The Spy Who Came In from the Cold by John le Carré

Ends and means…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Alec Leamas is the head of the West German office of the British Secret Service – the time is the early 1960s, just after the building of the Berlin Wall. His main adversary, Hans-Dieter Mundt, has been successfully eliminating all of Leamas’ agents one by one, and Leamas has just witnessed the death of the last double-agent he had in East Berlin. Called home, Leamas expects he will be retired, but he is asked to stay “out in the cold” for one last operation – to take part in an elaborate sting to infiltrate the East German set-up and bring down Mundt. But first he must establish a convincing cover story for himself, one that will make the East Germans believe that he is willing to betray his country…

This is my first le Carré novel, although his books have been adapted so often and he’s been so influential on the genre I felt I had a good idea of what to expect – a bleak, cold portrayal of the work of spies far removed from the glamour of James Bond and his like. And that’s exactly what I got in this slow-burn but engrossing thriller. Le Carré shows a moral equivalence between the agents on both sides of the wall rather than the good Brits/evil enemies portrayal that was more standard in fiction before his time. Both sides are shown as using methods that are murky at best and the question that underpins it is the old one of whether the ends justify the means.

To point this up, le Carré introduces an innocent into the story – Liz Gold, a woman with whom Leamas has an affair while building up his false story. She’s an idealist – a communist at a time when the Communist Party in Britain is so minor and insignificant that it’s more like a social club than a revolutionary political force. As the story progresses, she will have to face the reality of communism under a totalitarian government, and Leamas will have to face the consequences of having accidentally put her in a position of great danger. His world weary cynicism contrasts with her naive belief in humankind. Her love for Leamas and faith in him will force him to reconsider the methods and morality of the organisation of which he has been a part for so long.

Book 49 of 90

The writing style is in line with the character of Leamas – unemotional and somewhat cynical. It takes a long time to work out quite what’s going on, not just for the reader but for the characters too, since it’s full of bluff and double-bluff. There’s a distinction between characters who are doing what they’re doing out of ideological conviction and those who are simply out for power and advancement, but one senses that eventually the believers will in turn become the old cynics – it’s the job that does it to them in the end. This causes you to realise that once upon a time Leamas too was probably an idealist, making him more sympathetic than he first appears. We catch a glimpse too of how some join not through patriotism or belief, but because the job allows them to exercise a natural cruelty. And finally, we see how those at the top see agents as pawns on a chessboard, valuable up to a point, but sometimes worth sacrificing in the pursuit of victory.

There was only one light in the checkpoint, a reading lamp with a green shade, but the glow of the arclights, like artificial moonlight, filled the cabin. Darkness had fallen, and with it silence. They spoke as if they were afraid of being overheard. Leamas went to the window and waited. In front of him the road and to either side the Wall, a dirty, ugly thing of breeze blocks and strands of barbed wire, lit with cheap yellow light, like the backdrop for a concentration camp. East and west of the Wall lay the unrestored part of Berlin, a half-world of ruin, drawn in two dimensions, crags of war.

It’s a bleak tale and a complex one that requires concentration to follow the twisting maze of plot. Le Carré trusts his readers to read between the lines, in terms both of the action and of the motivations of the characters, and ultimately that’s what makes it so satisfying. There’s enough ambiguity in it for each reader to decide for herself exactly what the ending tells us, but there are also clues for those who were paying attention. For those of us who might have missed one or two(!), my Penguin Modern Classics edition has a short but insightful introduction from William Boyd, no slouch himself when it comes to espionage fiction, in which he discusses the impact of the book and his own interpretation of the underlying meanings. This intro must be read as an afterword since it gives away the ending, but it does have a warning to that effect.

John Le Carre
Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images

It’s a little more bleak than my taste usually runs to and it took me a bit of time to feel involved in the story, but by the end I was totally absorbed and emotionally hooked. The writing is excellent and le Carré remains totally in control of the complexities of the plotting at all times. There’s an almost noir feeling to it, certainly dark grey anyway, and a kind of despairing cynicism of tone, but there are also small shafts of light and the occasional unexpected humanity that remind us that these people do what they do so that we can live as we choose to live. But at what cost to themselves and, ultimately, to us? Thought-provoking, intelligent and engrossing – no wonder it’s considered a major classic of the genre.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 12 of 20

Nada the Lily by H Rider Haggard

A tale of Zululand…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is the tale of Umslopogaas, unacknowledged son of Chaka, a great Zulu king. Chaka’s rule was that he should have no living sons to challenge him on their coming to manhood, so when any of his many wives gave birth, the baby was put to death. But Umslopogaas’ mother begged her brother Mopo to save her­ child, and Mopo therefore adopted the boy and brought him up as his own son, alongside his daughter, the beautiful Nada. As Umslopogaas nears manhood, he falls out of favour and is forced to flee, subsequently forming an alliance with Galazi the Wolf and becoming a chieftain in his own right. But he never forgets his love for his sister and dreams that one day they will be together again…

This can be a difficult read for a modern reader, given its portrayal of the brutal savagery of the Zulus. But if you can look past that, it’s well worth reading. It’s written entirely from the perspective of Mopo, Umslopogaas’ uncle, and white men play no active part in it at all, although there is mention of the increasing threat they represent to the Zulus. Chaka’s reign was a time of extreme cruelty and brutality – it is said, for example, that following his mother’s death he had 7000 of his followers killed for not showing enough grief. So Haggard’s portrayal has a firm foundation in history and apparently also in the legend and folklore of the Zulu people. What I found so surprising about it is that Haggard offers the story to his British readers non-judgementally – he presents this society as it is (in his mind, at least – I have no way to gauge its accuracy) and the characters judge each other by their own standards, not by ours. I imagine this must have been a unique experience for contemporary readers back in 1892, when it was first published, used as they would have been to seeing Africa and Africans via patronising colonial eyes. I must say, it’s still pretty unique now, in that Haggard has managed to create an entirely believable picture without projecting white people or their attitudes or values onto a story about Africa.

Chaka was a real person and many of the events in the book are real also. Umpslopogaas, Galazi and Nada are fictional, but Mopo is also based on a real man who was close to the centre of power in Chaka’s kingdom. In the book, Mopo is a witchdoctor, and there are some supernatural elements that we would now call superstition or even fakery, but which are accepted internally in the story as true. There is every kind of violence and brutality you could name – mass killings, infanticide, gory battles, ravening wolf packs and so on. Women, of course, are property and Haggard shows clearly their complete subjugation within society, but again without overt judgement. Nonetheless, a few women play an active role in the story, both for good and evil, and Haggard shows how they may have had no hard power but they could exercise some influence over their men, though in a limited way. This is a country where men die young, in battle or killed by their leader to prevent them becoming a threat, and where – as a result, I assume – polygamy is the norm. Again, no British judgement here – despite the central love story, Haggard never suggests that Umslopogaas will or should have only one wife. But he does show how tensions could arise amongst the women, as older wives found themselves pushed aside in favour of younger favourites.

Book 48 of 90

The story itself is told by a very old Mopo looking back, and he often foreshadows the future for the characters, so that the reader knows from early on that many of the characters came to a tragic end. As a tragic love story, in truth, it didn’t do much for me – Nada isn’t in it enough for me to have grown to care deeply about her, and Umslopogaas is too honest a portrayal for me to have found him truly heroic. I was actually fonder of Galazi the Wolf, who seems less personally ambitious and with a core of loyalty that’s in short supply in this society. Haggard has him loving Umslopogaas like a brother, but my twenty-first century eyes couldn’t help seeing his love as more intimate than that, and I’d love to know if that was Haggard’s intention. A Google search confirms I’m by no means the only person to have read it that way. Certainly, and this is a feature of Victorian British culture which I could easily believe would be part of African culture too, the relationships between the men is considered to be much more important than any relationship between man and woman, except perhaps the relationship of mothers and sons.

H Rider Haggard

Lastly, I must mention the quality of the writing. Narrated by Mopo, Haggard maintains his voice throughout superbly, never allowing “white” attitudes or expressions to slip in. The violence and unvarnished brutality might put some readers off, but I found it a fascinating and ultimately credible depiction of the Zulus of Chaka’s time. This society is very different from our own modern Western one, but it has its own internal structure, rules and traditions, and the characters behave honourably or dishonourably within their own moral standards, not ours. If you can put aside your post-colonial prejudices, then there is much here to admire and enjoy – one of our more difficult classics in our current condition of hyper-sensitivity over questions of race, perhaps, but a true classic nevertheless.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 10 of 20

Sanditon by Jane Austen

Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Sanditon is a fictional little village on the south coast of England, and local landowner Mr Thomas Parker dreams of turning it into a health resort like its bigger neighbours, Brighton and Eastbourne. The current fad among the fashionable is for sea-air and sea-bathing, both promised to cure any number of ills. Mr Parker and his wife invite the young daughter of a friend to visit, Charlotte Heywood, and it’s through her sensible eyes that the reader sees the inhabitants of Sanditon, with all their foibles, kindnesses and hypocrisies.

This is known as Austen’s unfinished novel but it would be more accurate to describe it as barely started. We get a mere 70 pages – just enough to introduce us to some of the many characters and to begin to see the various plot strands on which Austen’s health never permitted her to follow through. It’s a pity, because it looks as if it would have been fun, and rather different from her finished novels. There’s a more cynical tone about it – the same bright wit but with a harsher, less forgiving edge. It’s not nearly as polished as her usual writing but that’s hardly surprising since in reality this couldn’t have been much more than a first draft.

It begins with the meeting between Mr Parker and Charlotte’s father, and we quickly see that Sanditon is an obsession of Mr Parker’s – he is determined to improve it, whether it wants to be improved or not, by building bathing machines and upgrading houses to be suitable for the fashionable people he hopes to attract. He has a partner in his enterprise – Lady Denham, the great lady of the neighbourhood, having inherited wealth from one husband, a title from another and a pack of relatives from both. Mr Parker’s extended family includes two sisters and a younger brother, all suffering from debilitating ailments according to themselves, or from hypochondria, as the more cynical might see it. There is another brother, Sidney, who, it appears, would likely be the sensible one and possibly a love interest for Charlotte, but I fear we catch only a glimpse of his handsome features before the fragment ends. We also know that new visitors to the town are expected, including a “half-mulatto” heiress from the West Indies, but again we are left tantalised but with our curiosity unsatisfied.

