Book Review: The Swiss Family Robinson

Finding a good translation of Swiss Family Robinson is not as easy as one would think.

The book was written by a Swiss pastor, Johann David Wyss, and originally published in 1812. Wyss wrote the story for his sons to teach about spiritual and family values, industriousness, and wise uses of plants and animals. One of his sons edited the book and one of them illustrated it (both named Johann, like their father, but with different middle names).

After that, the book passed through multiple hands which translated and added to or deleted from the story. I listened to an audiobook version and scanned a Kindle version which were alike at the beginning but had different characters and scenes in the second half.

The story, as I am sure you know, involves a family of two parents and four sons shipwrecked on an island somewhere in the East Indies. The family name is not Robinson: their last name is never mentioned. The book is styled somewhat after Robinson Crusoe: he is even referred to often in the book.

Their first order of business is to get as much as they can off the ship before it sinks and to find suitable shelter. They are able to gather some food from the ship, but then need to search the island to see what they can find.

Fortunately, the father has a wealth of knowledge of botany. He knows the scientific names of plants as well as their uses.  One book I read recently said ministers of a certain era were expected to know a lot about botany. That may be the case here, or it may have just been an interest of Wyss’, or he may have crammed as much as possible into the story as a teaching tool.

They also get acquainted with the fauna as well as the flora. They use some animals as food and tame others to help them in their work.

The first half of the book details how they discovered the resources of the island and made a place for themselves. The only real danger they run into is a pack of jackals.

At the end of this section (what I think is the end of the original book), the family is content on their island and want to remain there. They’ve constructed various building projects and have plans for a sawmill and other industries. The father’s only concern is that his children will be alone when he and his wife pass on.

In the version I listened to, the father then espies a vessel at sea after about four years on the island. He meets a couple of men from the ship and gives them the journal he has kept. The men were exploring the island to see if it was suitable for the ship to land. They plan to put their people on boats and bring them in the next day. But a storm drives them out to sea again, and the family fears they ship is lost.

There’s a lot more drama in the second half: a couple of serious injuries, a massive storm, encounters with “savages” from another island. They discover a European missionary and a widow with two daughters on this island. The ship they had encountered was not lost at sea, but eventually made it home, along with the father’s journal. Another ship comes back to find them, and then decisions are made as to their future.

In the Kindle version, which happened to be the Kingston translation and is apparently more well known, the time jump in the second half is closer to ten years. The family discovers a girl who has been shipwrecked, Jenny Montrose. Eventually a ship comes looking for her, and decisions have to made about everyone’s future.

The first part is interesting, but a little dry, since the only action is discovering certain plants and animals, building a couple of different homes, handling whatever problems come up. The second half drew me in more since there was more action.

The four boys’ personalities are well-drawn and distinct.

Christian values form a major part of the story. The father corrects the children in various ways (especially in manifestations of pride). The family prays together, keeps Sunday set apart, applies Christian principles to life. One example, when they first discover the sailors on the ship have left them behind:

See how those on whose skill and good faith we depended have left us cruelly to our fate in the hour of danger. God will never do so. He has not forsaken us, and we will trust Him still. Only let us bestir ourselves, and each cheerily do his best. Who has anything to propose?

All in all, it was an enjoyable story. It was written for young people, but I wonder how it reads for young people now.

Near the end, the father in the story writes:

And my great wish is that young people who read this record of our lives and adventures, should learn from it how admirably suited is the peaceful, industrious and pious life of a cheerful and united family, to the formation of strong, pure and manly character.

You’re probably familiar with the 1960 Disney film version (which added pirates to the mix). We saw it ages ago, but I’d like to see it again some time now that I’ve read the book. There have been various other film versions as well. When my children were young, we saw a cartoon series version from the viewpoint of a daughter.

Besides Wikipedia, a couple of interesting articles about the book are:

I read this book for the Classics in Translation category of the Back to the Classics challenge.

Have you ever read Swiss Family Robinson? What did you think?

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

Book Review: Moby Dick

According to Wikipedia, Herman Melville wrote to his publisher that he was working on “a romance of adventure, founded upon certain wild legends in the Southern Sperm Whale Fisheries, and illustrated by the author’s own personal experience, of two years & more, as a harpooneer.” That book was Moby Dick, based on a real whale named Mocha Dick.

