was changed to Platt and those holding him said he was from GA. He was bought for $1,000 by a farmer named Ford who later became a preacher.

In many northern minds, perhaps, the idea of a man holding his brother man in servitude, and the traffic in human flesh, may seem altogether incompatible with their conceptions of a moral or religious life. From descriptions of such men as Burch and Freeman [those who sold him], and others hereinafter mentioned, they are led to despise and execrate the whole class of slaveholders, indiscriminately. But I was sometime his slave, and had an opportunity of learning well his character and disposition, and it is but simple justice to him when I say, in my opinion, there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford. The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of slavery. He never doubted the moral right of one man holding another in subjection. Looking through the same medium with his fathers before him, he saw things in the same light. Brought up under other circumstances and other influences, his notions would undoubtedly have been different. Nevertheless, he was a model master, walking uprightly, according to the light of his understanding, and fortunate was the slave who came to his possession.

This, especially the parts I highlighted, helped me in understanding why a professing Christian could ever hold a slave. Someone once said that though the Bible doesn’t expressly forbid slavery, applying Jesus’ admonition to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” would nip it in the bud. I don’t know why it took Christians so long to realize this.

Ford and Northup had a good working relationship. The latter was able to use his carpentry skills in a variety of ways and knew he was appreciated. Ford took time to instruct his slaves spiritually. But when he came into debt, he had to sell several of them, Northup included.

After his severe beating for maintaining his freedom, Northup kept quiet about it, and with his name change, it was impossible for anyone he knew in his previous life to find him. The next two masters he was sold to were cruel and unreasonable. He was beaten, unjustly charged, worked to exhaustion for the majority of his time in slavery.One of his masters taught slaves Scripture as well, but took passages about slaves out of context and misused them to justify his beating of them.

Finally when his master had a visitor, Bass, who argued with him about the justice of slavery, Northup took a huge chance to talk with him privately to ask if he would send a letter in his behalf to friends in NY who might be able to advocate for his freedom. It’s amazing that the letter got where it needed to go and then that those who worked to liberate Northup found him, as Bass had not signed his name (fearing repercussions) and Norhthup’s name had been changed. A whole series of seeming coincidences (or, as I prefer, signs of God’s providence) worked together, and the scene where Northup realizes who the men are who have come for him is priceless.

Along with telling his own tale, Northup tells of several others he encountered along the way. Slave women had  a particularly hard time of it: when the master made sexual advances toward them, they could not refuse, at least not without beatings; when the master’s wife knew of it, then she was jealous and dished out her own punishment. One such woman with two children was sold with him: her master’s wife sold her and her children when the master was out of town, and the scene of her separation from her children was heart-wrenching (one was sold to someone else; the seller just out of spite  would not let Ford buy her child). She was ever after a broken woman.

He also writes of moral dilemmas he found himself in. At one time he was “promoted” to a driver, and part of his responsibility was to whip other slaves who were not performing up to par. “If Epps was present, I dared not show any lenity, not having the Christian fortitude of a certain well-known Uncle Tom sufficiently to brave his wrath by refusing to perform the office.” Instead, he got proficient with the whip to make it look like he was beating them, yet not letting it actually touch them, and they writhed as if beaten. Another time he secretly obtained paper, made ink, and wrote a letter to friends up North, and took a chance by asking someone to send it. But that someone told his master, though he didn’t give a name. His master confronted him, and he knew it would mean a beating, if not death, to have been found out. He asked how he could write a letter with no supplies and suggested that the man, who had been working temporarily for Epps, was trying to scare him with the thought of runaway slaves so Epps would hire him as an overseer. Epps believed him.

One of the conversations Bass had with Northup’s last owner was the following:

These n…. are human beings. If they don’t know as much as their masters, whose fault is it? They are not allowed to know anything. You have books and papers, and can go where you please, and gather intelligence in a thousand ways. But your slaves have no privileges. You’d whip one of them if caught reading a book. They are held in bondage, generation after generation, deprived of mental improvement, and who can expect them to possess much knowledge? If they are not brought down to a level with the brute creation, you slaveholders will never be blamed for it. If they are baboons, or stand no higher in the scale of intelligence than such animals, you and men like you will have to answer for it. There’s a sin, a fearful sin, resting on this nation, that will not go unpunished forever. There will be a reckoning yet—yes, Epps, there’s a day coming that will burn as an oven. It may be sooner or it may be later, but it’s a coming as sure as the Lord is just.

Later he asks, “What difference is there in the color of a soul?” Indeed.

After he was united with his family, Northup wrote of his experience in 12 Years a Slave  The book ends fairly soon after his reunion with his family, and afterward, according to Wikipedia he worked “again as a carpenter. He became active in the abolitionist movement and lectured on slavery.” He was uniquely gifted and qualified to write this book and shed light on a horrible institution and give voice to others who could not share theirs.

In the “enhanced edition” of the book, which is supplemented by the research of Dr. Sue Eakin, she writes, “In 1853, Solomon’s autobiography brought immediate reaction from New York newspapers, and his first-hand account was perceived as validation of Stowe’s portrayal of Southern slavery. Twelve Years A Slave was published less than a year after Stowe’s spectacularly successful fiction.” Her own story of discovering the book as a child and then spending decades of her life researching it is pretty interesting as well.

I listened to the audiobook based on Eakin’s version very ably read by Louis Gossett, Jr. and read parts in the Kindle version as well.

Genre: Classic non-fiction
My rating: 10 out of 10

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