Sea bathing at Brighton

There’s a lot of humour in the portrayal of the Parker siblings, rather less subtle than Austen’s usual. There’s no knowing, of course, how the book would have developed, but I felt that it would probably have had a lot of filler added later – this felt very rapid for Austen as if she were getting down the main elements of the characters and setting up the plot, possibly with the intention of then re-working it to add in more of her delightful social observation. But perhaps she was trying a new style intentionally. The introduction by Kathryn Sutherland in my Oxford World Classic’s edition (which is about a third as long as the entire fragment of story) puts it in its historical context, in an England looking to the future now that the long Napoleonic Wars are finally over. Perhaps Austen was reflecting the new modernity and process of rapid change that tends to follow a long war.

Obviously it can’t be wholly satisfying as merely the start of a story, but I enjoyed reading it nevertheless, and had fun deciding for myself who would marry whom and be happy and who would be taught the folly of their ways and so on. I can see the appeal for people who like to have a go at finishing it, although I’m not sure there’s enough there to give a real indication of where Austen would have taken us. I’m delighted to hear that Andrew Davies is adapting it for television next year. He’s clearly going to have to come up with a plot since this fragment won’t be enough to make a TV series out of. I remember Alan Bleasdale adding in a lengthy backstory for Oliver Twist when he adapted that book many years ago, and while I enjoyed it I wasn’t convinced it felt like Dickens. I’m intrigued to see if Andrew Davies will manage to make this one feel like Austen. He is, of course, the man behind my beloved 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, so he certainly has the credentials. Meantime, I’m desperately avoiding all advance publicity.

Fear not, my Darcy – Sidney will never steal my heart from you…

If you haven’t already, you have plenty of time to read this before the adaptation comes out and invent your own story before Davies tells us his. Personally, I shall be very annoyed if he doesn’t allow Charlotte and Sidney a chance at romance… (if you know, please don’t tell me!)

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas by Jules Verne

Drama in the deeps…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A mysterious sea monster has been damaging ships around the world, so a team is put together to hunt it down. The famous French naturalist Dr Aronnax happens to be in America at the time, so is invited to join the hunting party. Soon he will discover that the monster is in fact man-made – a submarine built and captained by the enigmatic Captain Nemo, and Aronnax and his companions will find themselves unwilling guests aboard the Nautilus as Nemo takes them on a fabulous journey beneath the seas and oceans of the world. But Nemo is more than a simple explorer – gradually Aronnax begins to suspect there is a darker purpose to his travels…

The beginning of the book is very reminiscent of my old friend Moby-Dick, as the hunting party sets off to sail rather aimlessly around the vastness of the world’s oceans hoping that they might coincidentally happen upon the sea-monster. Aronnax’s servant, Conseil, accompanies him, and on board they meet Ned Land, a master harpoonist whose task is to kill the monster should they find it. When their ship finally has a disastrous encounter with the Nautilus, these three men will be taken aboard as captives, although for the most part they will be treated more as guests, free to participate in the submarine’s adventures but not free to leave it.

Book 47 of 90

And what adventures! They will visit coral reefs and underwater passages between seas; they will slaughter all kinds of things for food or fun; they will visit islands inhabited only by savage tribes and find themselves in danger of being slaughtered themselves for food or fun, which seems like poetic justice to me! They will observe all kinds of strange creatures that live in the depths, some of them real, some mythical. Aronnax and his faithful assistant Conseil will catalogue hundreds – nay, thousands – of different species of fish and underwater plant life. And Aronnax, our narrator, will kindly list most of these, giving their Latin names and telling us their biological classification.

I must be honest and say all those lists of fish nearly did for me after a bit…

In the 89th genus of fish classified by Lacépède, belonging to the second sub-class of osseous fish characterized by a gill cover and a bronchial membrane, I noticed the scorpion fish, whose head has stings on it and which has only one dorsal fin: according to the subgenus, these creatures are either devoid of small scales or covered in them. The latter subgenus provided us with specimens of didactyls 30 to 40 centimetres long, with yellow stripes and fantastic-looking heads.

Now you may (possibly) be thinking that sounds quite interesting but, believe me, by the time you’ve travelled about four thousand leagues you will never be able to walk past another sushi restaurant without shuddering. Fortunately, I am a master of the art of skipping – obviously, or I’d never have made it through Moby-Dick’s interminable whales either – so very quickly learned to recognise when Aronnax was going to become the world’s leading fish bore and jump a few paragraphs. This worked excellently since, in between the excruciating fishiness and the mind-numbing technical descriptions of the submarine, there’s lots of adventure and some interesting insights on the world as it was in Verne’s day.

The characterisation is good too. Aronnax doesn’t much mind his status as prisoner since, as a scientist, the journey is giving him the opportunity to observe first-hand things that no man has seen before. Conseil is simply his faithful servant – wherever Aronnax is is where Conseil wishes to be – but he provides some gentle humour and acts as a bridge between Aronnax and the third member of the group, Ned Land. Ned feels his imprisonment harshly, especially since Nemo is not keen on letting him harpoon everything he sees, and he’s always pushing Aronnax to consider ways to escape. And Nemo himself is an ominous, brooding presence on board – a scientist too, but who has deliberately cut himself off from the world of men. Aronnax studies him much as he studies the other ocean life, and comes to think that he has perhaps suffered some tragedy or injustice that has driven him to this strange existence. He is another Captain Ahab, although he is sailing in the belly of the monster of the deep rather than chasing after it. But he is driven by the same desire – revenge!

Two hours after leaving the Nautilus we crossed the tree-line; the mountain peak towered 100 feet above our heads, its dazzling radiation projecting a shadow on the slope below. A few petrified shrubs ran here and there in grimacing zigzags. Fish rose as one before our feet like birds surprised in tall grass. The rocky massif was hollowed out with impenetrable burrows, deep caverns, and pits at the bottom of which I could hear frightening things moving about. I blanched when I spotted an enormous antenna blocking my route, or terrifying claws clattering shut in the darkness of a cavity! Thousands of luminous points shone in the darkness. They were the eyes of huge crustaceans lurking in their dens, of gigantic lobsters standing to attention like halberdiers and waving their legs with metallic clanks, of titanic crabs set like cannon on their mounts, and of awe-inspiring squid twisting their tentacles into a living brush of snakes.

This is a new translation by William Butcher who is an expert on Verne, and that expertise shows in the avoidance of any of the obscurity that can happen in translations, especially of older works. He also wrote the excellent introduction and notes, which give a lot of insight into the writing of the book – what influenced Verne, his ongoing negotiations with his publisher to get the book into shape, how the book fits into his overall body of work, etc., along with a literary analysis of the various themes. There’s lots of actual science in the book, and unfortunately I lacked the knowledge to know what was still considered true and what had been superseded since Verne’s day. I was a little disappointed that the notes didn’t do a bit more fact-checking, but there are so many facts it would have been a huge undertaking. However, the notes do explain many references to contemporary scientists and events that would otherwise have gone over my head.

Jules Verne

Truthfully, if I factored in those endless fish-lists, I’d find it hard to rate the book as more than a 4-star read, but since I found it easy to skip them without missing anything essential to the story, they didn’t bother me (and fish enthusiasts might even enjoy them!). The descriptions of the wonders of the deeps, the glimpses of other civilisations, the mystery surrounding Captain Nemo and the thrilling adventure aspects all more than made up for the excessive fish-detail, making it a five-star read for me – a true classic!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics. The illustrations, which I’ve taken from Wikimedia Commons, are by Alphonse de Neuville (1835—1885) or Édouard Riou (1833-1900).

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 7 of 20

In the Heat of the Night by John Ball

“They call me Mr Tibbs.”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When night patrolman Sam Wood finds a dead man in the street, it’s quickly apparent the man has been murdered. It also transpires he’s a prominent person – Maestro Enrico Mantoli, a famous conductor who was organising a music festival in the town. The new police chief, Bill Gillespie, has never run a murder investigation before. In fact, he hasn’t much experiencing of policing at all – he was mainly hired because of his intimidating air of authority and his willingness to uphold this Alabama town’s resistance to change in the face of the Civil Rights movement. He orders Sam to check around for anyone who looks like he might be trying to leave town. When Sam comes across a black man sitting quietly in the Colored waiting room of the train station and discovers he has a sizeable amount of cash in his wallet, it seems the case is closed. Until the black man reveals his identity to Gillespie – Virgil Tibbs, a homicide investigator with the Pasadena police, who’s passing through Wells on his way back north after visiting his mother…

I seem to have spent a lot of time recently reading about the American South around the time of the Civil Rights movement. This book is fundamentally a crime novel with a very good plot and some excellent detection elements. But it’s far more than that – it paints an entirely believable picture of being a black man in a town that’s run by the whites for the whites at a time when segregation and racism were still entirely acceptable. It also takes us into the minds of the white people, though, showing how they are the product of their conditioning, and how they react when they are forced to reassess the things they take for granted about their own racial superiority.

(I do have one niggling reservation, about me rather than the book. It was written by a white man showing the perspective of a black man in the American South, and I am a white Scotswoman, so although it rings wholly true to me, I can’t help feeling I’m not the best person to judge the portrayals of either race in that place and time. That said, on with the review!)

Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger in the 1967 film of the book

Gillespie is prevailed upon by his superiors to bring Tibbs in on the investigation. He has mixed feelings about it – on the one hand, he doesn’t want to be shown up by a despised black man; on the other hand, if the case isn’t solved, then he can blame Tibbs. Sam Wood ends up as a sort of unofficial partner to Tibbs, and although he’s a much nicer man than Gillespie, he too has to fight his repugnance to treating a black man as in any way equal. There are all sorts of subtle nuances that show how pervasive racism is in this society, like the white people all calling Tibbs Virgil, while he is supposed to refer to them by their title and surname, or like Sam’s unease at Tibbs sitting in the front seat of their car.