Unfortunately, the book did not do well during Melville’s life time. Interest in it was renewed at the centennial of his birth, with many then praising it.

One of literature’s most famous opening lines, “Call me Ishmael,” may indicate that Ismael is not his real name. On the other hand, most of the characters go by one name, first or last, so maybe Ishmael sets the precedent right off the bat. Ishmael is not a full-time seaman. He is a schoolmaster who gets a hankering to go out to sea sometimes when land life gets too much for him. He’s a loquacious narrator, telling minute details of the story, giving several examples of a concept, and going into teacher mode to describe whaling practices, features of the whale, whales depicted in art and why the artists get them wrong, etc. etc.

Ishmael starts off making his way to Nantucket to look for a sailing vessel. He explains that instead of going to sea as a passenger who has to pay, he goes as sailor who gets paid for the voyage. The inns are crowded, so he has to share not only a room, but a bed with a stranger. He’s mortified to discover in the middle of the night that his bedmate is a cannibal, Queequeg. But eventually the two become fast friends.

They are hired for the Pequod, a whaling vessel, by the owners. They don’t meet the captain yet, as he is recovering from an illness.

Even before they set sail, foreshadowings abound that something dire might happen. The preacher in Nantucket gives a sermon about Jonah and a strange man calling himself Elijah gives cryptic warnings.

The sailors meet the three mates with vastly different personalities. Starbuck, the first mate, is 30, thin, serious, pious, a bit superstitious, courageous but not foolish. The second mate, Stubb, was “happy-go-lucky; neither craven nor valiant; taking perils as they came with an indifferent air; and while engaged in the most imminent crisis of the chase, toiling away, calm and collected as a journeyman joiner engaged for the year. Good-humored, easy, and careless, he presided over his whale-boat as if the most deadly encounter were but a dinner, and his crew all invited guests.” It was quite funny to hear how Stubb both scolded and encouraged his crewmen when they were in the thick of capturing a whale. The third mate, Flask, was “short, stout, ruddy young fellow, very pugnacious concerning whales, who somehow seemed to think that the great leviathans had personally and hereditarily affronted him; and therefore it was a sort of point of honor with him, to destroy them whenever encountered.”

We don’t see Captain Ahab until chapter 28. He’s described as grim with grey hair and a scar down one side of his face. He had lost one leg and replaced it with a prosthesis made of whale bone. Later he tells the crew that he had lost his leg in a battle with a legendary white whale named Moby Dick, and his main mission is finding and exacting his revenge on the whale.

As the Pequod meets up with other boats (which meetings are called gams), Ahab has no interest in chatting with the other captains about anything except whether they’ve seen Moby Dick.

If you’re at all familiar with the story, you know the voyage doesn’t end well.

Ahab’s mission is more of an obsession. Though Starbuck tries to talk Ahab out of his vengeance, Ahab won’t listen.

When Melville is telling the story, it’s as exciting, riveting, and hard to put down as anything I’ve ever read. But interspersed between story incidents are detailed explanations and Ismael’s thoughts about everything that could possibly be connected with whales and whaling. Wikipedia cites various theories about the reasons behind the book’s layout. Some of these side excursions are interesting, some boring. With some, you wonder if the narrator is writing tongue in cheek, like when he posits that perhaps St. George’s dragon was actually a whale. He wonders what the stuff the whale spouts is made up of and muses:

He is both ponderous and profound. And I am convinced that from the heads of all ponderous profound beings, such as Plato, Pyrrho, the Devil, Jupiter, Dante, and so on, there always goes up a certain semi-visible steam, while in the act of thinking deep thoughts. While composing a little treatise on Eternity, I had the curiosity to place a mirror before me; and ere long saw reflected there, a curious involved worming and undulation in the atmosphere over my head. The invariable moisture of my hair, while plunged in deep thought, after six cups of hot tea in my thin shingled attic, of an August noon; this seems an additional argument for the above supposition.

When he comments that pirates think themselves above whalers:

I should like to know whether that profession of theirs has any peculiar glory about it. It sometimes ends in uncommon elevation, indeed; but only at the gallows. And besides, when a man is elevated in that odd fashion, he has no proper foundation for his superior altitude. Hence, I conclude, that in boasting himself to be high lifted above a whaleman, in that assertion the pirate has no solid basis to stand on.