Book 46 of 90

In fact, Tibbs is the one who is most at ease with himself and with the situation. He grew up in the South, knows the rules and conforms to them, never arguing about being forced to use the Colored washroom or not being allowed to eat in the diner, nor openly objecting to the overt racist language directed at him. But he’s worked in California, a place where racism still exists for sure, but not in this formalised, legally endorsed way. While the white men think they’re superior to Tibbs because of their race, Tibbs is well aware of his own superiority in training and experience. But he’s human enough to need to prove it, so he’s driven to stay and solve the case rather than taking the easy option of simply getting on the next train out of town.

John Ball

The plot itself is very good, and the investigation takes us through all the levels in this society from rich to poor, from the cultural leaders involved in setting up the music festival, to the political class, increasingly divided between the socially conservative and the more liberal elements, to the poor people trying to scratch a living in a town that has lost its biggest employer and is struggling to find a new purpose.

But it’s undoubtedly the characterisation that makes this one special. Tibbs himself is likeable, a hero it’s easy to root for. Woods and Gillespie are more complex and they each grow and learn over the course of the investigation, about police-work but also about themselves. It avoids a saccharine wholesale conversion to woolly brotherhood-of-man liberalism on their parts, but gives hope that people and society can change, given patience and the right circumstances.

An excellent book that deserves its status as a classic of the genre – well written and plotted, and insightful about race and class at a moment of change. Highly recommended.

Book 6 of 20

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Unhappily ever after…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Set just before the Reform Act of 1832, Eliot uses the better off residents of the provincial town of Middlemarch to muse on the state of society at a point of change. It is basically a series of character studies, showing how the social interactions of life lead, in most people, to a permanent state of change: sometimes growth, sometimes diminution. There is no overarching plot to speak of, though several of the characters have their own stories which appear and disappear as the book roves over subjects as diverse as the building of the railroads, the state of medicine, the position of women in society, the conduct of politics.

By the time I got to page 150, I was beginning to think that dying of boredom would be a blessed release. The constant repetition and the impersonal telling of every detail rather than allowing the characters to reveal themselves through their own actions and interactions made it feel like sheer drudgery to get through. Gritting my teeth and struggling on, I found it slowly improved so that eventually I became reasonably immersed in the various lives that were slowly, oh, so slowly, being lived out on the pages. But having made it all the way to the final page, despite admiring the ambition and some of the execution, I will not be joining the legions of people who think this is the greatest novel in the English language.

There is no doubt about the depth of the characterisation nor the profound insight Eliot gives into the fallibilities and foibles of human nature. Clearly not a fan of the happy-ever-after of so many novels of the period, Eliot instead shows marriage as the beginning of the story for many of her characters and then follows them as they have to readjust their expectations when experience crashes brutally down on their hopes and dreams. It’s all very realistic, of course; hence, very depressing. I’ve always assumed that Darcy and Lizzie probably found that neither was quite as perfect as they seemed to each other on that day when they declared their mutual love, but I was always happy that Austen didn’t make me witness the inevitable disillusion. There’s such a thing as too much realism.

It’s hard to know who the major character is supposed to be. For the first section it appears it will be Dorothea, an idealistic young woman who wishes to find a way to be useful in a society that expects women of her class to be merely decorative. But then quite suddenly, just as one has become invested in her story, she disappears for hundreds of pages and idealistic young Dr Lydgate becomes the focus. The informative introduction in my Oxford World’s Classic edition, by David Russell, tells me that in fact the book started as two separate stories which Eliot later decided to merge, and I was quite glad to know that since it explained why the structure felt so out of synch until about halfway through. Both Dorothea and Lydgate find they have married people who don’t live up to their high ideals and so spend much of their time being miserable. (In an Austen novel, they’d have married each other and lived happily ever after. What’s so wrong with that?)

George Eliot

I enjoyed the portrayal of the society of the town considerably more. While Eliot deals mostly with her own class, she occasionally gives glimpses of the common people, showing how their way of life was being changed by the increasing industrialisation of the time. She doesn’t delve in depth into this nor into the major political changes that were happening, presumably assuming that her contemporary audience would be well aware of these aspects. But she does show that the landowning classes were conscious of the increasing mood of resentment among the lower orders, with the fear of social unrest rumbling in the background. Like Dickens, she gives an indication of how the classes may live apart but are inextricably connected and, also like him, she suggests clearly that those who have ignore those who have not at their own peril.

Overall, I didn’t enjoy this nearly as much as I’d hoped. I suspect it’s simply a matter of outlook on life – I’m a glass-half-full kind of person and I got the distinct impression that Eliot’s glass was at least half empty. I missed Dickens’ anger and exuberance, and Austen’s wit. This felt flatter – more like reportage than storytelling. However, I did admire the subtlety of the characterisation and the intelligence of her observations of society. A book that engaged my intellect more than my emotions and, in the end, failed to make me care about the outcomes for the people with whom I’d spent so much time.

Book 45 of 90

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett

Broadening the mind…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Matthew Bramble, hypochondriac and charitable Welsh gentleman with a choleric temper and a humorously jaundiced view of life, takes his family on a journey round Britain seeking benefit to his health. As each member of the party writes letters to their friends we see the country and its regional customs through their eyes, meeting with some interesting and often eccentric characters, and being witness to some hilarious (and some not so hilarious) episodes along the way. Told entirely through letters, the introduction by Lewis M Knapp informs me it is “often regarded as the most successful epistolary novel in English”.

Matthew takes a grumpy view of life, especially in the beginning when his health is worrying him. A bachelor, he feels a little hard done by to have acquired a family – his maiden sister, Tabitha, who is desperate to throw off her spinster state, and two wards, Jery and Lydia, children of another sister now deceased. Despite his frequent grumbles about them all, though, he loves them and is mostly kind to them. The family are accompanied on their travels, of course, by servants. The maid, Win Jenkins, provides much of the comic relief – her letters full of misspellings and malapropisms, often ‘accidentally’ apt. Through her, we see the family from another angle, not always complimentary. Along the way, they pick up another servant, the eponymous Humphry Clinker, although it baffles me a bit why the book was given his name since I wouldn’t consider him one of the major characters.

Men dancing in a coffee house
All illustrations by Thomas Rowlandson courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Arts via Wikimedia Commons

Part picaresque, part travelogue, there’s not much in the way of a plot, although there’s a love story concerning Lydia that runs throughout and pulls the thing together to a degree. However, really it’s not setting out to tell a story – it’s an observation, often satirical, of life in England and Scotland in the second half of the eighteenth century.

This was a bit of a rollercoaster for me. I started off loving it, then it dipped badly to the point where I considered giving up, and then picked up again to a most enjoyable second half. As so often, especially with books from long ago, this is more to do with the reader than the book. It starts in the spa towns of England some years before our beloved Bath of Austen’s day, but still eminently recognisable. Then it moves to London where Smollett satirises the politics, politicians and literati of the day, most of whom I didn’t recognise even after checking who they were in the notes at the back, and I found this section intensely dull. However, the family then heads north, up through England and into Scotland where Smollett (a Scot, of course) discourses on habits, customs and the effects of the still relatively recent Union of Scotland and England. Naturally, I found this fascinating and fun since it’s a subject I am interested in and know reasonably well. I suspect other modern readers would find different parts entertaining and dull according to their own interests and knowledge.

Clinker preaching in Clerkenwell Prison

Some of the humour is quite crude, often dealing with bodily functions, about which Matthew the hypochondriac especially seems somewhat obsessed. Times were different too, of course, and some of what was apparently humorous back then seems rather cruel today. The women fall into two categories: young, desperately seeking romance, and foolish; or old, desperately seeking husbands, and foolish. I fear our Mr Smollett would today be called a misogynist, though I expect back then he was simply reflecting the prevalent world view.

However, there’s far more ‘good’ humour than bad. The three main correspondents are Matthew, Jery and Lydia, and they each see the world through the prism of their own age, experience and gender. Smollett is brilliant at creating individual voices for each, and maintaining them without a hitch. To Matthew, Bath is a dreadful place, full of riff-raff and the nouveau riche, and he is deeply concerned about the unsanitary conditions prevailing in the famous spas where people drink the waters for their health.

For my part, I detest it [Bath] so much, that I should not have been able to stay so long in the place, if I had not discovered some old friends, whose conversation alleviates my disgust. Going to the coffee-house one forenoon, I could not help contemplating the company, with equal surprise and compassion. We consisted of thirteen individuals: seven lamed by the gout, rheumatism, or palsy; three maimed by accident; and the rest either deaf or blind. One hobbled, another hopped, a third dragged his legs after him like a wounded snake, a fourth straddled betwixt a pair of long crutches, like the mummy of a felon hanging in chains; a fifth was bent into a horizontal position, like a mounted telescope, shoved in by a couple of chairmen; and a sixth was the bust of a man, set upright in a wheel machine, which the waiter moved from place to place.

To Jery, it’s a place where he socialises with his peers and talks horses. To Lydia, it’s an enchanted place of romance, with dancing and handsome young men galore. This three-way look at places continues throughout the journey and, as well as providing humour, gives a rounded picture of the attractions and downsides of the various places they stop at, while continuing to let us get to know each of the characters better. Tabby and Win write less often, and mostly about domestic matters for strictly humorous purposes, and if I recall correctly, Humphry doesn’t write at all, so everything we learn about him, we learn at second hand.

Tobias Smollett c. 1770
Artist unknown

Like most Scottish authors following the Union, Smollett was writing primarily for an English audience and, as Scott sometimes does at a later period, he uses the Scottish section to try to explain Scottish culture to them, musing on customs, accents, the legal system, the differences between Lowland and Highland culture, and so on. He introduces another Scottish character later in the book, whose discussions with Matthew enable Smollett to show both sides of the Union – the pros and cons – and this is remarkably interesting given our current national obsession with the same vexed questions three centuries on. He touches briefly on the already-developing cultural dominance of England and English in language and literature, a thing Matthew seems to see as positive, leaving me wondering if Smollett did too. The book itself is written almost entirely in standard English of the time, so should present no major problems for a patient modern reader.

Humphry Clinker smashing a dish at dinner

I’ve hummed and hawed over my rating for this one. I was highly entertained by bits and bored to tears by other bits. But because I’m reading it as a Scottish classic and enjoyed the Scottish parts so much, in the end I’ve decided to dismiss the London section and the bawdier parts from my mind and give it the full five stars. And a definite recommendation, if for no other reason than to enjoy Win’s mangled language and observations of her “betters”…

DEAR MARY,

Sunders Macully, the Scotchman, who pushes directly for Vails, has promised to give it you into your own hand, and therefore I would not miss the opportunity to let you know as I am still in the land of the living: and yet I have been on the brink of the other world since I sent you my last letter. — We went by sea to another kingdom called Fife, and coming back, had like to have gone to pot in a storm. — What between the frite and sickness, I thought I should have brought my heart up; even Mr Clinker was not his own man for eight and forty hours after we got ashore. It was well for some folks that we scaped drownding; for mistress was very frexious, and seemed but indifferently prepared for a change; but, thank God, she was soon put in a better frame by the private exaltations of the reverend Mr Macrocodile.

Book 44 of 90

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bath Tangle by Georgette Heyer

Regency chicken soup…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When Lord Spenborough dies in middle-age, he leaves a youngish daughter and an even younger second wife. Lady Serena, the daughter, is desperate not to have to live with her aunt, and Fanny, the young widow, is equally reluctant to return to the home of her parents. So they decide to live together, with Fanny as an unlikely chaperone for her headstrong step-daughter. Lord Spenborough has left an unwelcome surprise for Serena in his will, though. He has named as her guardian Ivo Barrasford, Marquis of Rotherham – his old friend and Serena’s former fiancé, the man she jilted just before their wedding. Under the terms of the will Ivo must give his consent if Serena decides to marry…

Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances have long been my literary equivalent of chicken soup, something to turn to when comfort reading is in order. It’s been a long time since I last read this one, and I had unfortunately forgotten that it’s not one of my favourites, though still entertaining. Both Serena and Ivo are bad-tempered, volatile and domineering characters whose behaviour towards the people around them often crosses the line towards outright bullying. It’s a kind of take on The Taming of the Shrew – not one of my favourite plays, either – although in this case, happily, each is both tamer and shrew.

Book 43 of 90

Fortunately there are lots of secondary characters who are much more fun to be around. Fanny was fond of her much older husband, but it’s quite clear she was pressured into marrying him by her parents’ ambition for wealth and a title, while he married her primarily in the hope of getting a son and heir. This hope was unrealised, so that now the entailed property has gone to Serena’s cousin, and the two ladies are living in the Dower House. Bored, partly by the reduction in their circumstances and partly by the tight restrictions on entertaining while in mourning, they soon decide to take themselves off to the delights of Bath, ostensibly so that Fanny can take the waters for her health. There they meet Hector, an old flame of Serena’s, and soon the spark is rekindled. Hector’s lovely – handsome, kind, generous and in every respect so much nicer than Ivo – and he quickly becomes the alternative hero of the book.

There’s also Mrs Floore, the grandmother of an acquaintance of the ladies. Mrs Floore’s wealth came from trade and two deceased husbands, and she makes no pretence of being a fine lady. Her daughter, however, married into the minor aristocracy and has ambitions to shove her own daughter, Emily, further up the aristocratic tree.

Georgette Heyer

All the young people, in the usual way, will first fall in love with entirely unsuitable partners, then have to find some way of escaping from this tangle to finish at last with their true loves. There’s nothing very original about the plot, and it’s fairly obvious from early on who should and will end up with whom, but that doesn’t prevent it from being a lot of fun. Heyer always writes well, and the tone is light and full of humour. She concentrates entirely on the rich and privileged so there’s no depressing realism to lower the spirit. And in the tradition of romances, it all ends when everyone becomes engaged to the right partner, so only those of us who have a tendency to over-analyse everything have to worry about the probable unfortunate offspring of some of the more fiery matches!

Being written back in the mid-’50s, it certainly doesn’t count as a feminist tract – the men are the masters and/or protectors of the women, so if that would annoy you, you should avoid at all costs. Personally, I suspect all the women turn into feminists after the weddings and the husbands are probably all hen-pecked into submission by the end of the first year. Except Hector, because he’s lovely… 😉

Frothy, light-hearted fun – perfect for keeping the blues at bay!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Fair Maid of Perth by Sir Walter Scott

St Valentine’s Day villainy…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Catherine Glover, generally known as the Fair Maid of her hometown of Perth, is beloved by the town’s famed armourer, Henry Smith of the Wynd. But she has also caught the eye of the pleasure loving and dissolute Earl of Rothsay*, eldest son and heir to King Robert III. On St Valentine’s Day, these men will both try to win Catherine, one honourably, one dishonourably, setting in motion a chain of events that will involve the citizens of Perth in the high politics and treacheries of the nobility, and the wild feuds of the Highland clans which inhabit the land to the north of the Fair City.

I first read this book as a young teenager back in the Dark Ages and remembered nothing about it except that I loved it. Since then I’ve read a fair amount of Scott, with varying levels of appreciation. Most recently, I read and was rather disappointed by what is probably his most famous work, Waverley, and wondered if I had simply fallen out of love with Scott’s style over the years. Not so! This book, in my opinion, is vastly superior to Waverley, having all of its strengths and none of its weaknesses. It’s a top rank historical novel that deserves to be more widely read, and is undoubtedly the book I would recommend to people coming to Scott for the first time. It’s written almost entirely in standard English (none of the annoying Latin, French and Gaelic which pepper Waverley) so is easily accessible to the modern reader. And it’s as powerful in its way as A Tale of Two Cities, with a deep understanding of the history and politics of the time but also, more importantly, of the workings of the human heart and mind.

Catherine seeks advice from her spiritual adviser

The period is the tail end of the 14th century, when Scotland was in name one nation under one monarch, but where the Highlands clans operated as separate fiefdoms and were a constant threat to the peace of the nation from the north. At the southern border, Scotland and England were in a perpetual state of enmity – sometimes warring, sometimes skirmishing, but never truly at peace. It’s a period about which I know very little, but didn’t need to – Scott gives all the information that the reader needs to understand the plot without bogging the book down in unnecessary historical detail. He actually shortens the timeline, compressing various events that happened at different times to bring them together into his story, but he manages to do this without seriously distorting the underlying significance of them. In Scott’s story, events that in real time took place over a decade or so happen in a period of weeks, starting on St Valentine’s Day and ending on Palm Sunday.

“True — true,” said the monarch, reseating himself; “more violence — more battle. Oh, Scotland! Scotland! if the best blood of thy bravest children could enrich thy barren soil, what land on earth would excel thee in fertility! When is it that a white hair is seen on the beard of a Scottishman, unless he be some wretch like thy sovereign, protected from murder by impotence, to witness the scenes of slaughter to which he cannot put a period? Let them come in, delay them not. They are in haste to kill, and, grudge each other each fresh breath of their Creator’s blessed air. The demon of strife and slaughter hath possessed the whole land!”

Scott tells the story in the third person, taking the reader in turn to the various participants, so that sometimes we are in the presence of the weak King Robert and his nobles, all scheming and jostling for power; sometimes we are with Rothsay and his disreputable followers, taking their pleasure at the expense of the decent burghers of Perth; and mostly we’re with those burghers – Henry, Catherine, her father Simon Glover and various other townspeople, as they try to live honest Christian lives in a time when security was scarce and men had to be willing to fight for their own safety and to protect the women they loved. Later, we spend time with the Highland clans, seeing how they lived (perhaps – Scott has a reputation for creating the modern image of the clans from his imagination, but it rings true enough for this reader).

The monk and the glee maiden

There are lots of great characters in the novel. Henry is a famed fighter, trying to tame his warring nature for the sake of peace-loving Catherine. Through her, we get a glimpse at the state of the Church, with the first hints of the Reformation to come and with the fear of being accused of heresy ever present. Simon is a good and decent man, and a loving father. Conachar, the young Highland boy who is his apprentice, allows us to see the attitudes of the townspeople to their wild Highland neighbours. The Royals are excellent – poor Robert III, who means well but is ineffective as either King or father, his scheming and disloyal brother Albany and the feuding Earls of March and Douglas, each given extraordinary power due to the weakness of the King. Rothsay’s followers include some great baddies – Ramorny, who has a personal reason to want vengeance against Henry; Bonthron, Ramorny’s beast-like assassin; and the marvellous Henbane Dwining, a skilled physician who uses his arts for evil as well as for good and is deliciously sinister and manipulative.

“There is no room for pardon where offence must not be taken,” answered the mediciner. “An insect must thank a giant that he does not tread on him. Yet, noble knight, insects have their power of harming as well as physicians. What would it have cost me, save a moment’s trouble, so to have drugged that balm, as should have made your arm rot to the shoulder joint, and your life blood curdle in your veins to a corrupted jelly? What is there that prevented me to use means yet more subtle, and to taint your room with essences, before which the light of life twinkles more and more dimly, till it expires, like a torch amidst the foul vapours of some subterranean dungeon? You little estimate my power, if you know not that these and yet deeper modes of destruction stand at command of my art. But a physician slays not the patient by whose generosity he lives, and far less will he the breath of whose nostrils is the hope of revenge destroy the vowed ally who is to favour his pursuit of it.”

But it’s the plot that makes the novel. It moves along at a good pace, never losing track of the various strands – Henry and Catherine, the Royal power plays, Rothsay and his scurrilous followers. And it all leads up to one of the most harrowingly dramatic climaxes I’ve read, as the Highland feud is brought to a bloody and horrific halt. I don’t want to say too much about the Highland strand since it develops late in the book and so takes us into spoiler territory, but it’s a brilliant depiction of a blood feud, of the savagery of hand-to-hand battle, of sacrifice and the loyalty of kinship, of the honour given to the physically brave and the shame heaped on the coward. It moved me to tears for more than one reason. And even more horrifyingly, this part of it is based on actual events.

Book 42 of 90

A great book, and a true classic. If you only ever read one Scott novel, make it this one. It gets my highest recommendation!