Ishmael comments on his own storytelling:

So far as what there may be of a narrative in this book; and, indeed, as indirectly touching one or two very interesting and curious particulars in the habits of sperm whales, the foregoing chapter, in its earlier part, is as important a one as will be found in this volume; but the leading matter of it requires to be still further and more familiarly enlarged upon, in order to be adequately understood, and moreover to take away any incredulity which a profound ignorance of the entire subject may induce in some minds, as to the natural verity of the main points of this affair.

Like a lot of older books, this one has some Christian overtones. But I wouldn’t call it a Christian book. Ismael calls himself a Presbyterian, but I disagreed with Ishmael when he felt that joining in with Queequeg’s worship of a little idol he carried around with him was doing unto his neighbor as he would want his neighbor to do to him—not with all that the Bible says about idols. Starbuck is probably the closest to a genuine Christian. Ahab is full-out blasphemous.

I listened to the audiobook superbly read by Frank Muller. When the narration first started, I was disappointed Muller didn’t give Ishmael and craggy old sea-dog kind of a voice. But then I quickly realized that voice would not have been right for Ishmael as an educated man who was not a full-time sailor. Muller does give that kind of voice to Ahab, though, to great effect. Muller did all the voices and inflections well, and I am thankful I experienced the book with this narration.  I also read some parts online via Project Gutenberg here.

I read (or listened to) Moby Dick for the Back to the Classics Challenge category of a “Classic From Africa, Asia, or Oceania (includes Australia).” Moby Dick covers a lot of territory—in fact a beautifully illustrated map is here. But a great chunk of the plot takes place in the waters between those continents.

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

Book Review: The Magnificent Ambersons

Booth Tarkington won a Pulitzer prize for The Magnificent Ambersons, set in Indiana in the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries.

One one level, the story focuses on Georgie Amberson Minifer, only grandchild of the great Major Amberson. “His grandfather had been the most striking figure of success in the town: ‘As rich as Major Amberson!’ they used to say.” The town was proud of the Major, and his mansion was the big finale when people took visitors on a tour. But Georgie was considered a “princely terror” who felt his entitlement even as a child. Many people looked forward to the day when Georgie would “get his comeuppance.”

As a reader, I began to look forward to the same thing and wondered how it would come about. I also wondered if it would be the ruin of him or the making of him. Even though Georgie is not a likeable character at first, one does feel sorry for him during his “comeuppance.”

On another level, the book masterfully conveyed the changes of the times: the advent of the automobile, which many considered just a fad at first; the growth of the little town into a big city with the problems that kind of growth can bring; the decline of “old families” and their pedigrees and the rise of industrialism and entrepreneurship.

But automobiles have come, and they bring a greater change in our life than most of us suspect. They are here, and almost all outward things are going to be different because of what they bring. They are going to alter war, and they are going to alter peace. I think men’s minds are going to be changed in subtle ways because of automobiles; just how, though, I could hardly guess. But you can’t have the immense outward changes that they will cause without some inward ones, and it may be that George is right, and that the spiritual alteration will be bad for us.

The city was so big, now, that people disappeared into it unnoticed, and the disappearance of Fanny and her nephew was not exceptional. People no longer knew their neighbours as a matter of course; one lived for years next door to strangers—that sharpest of all the changes since the old days—and a friend would lose sight of a friend for a year, and not know it

A big part of the first chapter describes the various ways the rich distinguished themselves in fashion, facial hair, architecture, and such. It was an enjoyable observation of changing styles. I found it interesting that the term “hand-me-downs” came not from getting clothes that had belonged to someone else, but from getting them “off the shelf” rather than specially made from a tailor: “Trousers with a crease were considered plebeian; the crease proved that the garment had lain upon a shelf, and hence was ‘ready-made’; these betraying trousers were called ‘hand-me-downs,’ in allusion to the shelf.”

It took me just a bit to get into the story, as it begins with a heap of description. One thing I most appreciated about Tarkington’s writing was his skill in conveying things to the reader through Georgie’s eyes that Georgie himself missed. For instance, various people comment on his father not looking well, but Georgie thinks he looks just as he always did—and then Georgie is surprised to find out his father really is ill. Georgie’s fairly young throughout the book, so he’s forgiven for a bit of immaturity. But his lack of understanding other people or situations comes more from his exalted view of his own opinion.