*Some modern publications show this as Rothesay, the modern spelling of the town from which the title derives. However, my copy gives the old spelling throughout, so I’ve stuck with that, despite my spell-checker’s frantic attempts to change it!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

Shades of the prison-house…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Arthur Clennam returns from abroad following the death of his father, he is convinced that his father had done something in his past of which he was ashamed and wished his wife to make amends. However, Mrs Clennam is a cold, hard woman who had been long estranged from her husband, and she refuses to discuss the matter with Arthur. While in his mother’s house, Arthur meets the young woman he will come to call Little Dorrit, a seamstress in whom his mother shows a strange interest, and convinces himself that somehow she is part of this mysterious family history. 800-and-odd pages later, all will be revealed!

It’s always difficult summarising a Dickens novel, partly because they’re so filled with subplots that are often at least as important as the main one, and partly because the plot is often simply a vehicle for whatever aspect of society Dickens wishes to discuss. In this one, he has several targets: the iniquity of debtors’ prisons, the nepotism within the ruling classes and the resulting paralysis of Government, and the dangers of speculation on the stock market. Along the way, he produces his usual dazzling array of characterisation and mix of drama, humour and occasional horror.

Little Dorrit and Maggy

Some aspects of this one worked better for me than others. I found his satirisation of the Circumlocution Office – the government department that specialises in How Not to Get Things Done – a little heavy-handed and repetitive, and to be honest, I wasn’t wholly convinced by it. This was at a time when Britain was the powerhouse of the world, so I’m guessing the industrial giants and imperial magnates of the time must have been able to Get Things Done despite government bureaucracy. The nepotism aspects and class-ridden society rang much truer, especially the idea that relatively useless people get powerful jobs merely by being the sons of powerful men. (Not much changes, except that today the same could be said about daughters…)

The shabbiness of these attendants upon shabbiness, the poverty of these insolvent waiters upon insolvency, was a sight to see. Such threadbare coats and trousers, such fusty gowns and shawls, such squashed hats and bonnets, such boots and shoes, such umbrellas and walking-sticks, never were seen in Rag Fair. All of them wore the cast-off clothes of other men and women, were made up of patches and pieces of other people’s individuality, and had no sartorial existence of their own proper. Their walk was the walk of a race apart. They had a peculiar way of doggedly slinking round the corner, as if they were eternally going to the pawnbroker’s. When they coughed, they coughed like people accustomed to be forgotten on doorsteps and in draughty passages, waiting for answers to letters in faded ink, which gave the recipients of those manuscripts great mental disturbance and no satisfaction.

The Marshalsea, the debtors’ prison in which Dickens’ own father spent some time, is brilliantly portrayed, showing the ludicrousness of a system that imprisons people and refuses to release them until they can pay their debts, while also refusing to allow them to work to earn money. Mr Dorrit, the father of Little Dorrit and known also as the Father of the Marshalsea as its longest resident, is one of Dickens’ more unforgettable characters. A weak and pompous man, it’s easy to despise him, but Dickens lets us see beneath his carefully nurtured public persona to the deeply ashamed and vulnerable man beneath.

Mr Dorrit entertains guests in the Marshalsea

As is often the case with Dickens, the two major characters are among my least favourite. Arthur is another weak man and rather bland, though morally righteous, naturally. Little Dorrit is perfect, hence perfectly nauseating – too good, too trembling, too quiet, too accepting, too forgiving, too much slipping and flitting about (just walk, woman, for goodness sake!), and too, too tiny. Too Dickensian, in fact!

Fortunately the supporting cast is far more interesting. There’s Rigaud, the Frenchman who murdered his wife and is now mysteriously up to no good. John Baptist Cavalletto, the Italian, gives Dickens the opportunity to be scathingly and humorously perceptive about the way Brits react to immigrants within their communities.

It was uphill work for a foreigner, lame or sound, to make his way with the Bleeding Hearts. In the first place, they were vaguely persuaded that every foreigner had a knife about him; in the second, they held it to be a sound constitutional national axiom that he ought to go home to his own country. They never thought of inquiring how many of their own countrymen would be returned upon their hands from divers parts of the world, if the principle were generally recognised; they considered it particularly and peculiarly British. In the third place, they had a notion that it was a sort of Divine visitation upon a foreigner that he was not an Englishman, and that all kinds of calamities happened to his country because it did things that England did not, and did not do things that England did.

We have foppish younger sons and their scheming mothers, girls on the hunt for rich husbands, girls who are trapped into marriages by fortune-hunting seducers, and girls who resent their position in life to a degree that makes them turn on those who mean to be kind. Mrs Clennam is cold and vengeful, in the mould of a Miss Havisham, though not perhaps so memorable. But her servants are wonderful creations – the cruel Flintwinch and his downtrodden, bullied wife, who is so badly treated she finds it hard to know what is real and what is a dream.

Book 41 of 90

My favourite character of all, though, is Flora Finching. She was Arthur’s first love, but their parents prevented them from marrying. Now Flora is a widow and is no longer quite the beautiful young girl of whom Arthur once dreamed. But she flirts with him dreadfully, calling up all the silly, romantic things they said and did as young lovers and behaving as if she’s still a young girl, and she’s very, very funny. It could so easily have been a cruel portrayal, especially since she was inspired by Dickens re-meeting his own youthful first love in middle life to discover she had become old, fat and dull, and determined to flirt with him as if they were still lovers. But Flora’s character is actually done with a real degree of warmth – more warmth than Dickens showed to the original, I fear. Dickens hints that Flora is well aware of her own silliness, that it’s an act, and he shows her to be kind and loyal to those she loves, or has once loved. Personally, if I had to choose between them, I’d rather spend my life with frivolous Flora than with droopy Little Dorrit! She speaks in a kind of stream of consciousness that is chock full of good-natured if unintentional humour…

“Oh good gracious me I hope you never kept yourself a bachelor so long on my account!” tittered Flora; “but of course you never did why should you, pray don’t answer, I don’t know where I’m running to, oh do tell me something about the Chinese ladies whether their eyes are really so long and narrow always putting me in mind of mother-of-pearl fish at cards and do they really wear tails down their back and plaited too or is it only the men, and when they pull their hair so very tight off their foreheads don’t they hurt themselves, and why do they stick little bells all over their bridges and temples and hats and things or don’t they really do it?” Flora gave him another of her old glances. Instantly she went on again, as if he had spoken in reply for some time.

“Then it’s all true and they really do! good gracious Arthur!—pray excuse me—old habit—Mr Clennam far more proper—what a country to live in for so long a time, and with so many lanterns and umbrellas too how very dark and wet the climate ought to be and no doubt actually is, and the sums of money that must be made by those two trades where everybody carries them and hangs them everywhere, the little shoes too and the feet screwed back in infancy is quite surprising, what a traveller you are!”

Frivolous Flora and her elderly aunt-in-law

The actual plot is a bit convoluted and the explanation is all done in a rush at the end, so that I had to read it twice before I fully got it, and even then it all seemed unlikely even by Dickens’ standards. But all the other stuff more than makes up for this weakness and, while this won’t challenge Bleak House for the top spot, it’s undoubtedly one of his greats.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Sign of the Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Treasure hunt…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a young lady comes to Sherlock Holmes for advice, what at first seems like an intriguing mystery soon turns into a tale of murderous revenge. Mary Morstan’s father disappeared some years ago, just after he had returned from colonial service. He had been in the Andaman Islands, one of the officers charged with guarding the prisoners held there. A few years after his disappearance, Miss Morstan received a large pearl in the mail, and every year for the six years since then, she has received another. Now she has been contacted by a man who claims to know what happened to her father and says he wishes to right the wrong that has been done to her. He has asked her to come to his house where he will tell her the tale. Holmes is happy to accompany her because he is bored and seeking distraction from the cocaine bottle. Watson is happy to go along because he is falling in love…

The yellow glare from the shop-windows streamed out into the steamy, vaporous air, and threw a murky, shifting radiance across the crowded thoroughfare. There was, to my mind, something eerie and ghost-like in the endless procession of faces which flitted across these narrow bars of light, – sad faces and glad, haggard and merry. Like all human kind, they flitted from the gloom into the light, and so back into the gloom once more. I am not subject to impressions, but the dull, heavy evening, with the strange business upon which we were engaged, combined to make me nervous and depressed.

Thaddeus Sholto tells them an astonishing story of hidden treasure and takes them to visit his brother Bartholomew. But when they reach Bartholomew’s house they find him dead, in a locked room. Holmes will soon solve the mystery and the companions will set off on a thrilling manhunt through London and down the Thames.

Like most of the long stories, this one takes the form of the first half being about Holmes solving the puzzle and tracking the criminal, and then the second half takes the reader back to learn the story behind the crime. In terms of the actual puzzle, this one is rather weak with not much opportunity for the Great Detective to show off his genius for deduction. He does however get to show us his mastery of disguise and his intimate knowledge of London’s murkier areas.

The story has a few other aspects, though, that I enjoy more than the basic mystery. The back story takes us to the time of the Indian Uprising of 1857, to the Agra Fort in Uttar Pradesh where many fled seeking refuge from the fighting. Here we are told a story of fabulous treasure, greed and murder, oaths of loyalty, betrayal and revenge. Back in London, while the solving of the mystery is a little too easy, it leads to a manhunt in the company of the loveable dog Toby with the assistance of the Baker Street Irregulars, a gang of street urchins Holmes sometimes employs to help him find people who don’t want to be found, and the whole thing culminates in a thrilling chase as Holmes and Watson get on the trail of their suspect.

Last but not least, this is the story in which Dr Watson finally loses his heart for real. When I was a child reading these stories for the first time, my admiration was all for Holmes and his brilliant reasoning skills. But over the years my loyalty has shifted, as I came to realise that all the warmth and humanity in the stories comes from Watson. He’s a soppy old buffer who is manly enough to wear his heart on his sleeve and has always been susceptible to the fairer sex. But when he meets Miss Morstan, it’s the work of only a few hours for him to know that she is his soulmate. The course of true love has to go over a few bumps, though, before he can hope for his happy ending and there’s no guarantee he will win her hand in the final outcome.

Miss Morstan and I stood together, and her hand was in mine. A wondrous subtle thing is love, for here were we two who had never seen each other before that day, between whom no word or even look of affection had ever passed, and yet now in an hour of trouble our hands instinctively sought for each other. I have marvelled at it since, but at the time it seemed the most natural thing that I should go out to her so, and, as she has often told me, there was in her also the instinct to turn to me for comfort and protection. So we stood hand in hand, like two children, and there was peace in our hearts for all the dark things that surrounded us.

Anyone who has read my blog will know I’m a devoted fan of Conan Doyle’s story-telling. He is fluent and easy, writing in a relaxed style that tends to hide the skilfulness of his technique. He shifts effortlessly between deadly peril and sweet romance, and the friendship between Holmes and Watson is beautifully done. Watson’s wholehearted admiration and love for his friend are there for all the world to see, but Holmes’ appreciation of Watson seems colder, until something happens – Watson is put in danger, or Holmes inadvertently hurts his sensitive feelings – when we see the mask slip, and are allowed to glimpse the strong affection that exists behind the great man’s unemotional exterior.

Mystery, thrills, romance, friendship and a lovely dog – really, what more could you want? If you haven’t read the Holmes and Watson stories yet, I envy you…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers

Britannia rules the waves?

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Our narrator, Carruthers, finds himself having to stay on at his job in the Foreign Office while all his fashionable friends depart for country house parties, apparently managing to cope with his absence with less difficulty than he’d have liked. Released at last for his annual holiday, he finds himself with nowhere in particular to go, so when an old friend writes inviting him to spend some time on his yacht duck-shooting in the Baltic, he decides to take him up on the offer. He’s expecting a well-appointed leisure yacht complete with crew, so is taken aback to discover that the Dulcibella is tiny, strictly functional and manned only by his friend, Davies. Throwing off his initial grumpiness, Carruthers settles in to learn the art of sailing under Davies’ expert tutelage. But he soon discovers that Davies has an ulterior motive for wanting him there – Davies suspects that there’s some kind of German plot being developed along the Baltic coastline, and wants Carruthers to help him investigate…

The beginning of the book is a lot of fun, filled with self-deprecating humour as Carruthers first realises that his fashionable world can survive quite happily without him and then discovers that, rather than swanning about on a nice, clean deck in his natty sailing outfit, he’s expected to share a tiny cabin with Davies, eat off a paraffin stove, and work for his passage. He’s very likeable – the archetypal patriotic gentlemanly hero beloved of English fiction of that era. (And still beloved by this Scot today, I freely admit.) Davies is a little rougher around the edges, but is also entirely decent and honourable.

When they start to sail, the book doesn’t stint on nautical facts and terminology. My Oxford World’s Classics edition contains a glossary of terms as well as the usual informative introduction and notes, which tell a bit about Childers’ life – an intriguing story on its own account – and the literary and historical background to the book. There are also charts! Sea charts! And charts of the various coastlines. I know some people will find it a little odd, but I can’t resist a chart, map or plan in a book, so to have an abundance of them added immensely to the fun.

A sort of buoyant fatalism possessed me as I finished my notes and pored over the stove. It upheld me, too, when I went on deck and watched the ‘pretty beat’, whose prettiness was mainly due to the crowd of fog-bound shipping — steamers, smacks, and sailing-vessels — now once more on the move in the confined fairway of the fiord, their baleful eyes of red, green, or yellow, opening and shutting, brightening and fading; while shore-lights and anchor-lights added to my bewilderment, and a throbbing of screws filled the air like the distant roar of London streets. In fact, every time we spun round for our dart across the fiord I felt like a rustic matron gathering her skirts for the transit of the Strand on a busy night. Davies, however, was the street arab who zigzags under the horses’ feet unscathed; and all the time he discoursed placidly on the simplicity and safety of night-sailing if only you are careful, obeying rules, and burnt good lights. As we were nearing the hot glow in the sky that denoted Kiel we passed a huge scintillating bulk moored in mid-stream. ‘Warships,’ he murmured, ecstatically.

The story gradually takes on a more serious tone, though, once Davies reveals his suspicions. The book was first published in 1903, and I thought it casts a fascinating light on the attitudes of the British ruling classes to their counterparts in Germany at that point in time. Were we more European then than now? Perhaps. Our public service was populated with the younger sons of the lower aristocracy, all public school* educated and many of them well-travelled in Europe and passably fluent in more than one language. Our Royals across Europe were all related to each other, and I imagine the same was probably true of a lot of the aristocracy. Today Germany is our friend; in my childhood, it was still perceived as our enemy; back at the time of this book, there’s a perception of it as being a kind of family member, a cousin perhaps. Not altogether surprising, given that our Royal Family is German, as was Queen Victoria’s beloved Albert (and hence all their thousands of offspring).

Book 40 of 90

But Germany was growing and becoming more powerful at this time, and while Carruthers and Davies feel goodwill towards it and admire all the Kaiser is doing to advance his country, they also see it as a potential opponent in the future. There’s an odd sporting edge to this – they rather look forward to meeting Germany in war one day, as if it were some form of jousting contest fought for honour and glory. (One can’t help but hope neither of them were in Passchendaele or the Somme twelve or thirteen years later.)

The emphasis of the book is on the growth of Germany as a naval power, and it becomes ever clearer that Childers’ real purpose in writing it was to send a warning to the powers-that-be in Britain that we shouldn’t take our naval supremacy for granted, especially in the North Sea. Unfortunately, as the rather polemical message grows stronger, the entertainment side of it gets somewhat sidelined, and I didn’t enjoy the second half quite as much as the first. Childers goes into far more detail on the potential naval threat and how Germany might use this bit of coastline to launch a future attack on Britain than makes for a good adventure story – at points it feels more like a report to the Foreign Office. And, since his purpose was to warn of a growing threat, it couldn’t have the kind of enemies-destroyed-rip-roaring-success-hurrah-for-good-old-England ending that this type of novel normally goes for.

Erskine Childers and his wife Molly sailing in the Baltic in 1910

However, there is plenty of adventure along the way, danger and derring-do, and a rather understated (and unnecessary) romance element, which the introduction informs me was more or less forced on Childers by his publishers. All-in-all, I thoroughly enjoyed watching Carruthers’ development from fashionable young man-about-town to patriotic amateur spy, and the intriguing look at the British-German relationship of the time more than made up for the shortcomings of the adventure story in the second half. This one undoubtedly deserves it status as a classic of espionage fiction.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

*Public school means posh private school in Britain, just to be confusing.

Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs

The evolution of the rippling bicep…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Lord Greystoke and his young wife Lady Alice are on their way to take up a new colonial appointment in Africa when the crew of the ship they are on mutiny. The mutineers drop their passengers off on a wild coast, far from civilised habitation, but close to the jungle. For a while they survive, long enough for Lady Alice to bear the son she was already carrying. But when disaster strikes, leaving the baby all alone in the world, he is adopted by a tribe of apes and grows up learning their ways, unaware of his own heritage. However, when he discovers the hut his parents built and all their belongings including their books, he realises he is different from the other apes. And then more white people are marooned in the same place by another bunch of mutineers, and he sees the lovely Jane…

Johnny Weissmuller played the role many times…

Basically, this is simply a romping adventure story that is as enjoyable now as when it took the reading public’s imagination by storm back in 1912, when it was first published in the pulp magazine The All-Story. There’s something about the way Burroughs tells stories that makes them great fun despite all the many ways he transgresses modern sensibilities. It’s a sort of innocent charm – I feel sure he’d be amazed and appalled if he thought he’d offended anyone. He so truly believes that white Anglo-Saxons are the pinnacle of evolution and that women will forgive any little character flaws (like cannibalism, for example) so long as a man has rippling biceps and the ability to fight apes single-handed. (Both jolly good attributes in a man, I admit – I wonder if Rafa fights apes…)

Evolution was still a relatively new idea when Burroughs was writing this, and many authors were exploring the subject in different ways. Burroughs’ ideas may seem pretty shocking to us now, but they were fairly mainstream at the time. He shows a kind of pyramid of evolution starting with real apes that we would recognise as such. Then there’s the tribe that adopt Tarzan, who are a kind of link between ape and man, with the beginnings of a verbal language and some basic forms of ritual, such as…

the fierce, mad, intoxicating revel of the Dum-Dum.
….From this primitive function has arisen, unquestionably, all the forms and ceremonials of modern church and state, for through all the countless ages, back beyond the last, uttermost ramparts of a dawning humanity our fierce, hairy forebears danced out the rites of the Dum-Dum to the sound of their earthen drums, beneath the bright light of a tropical moon in the depth of a mighty jungle which stands unchanged today as it stood on that long forgotten night in the dim, unthinkable vistas of the long dead past when our first shaggy ancestor swung from a swaying bough and dropped lightly upon the soft turf of the first meeting place.

Burroughs’ depiction of the ape society is great – he humanises the apes just enough so that we see them as individuals and like or dislike them accordingly, but he ensures that even the “good” ones never stop being wild, brutal beasts. I found them utterly believable as a type of proto-human.

Next on the ladder are the black “savages”, along with Jane’s black maid. Oh dear, this is where you have to keep reminding yourself that it was the times! The maid is the traditional figure of fun – the black mammy who continued to appear in American culture well into the ‘50s, or maybe even later, so poor old Burroughs can’t be condemned too harshly. The savages – well, it’s not so much their savage lifestyle that’s the problem; many writers from Kipling to Conrad via Rider Haggard et al have depicted the indigenous African tribes just as problematically to modern eyes. It’s more the suggestion that they’re actually another link in the evolutionary chain – less intelligent, less resourceful, a lower form of life altogether than the white man.

Book 39 of 90

Tarzan is the zenith of the evolutionary heap. Not only is he a perfect physical specimen of rampant manhood, but he’s so intelligent he actually manages to teach himself to read and write without ever having heard a human speak. But also his prime pedigree as an English aristocrat can’t be hidden for long…

…and so he rose, and taking the locket in his hand, stooped gravely like some courtier of old, and pressed his lips upon it where hers had rested.
….It was a stately and gallant little compliment performed with the grace and dignity of utter unconsciousness of self. It was the hall-mark of his aristocratic birth, the natural outcropping of many generations of fine breeding, an hereditary instinct of graciousness which a lifetime of uncouth and savage training and environment could not eradicate.