Gossip can be a problem for anyone, but it’s a partuclar bane for the rich and famous. I found the advice Georgie’s uncle George gave him worth consideration:

In this town, naturally, anything about any Amberson has always been a stone dropped into the centre of a pond, and a lie would send the ripples as far as a truth would.

“Gossip is never fatal, Georgie,” he said, “until it is denied. Gossip goes on about every human being alive and about all the dead that are alive enough to be remembered, and yet almost never does any harm until some defender makes a controversy. Gossip’s a nasty thing, but it’s sickly, and if people of good intentions will let it entirely alone, it will die, ninety-nine times out of a hundred.”

People who have repeated a slander either get ashamed or forget it, if they’re let alone. Challenge them, and in self-defense they believe everything they’ve said: they’d rather believe you a sinner than believe themselves liars, naturally. Submit to gossip and you kill it; fight it and you make it strong. People will forget almost any slander except one that’s been fought.

Nobody has a good name in a bad mouth. Nobody has a good name in a silly mouth, either.

I also found especially interesting the Major’s thoughts when he knows his time is coming near:

The Major was engaged in the profoundest thinking of his life. No business plans which had ever absorbed him could compare in momentousness with the plans that absorbed him now, for he had to plan how to enter the unknown country where he was not even sure of being recognized as an Amberson—not sure of anything, except that Isabel would help him if she could. His absorption produced the outward effect of reverie, but of course it was not. The Major was occupied with the first really important matter that had taken his attention since he came home invalided, after the Gettysburg campaign, and went into business; and he realized that everything which had worried him or delighted him during this lifetime between then and to-day—all his buying and building and trading and banking—that it all was trifling and waste beside what concerned him now.

For those who would want to know, the book has a few objectionable elements: a smattering of bad words and taking the Lord’s name in vain, the condescending view of “darkeys” and a couple of uses of the “n” word, and one character visiting a medium. That character (not Georgie) said he wasn’t superstitious, only believed what the medium said for about ten minutes, and realized he had inadvertently supplied her with information enough for what she told him. But the incident was a major turning point in his attitude, and I was disappointed Tarkington used it to bring that about.

Wikipedia says, “In the 1910s and 1920s, Tarkington was regarded as the great American novelist, as important as Mark Twain.” I’m nor sure why he’s not read as much today. I’m thankful I chose this book for the Classics from the Americas category of the Back to the Classics challenge. I enjoyed Tarkington’s story and insights very much.

I mostly listened to the audiobook read by Peter Berkrot, but I read the last few chapters in the free Kindle version because I can read faster than the narrator does, and I wanted to finish it. It’s also online free through Project Gutenberg. There are a couple of movie versions of the book, but I haven’t seen any of them.

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

Book Review: Anna Karenina

I had no interest in reading Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy for years. I knew it was about a woman who committed adultery, and I figured it would be pretty soap-opera-ish and probably a bit racy.

But Tolstoy did not seem given to raciness in any of his other books that I’d read. Then Carol’s review made me think perhaps there might be more to the story than I’d thought. So I decided to give it a try for my Classic in Translation choice for the Back to the Classics challenge.

The novel has one of literature’s most famous opening lines: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Anna doesn’t actually show up until several chapters in. The book opens with her brother, Stepan (also called by his nickname, Stiva, or his last name, Oblonsky, or his full name. All the characters have three polysyllabic Russian names plus nicknames, so it’s a little hard to sort them out at first. But once we get to know them, it’s easier.) Stiva has cheated on his wife, Dolly, who has found out. Stiva doesn’t think adultery is wrong and doesn’t see himself at fault, but he’s sorry he has hurt Dolly. His sister, Anna, is on her way to try to reconcile her brother and his wife.

Anna is described as beautiful, bright, charming, and eager. She doesn’t gloss over Stiva’s behavior, but she asks Dolly is she loves him enough to forgive him. Dolly had been contemplating leaving, but decides to forgive Stiva and stay.

Dolly’s sister, Kitty, has two suitors. Levin is the better man, but he’s socially awkward and lives in the country (and the society people can’t fathom what on earth one does in the country. Later, visitors seem to view time in the country as a holiday, while Levin works almost nonstop.) Count Vronsky is handsome, dashing, well-off, and in the highest society, so Kitty is swept away with him and refuses Levin’s proposal.