Christopher Lambert in the 1984 movie version, Greystoke

It goes without saying that women aren’t quite so evolved, though obviously white women outrank black women. But frankly, girls, when you have Tarzan looking out for you, how evolved do you need to be?

….Jane Porter – her lithe, young form flattened against the trunk of a great tree, her hands tight pressed against her rising and falling bosom, and her eyes wide with mingled horror, fascination, fear, and admiration – watched the primordial ape battle with the primeval man for possession of a woman – for her.
….As the great muscles of the man’s back and shoulders knotted beneath the tension of his efforts, and the huge biceps and forearm held at bay those mighty tusks, the veil of centuries of civilization and culture was swept from the blurred vision of the Baltimore girl.

The racist and sexist aspects are so overblown and unintentional that personally I found them hilarious rather than offensive. And while many aspects of the story are a bit ridiculous if you stop to analyse them too deeply, it’s so full of thrills, excitement, high love and general drama that it swept me along on a tsunami-sized wave of fun. Highly recommended!

* * * * *

(I reckon Rafa should play Tarzan in the next film. I shall of course be auditioning for Jane…)

….He did what no red-blooded man needs lessons in doing. He took his woman in his arms and smothered her upturned, panting lips with kisses.
….For a moment FictionFan Jane Porter lay there with half-closed eyes. For a moment – the first in her young life – she knew the meaning of love.

Ooh, I say!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

Obsession and ambiguity…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Orphaned as a child, Philip Ashley has been brought up by his cousin Ambrose and expects one day to be heir to his estate in Cornwall. For Ambrose, although by no means elderly, is a settled bachelor, and both he and Philip enjoy their entirely masculine household and way of life. But while Ambrose is making one of his regular trips to Italy for his health, Philip is stunned to receive a letter from him, saying that Ambrose has fallen in love and married the woman that Philip will come to think of as “my cousin Rachel”. Ambrose’s happiness is to be short-lived though. Soon he will die without ever returning home, of a brain tumour according to the official version, but Ambrose has given Philip a different story in his increasingly worrying letters home. Philip is ready to blame Rachel morally, at least, and perhaps legally for his death. And then Rachel visits Philip in Cornwall and he finds himself falling in love. But is Rachel the fascinating and charming woman he sees, or the cold, manipulative money-grabber, and perhaps worse, of Ambrose’s letters…?

I listened to this as an audiobook, competently but not thrillingly narrated by Jonathan Pryce, and I suspect that may have affected my view of it. The story starts and ends brilliantly, but the mid-section, where Philip falls in love with Rachel, seems to go on for ever with nothing actually happening. I tired utterly of Philip’s first person descriptions of Rachel’s perfections and had to fight an urgent desire to tell him to grow up and get a life. If it weren’t for the fact that it was du Maurier and I felt I should have loved it, I would undoubtedly have given up. I certainly wish I’d read the book instead in this instance – I suspect it would still have bored me if I’d been reading but it’s easier to skim the dull repetitive stuff in the written form.

Where du Maurier does excel is in the ambiguity of the characterisation. The basic question of whether Rachel is good or bad is further muddied by us seeing her only through Philip’s eyes and Ambrose’s letters, and it’s not clear how much either of them can be relied on. Certainly neither is objective about Rachel – they see her through the eyes of lust and love. Also, their long years of living without women in their lives mean that neither of them make good judges, especially Philip, who has grown up without mother, sisters or even a nurse or governess. To him, women are as unfamiliar as Martians. There’s also the fact that Ambrose’s illness seems to have been inherited from his father, so may it have been inherited also by Philip? Ambrose’s father had periods where he was delusional and even violent – has this been passed down? There’s undoubtedly an edge of irrationality in some of Philip’s actions, despite us seeing them through his own eyes.

Rachel is the centre of the book, of course, and du Maurier does a brilliant job of having the reader sway in her favour and against her again and again. She has had an unconventional upbringing by a mother who seems to have been morally lax, so it isn’t surprising that she occasionally steps outside the bounds of what is considered acceptable. The time in which the book is set isn’t specified, but it feels to me like early Victorian in terms of clothes, travelling, lifestyle and attitudes. Is she really a hustler out for what she can get? Or is she a victim of Ambrose’s failure to make adequate provision for her? Is she a woman who uses sexual temptation to manipulate men? Or is she a free-thinker – a woman unwilling to limit herself by the unequal moral codes enforced on her by a patriarchal society, which gives women no rights and no financial liberty? Is she villain or victim?

Daphne du Maurier

I wondered how du Maurier would end it – no, of course I’m not going to tell you! But when it came, I felt the ending was perfect. Any other possible ending I could think of wouldn’t have had the same impact – it wouldn’t have left the story and the characters lingering in my mind as they have done.

So if it wasn’t for that tedious over-stretched mid-section, I’d have loved this. The audiobook comes with an introduction from Roger Michell who directed the recent film of the book (which I haven’t seen), and he comments that Philip and Ambrose were not alone in their obsession with Rachel – that du Maurier too had fallen in love with her. This strikes me as very perceptive – it reads as if du Maurier couldn’t stop talking about her, like a teenage girl in the throes of infatuation. Fun for the teenager, not so much for the adults who have to listen to her ecstasies! She redeemed herself in the end though, so overall I’m glad to have read it and would recommend it (and also recommend you brush up on your skim-reading skills before beginning… 😉 )

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke

Under the Overlords…

🙂 🙂 🙂

The human race has taken its first tentative steps into space and is dreaming of visiting other planets, when its plans are changed forever by the arrival of alien spaceships. The aliens seem benign, although they quickly put an end to human space travel. They also end war and animal cruelty, and usher in a utopian period where no-one goes hungry and no-one has to work if they don’t want to. Known only as the Overlords, they don’t allow the humans to see them, communicating only by voice. It seems that they allow humans to organise their own affairs, but their influence over the United Nations (gradually becoming a world government) certainly steers things in the direction they want Earth to go. All the good results of their background rule mean that humanity is happy to go along, for the most part.

But some people are aware that, without the struggle for survival and advancement, creativity is being destroyed and science is becoming moribund. So they set up a small colony, with the willing consent of the Overlords, where they hope to allow music, art and science to flourish. Still, however, no-one knows what the Overlords’ ultimate plan is – all they know is that they have promised to reveal themselves to humanity in fifty years…

Book 38 of 90

This is a book I wanted to love, but found didn’t live up to my expectations. Unfortunately most of the things that disappointed me a little will take me close to spoiler territory, so forgive any vagueness caused by my attempt to avoid that. The first and major thing is that I didn’t believe for a moment that humanity would happily submit en masse to a race of aliens who told us what to do, however apparently benign their intentions. We don’t even submit to our democratically elected governments half the time! When I said that the unelected UN was turning into a world government, did you think “oh, that’s a good idea”? No, nor me. There are a few people who are against the alien rule, but they’re shown as fringe fanatics and pretty insignificant. So the fundamental premise of the book left me floundering around looking for my lost credulity before it even really got underway.

The second thing is that the hidden appearance of the aliens is made much of, and when the big reveal finally happened, it made me laugh. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t supposed to! It was clearly intended to be all metaphysical and philosophical and stuff like that, but it just struck me as kinda silly, especially when Clarke attempted to explain the relevance. I understand from my friend Wikipedia that the idea originated in an earlier short story of Clarke’s, but that, although he changed all the meaning for the book, he left in all references to a different meaning from the short story. This probably explains why I found it messy and unconvincing. Plus it was signalled so far in advance that the only surprise was that it didn’t come as a surprise.

The third thing may not be Clarke’s fault – the basic storyline felt as if I’d read and watched it a million times or so before. Still avoiding spoilers as much as possible, it’s the old theme of what will the end result of evolution be, and Wells was asking that question fifty years earlier. Clarke’s answer is different to Wells’ but similar to many others since then. Now maybe Clarke was the first – the book was published in 1953 – in which case I apologise to him. But it meant I wasn’t excited by it – I found it pretty predictable and it therefore felt as if it took an awful long time getting there.

On the upside, it’s well written and the ending is left ambiguous, which makes it thought-provoking. With all of these how-will-humanity-end-up stories, the question has to be if it’s a future we would seek, or seek to avoid. Often authors tell us – the future is either utopian or dystopian; it’s decided for us in advance. Here that question is open, allowing the reader to use her own imagination to, effectively, write the sequel. I feel many sci-fi shows, films and books may have been trying to write that sequel for years, consciously or subconsciously. And, indeed, it’s a theme Clarke returned to himself in the later 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was after reading Childhood’s End that Stanley Kubrick invited Clarke to collaborate with him on the project that would eventually result in the book and film of Space Odyssey, and together they created a much better and more internally coherent story, in my opinion, while retaining that ambiguity which lifts this one above the average, despite my criticisms of it.

Arthur C Clarke

Overall, then, it didn’t wow me as much as I’d hoped, but I’m still glad to have read it, partly because it’s considered a classic in its own right, and partly because I was intrigued to read the book that inspired Kubrick. The fact that Kubrick, who at that time was reading science fiction voraciously looking for inspiration, found the ideas original suggests to me that a major part of my disappointment comes from reading the book too late, after years of reading and watching other people creating variations on the theme.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Truth is in the eye of the beholder…

😀 😀 😀 😀

In November 1959, two men drove into the small Kansas farming community of Holcomb, broke into the Clutter family’s home and brutally murdered the four occupants, Herb and Bonnie Clutter and their two teenage children, Nancy and Kenyon. Before the murderers were caught, Truman Capote decided to write about the crime, so went to Holcomb to interview friends and neighbours of the victims, residents of the town, and the men investigating the case. It wasn’t long before the perpetrators were identified and captured, so Capote continued his project by writing about the trial and its aftermath – the imprisonment and execution of the murderers, Perry Smith and Richard “Dick” Hickock. This book, first published in 1966, is the result.

Capote approaches the subject from three angles, the victims, the townspeople and the murderers, with the narrative rotating among them. The Clutters, as portrayed here, were fine people, upstanding members of their community and their church, good neighbours and well respected. The children, especially Nancy, seem almost too good to be true, and I couldn’t help but wonder how much the old adage of never speaking ill of the dead had influenced the picture Capote paints. So even at this early stage of the book, I had begun to wonder how much reliance could be placed on Capote’s account of the people involved.