But Vronsky has no desire to marry, ever. He has enjoyed Kitty’s affections, but he’s had a string of romantic attachments, thinks marriage and husbands are stupid, and has no plans to settle down—until he meets Anna.

They meet at the train when Vronsky’s mother is coming in on the same train with Anna when she comes to see Stiva and Dolly. Anna and Vronsky are instantly attracted to each other, so much so that at a ball when they dance, Kitty knows Vronsky is lost to her.

Anna resists the attraction at first. Her situation is almost an anatomy of falling into temptation. She was not truly happy in her marriage, but as far as we know, she wasn’t entertaining thoughts of adultery until she met Vronsky. She’s disturbed by the strange attraction and knows it’s not right. When she gets home, some of the sheen is rubbed of the joy she had anticipated in getting back to her son, and all her husband’s faults stand out. Vronsky follows her. She has three groups of friends, and instead of avoiding Vronsky (“making no provision for the flesh“), she hangs out with the group he’s likely to be part of. Eventually, she succumbs. Though she’s ashamed and guilty, she continues to the point of leaving her family to be with Vronsky. Gradually her heart and conscience harden, but her thinking and personality become unstable.

Despite the lack of morals in her set of friends (almost everyone in the society group has an affair going or someone knowingly kept on the side), Anna is an outcast. One source said it was because her affair was out in the open while others kept theirs hidden. There’s also some inequity in that Vronsky can go out in society, but Anna is snubbed.

There are several major characters, but Levin’s story takes up as much of the novel as Anna’s—maybe more. His story runs in the opposite trajectory. He’s said to be based on some extent on Tolstoy. He had faith as a child, but lost it in college and now does not acknowledge himself to be a believer. He’s a landowner and tries to do his best by the people who work for him and who are dependent on him. But he gets frustrated when the peasants won’t agree to new methods or equipment. Though he thinks deeply, he gets lost in the intellectual arguments of his brothers and others. He eventually marries, but doesn’t find home life the bliss he thought it would be. He and his wife argue a lot. But they talk things out and work through them. His lack of faith begins to bother him after his brother dies, and his spiritual journey is a major part of the book. As Anna moves away from stability and happiness, Levin moves toward them.

There are so many layers in this book, it’s hard to sort through what to share. There are multiple discussions about marriage and family, society and city life vs. rural life, affected, hypocritical religion vs. true change of heart, the politics of the day.

Tolstoy does a masterful job painting his characters and helping us understand them. There are so many interesting little insights into people’s motivations and actions. For instance, Anna’s husband, Karenin, is a public official known for Christian values. Yet he fails to do the most Christian thing required of a husband: love his wife as Christ loved the church. His first notice that something is wrong is when Anna is not as attentive to him as she used to be. He only asks that she not bring Vronsky to the house and that she maintain decorum. He may think that he’s being magnanimous by yielding to her desires, but he shows he only cares about appearances. Early on, Anna says things like, “If only he’d fight for me.” His most profound religious moment comes at a crisis when he realizes he needs to forgive her. Yet even then he struggles between what he feels led to do and the “force” that drives him, the opinion of society.

One source I consulted said Anna is a pioneer feminist fulfilling her self-determination. But I don’t think Tolstoy writes her that way. He’s not saying, “Poor girl, society is being so mean to you for making your own choices.” Though he points out the foibles and hypocrisies of society, he portrays Anna as genuinely wrong and self-destructing because of it.

For all the free-thinking society talk of immorality, thankfully there are no sex scenes, and nothing explicit is said or shown.

I’ll warn you that if you look for information about this book, Anna’s end is spoiled rather ruthlessly. That was frustrating to me because I had no idea how she ended and hated finding out when I had barely started the book. After that I tried to steer clear of looking at other sources until I finished reading the book.

I primarily listened to the audiobook nicely read by Maggie Gyllenhaal, but I also read parts of the Kindle version. I wish I had known earlier that the Kindle version translated the frequent French phrases. I lost a bit in the audio by not knowing what was said in those moments. But Maggie brought a lot of emotion and thoughtfulness to the narrative, so I am glad I experienced that.

I’ve seen in several places that Anna Karenina is a major contender for best novel ever written. I don’t think I’d put it on that level. But it’s a rich book that gives one much to ponder.

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

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)

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)