This feeling grew as the book progressed and Capote recounted as if they were facts things that he could only have learned from his interviews. While this may be fair enough with regards to the innocent people involved (though even then, oral testimony, especially when given not under oath, is notoriously unreliable), taking the words of Hickock and Smith at their own evaluation and drawing inferences as to their characters from this shaky evidence left me in a kind of limbo as to whether the book should be considered “true crime” or a fictionalised novel. I believe it gets categorised as a “non-fiction novel” – a description that seems deeply contradictory and problematic to me, designed to allow inaccuracies to pass unchallenged.

Book 37 of 90

To be clear, I found it extremely readable and, viewing it as fiction, the characterisation of the murderers is wholly credible. Capote seeks to understand them by going back through their early experiences for clues as to why they turned out as they did. Smith in particular had a terrible childhood, with an alcoholic mother who pretty much abandoned him and a father who was at best an intermittent presence and a disruptive one at that. Hickock is more difficult to pigeon-hole – his family seemed both respectable and caring. Capote ventures into psychiatry for answers, using the reports that were drawn up for the men by their defence team. He gives a relatively nuanced picture, neither seeking to whitewash them nor to wholly condemn.

His portrayal of the impact of this horrific crime on the small community is equally convincing. In a place where people didn’t feel the need to lock their doors at night, the intrusion of this horror seemed incredible, and Capote shows how for the first time neighbour began to suspect and fear neighbour. The arrest and conviction of the murderers couldn’t wholly put the genie back in the bottle, as Capote describes it – the townspeople’s feelings of security would never be the same.

An interesting omission is the perspective of the Clutters’ two older daughters, neither of whom lived at home. While Capote gives us some facts about them, we don’t get to know them at all nor to learn how they fared in the future. I could only assume that they refused to be interviewed for the book.

Some of the later scenes felt too contrived to be true, and I later learned on looking at wikipedia that some of the people involved had indeed denied their truth. For example, the scene where the wife of Perry’s jailer holds his hand while he sobs after being sentenced to death felt like something written for a Cagney film (or perhaps copied from one). And the super convenient final scene, played out between the chief investigator and one of the friends of young Nancy, now all grown up, provides a heartwarming conclusion of the restoration of order and the rebirth of all that is good and hopeful in life, and I didn’t believe a single word of it. According to wikipedia, the investigator later denied that it ever happened.

Truman Capote

So I have very mixed feelings about the book overall. It’s not got the essential truth to be true crime, and yet it’s presented too factually to really be considered a novel. And yet, it is beautifully written and intensely readable, and while it may not have factual truth, it feels as if, with regards to the personalities of the murderers, it may have achieved some kind of emotional truth – certainly emotional credibility, at any rate. I quite understand why it has a reputation as a classic of the genre – I’m just not sure what genre it’s a classic of. Perhaps it should be viewed as a one-off, uncategorisable. And as such, I’m happy to recommend it.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Dickens at Christmas! The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain

Lord! Keep my Memory Green!

There has been a distinct lack of festive spirit in the Dickens’ Christmas books so far, and only a couple left to go. So fingers crossed for this week’s…

* * * * *

The Haunted Man and The Ghost’s Bargain
by Charles Dickens

Title Page
by John Tenniel

Everybody said he looked like a haunted man. The extent of my present claim for everybody is, that they were so far right. He did.

This is our protagonist – Mr Redlaw, a chemist and academic, who teaches in a great college. He dwells on sorrows from his past and has allowed these memories to stop him from finding enjoyment and pleasure in life, though he’s a good man, generous to those around him. He is haunted, however, by a mysterious spectre that appears to him when he is alone and brooding…

Ghastly and cold, colourless in its leaden face and hands, but with his features, and his bright eyes, and his grizzled hair, and dressed in the gloomy shadow of his dress, it came into his terrible appearance of existence, motionless, without a sound. As he leaned his arm upon the elbow of his chair, ruminating before the fire, it leaned upon the chair-back, close above him, with its appalling copy of his face looking where his face looked, and bearing the expression his face bore.

Mr Redlaw and the Phantom
by John Leech

On this particular evening, just before Christmas, as Mr Redlaw remembers his youthful hopes and how they were dashed by the betrayal of a friend and the death of his beloved sister, the ghost tempts him…

….“If I could forget my sorrow and wrong, I would,” the Ghost repeated. “If I could forget my sorrow and my wrong, I would!”
….“Evil spirit of myself,” returned the haunted man, in a low, trembling tone, “my life is darkened by that incessant whisper.”
….“It is an echo,” said the Phantom.
….“If it be an echo of my thoughts—as now, indeed, I know it is,” rejoined the haunted man, “why should I, therefore, be tormented? It is not a selfish thought. I suffer it to range beyond myself. All men and women have their sorrows, – most of them their wrongs; ingratitude, and sordid jealousy, and interest, besetting all degrees of life. Who would not forget their sorrows and their wrongs?”

Frontispiece
by John Tenniel

And the Phantom grants his wish. The memories of all events from his past which have painful associations are stripped from his mind. But the ghost goes further…

“The gift that I have given, you shall give again, go where you will. Without recovering yourself the power that you have yielded up, you shall henceforth destroy its like in all whom you approach. Your wisdom has discovered that the memory of sorrow, wrong, and trouble is the lot of all mankind, and that mankind would be the happier, in its other memories, without it. Go! Be its benefactor! Freed from such remembrance, from this hour, carry involuntarily the blessing of such freedom with you.”

* * * * *

Mr Swidger and Milly
by Frank Stone

Well, this is much more like the thing! It starts with Mr Swidger, the old caretaker of the college, and his family hanging holly as they do every year at Christmas-time, and culminates with a grand feast on Christmas Day. It has a strong message most suitable for the Christmas season: that it is our sorrows in life which humanise us and make us able to empathise with the troubles of others. And it has an equally powerful social message – that children abandoned to a life of poverty without love or hope cannot grow up to be anything other than monstrous. The child in this is a fuller version of Ignorance in A Christmas Carol – a thing to be prevented, or feared.


The Tetterbys
by John Leech

We see the Swidgers as they are affected by the ghost’s bargain. As their memories of their shared hardships and sorrows fade, so do the bonds that hold them together, and these warm, loving people become hard and cruel. We see the Tetterbys, a family with many children and little money to feed them but with love a-plenty, turned resentful and bitter as their memories melt away of the things they have endured and overcome together. And we see Mr Redlaw learn that the only people not susceptible to the ghostly curse are those who have never known the softer emotions, for they are cursed already…

“This,” said the Phantom, pointing to the boy, “is the last, completest illustration of a human creature, utterly bereft of such remembrances as you have yielded up. No softening memory of sorrow, wrong, or trouble enters here, because this wretched mortal from his birth has been abandoned to a worse condition than the beasts, and has, within his knowledge, no one contrast, no humanising touch, to make a grain of such a memory spring up in his hardened breast. All within this desolate creature is barren wilderness. All within the man bereft of what you have resigned, is the same barren wilderness. Woe to such a man! Woe, tenfold, to the nation that shall count its monsters such as this, lying here, by hundreds and by thousands!”

Mr Redlaw and the Boy
by John Leech

And, lesson learned, we see the ghost take back his bargain, harmony and love restored, Mr Redlaw wiser, and more than one loving hand reached out to raise the child up from his hopelessness. Exactly what a Christmas story should be!

Then, as Christmas is a time in which, of all times in the year, the memory of every remediable sorrow, wrong, and trouble in the world around us, should be active with us, not less than our own experiences, for all good, he laid his hand upon the boy, and, silently calling Him to witness who laid His hand on children in old time, rebuking, in the majesty of His prophetic knowledge, those who kept them from Him, vowed to protect him, teach him, and reclaim him.

Dinner in the Great Hall
by Clarkson Stanfield

* * * * *

Festive Joy Rating:     🎅 🎅 🎅 🎅

Overall Story Rating:  😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Dickens at Christmas! The Battle of Life

How they did dance!

It’s been a roller-coaster ride so far with Dickens’ Christmas books – The Chimes, while good, was thoroughly depressing, and The Cricket on the Hearth, while delightfully uplifting, forgot to mention Christmas! So what’s in store for us, I wonder, in this week’s…

* * * * *

The Battle of Life
by Charles Dickens

Once upon a time, it matters little when, and in stalwart England, it matters little where, a fierce battle was fought. It was fought upon a long summer day when the waving grass was green. Many a wild flower formed by the Almighty Hand to be a perfumed goblet for the dew, felt its enamelled cup filled high with blood that day, and shrinking dropped. Many an insect deriving its delicate colour from harmless leaves and herbs, was stained anew that day by dying men, and marked its frightened way with an unnatural track.

Well, that’s a jolly start! Still, good to get the depressing bit out of the way early!

The Battle
by Richard Doyle

On the site of this ancient battle now stand pretty villages and prosperous farms, and over the centuries the old horrors have mostly been forgotten. Our story concerns two sisters, Grace and Marion, and when we first meet them, they are in their father’s orchard, dancing for the sheer joy of life and the entertainment of the apple-pickers…

They were very glad to please them, but they danced to please themselves (or at least you would have supposed so); and you could no more help admiring, than they could help dancing. How they did dance!

Frontispiece
by Daniel Maclise

This is Marion’s birthday and coincidentally also the birthday of Alfred, who has been the ward of their father but who today comes of age. He is to go off to study for three years, but it is understood by all that on his return, he and Marion will marry. But Grace, to whose care he entrusts Marion, is not to be forgotten…

“…when I come back and reclaim you, dearest, and the bright prospect of our married life lies stretched before us, it shall be one of our chief pleasures to consult how we can make Grace happy; how we can anticipate her wishes; how we can show our gratitude and love to her; how we can return her something of the debt she will have heaped upon us.”

But the course of true love never does run smooth – fortunately for us, since stories would be incredibly boring if it did. When Alfred returns three years later, it is to find the house in uproar and poor Grace having fainted away…

….‘What is it!’ cried Alfred, grasping his hair with his hands, and looking in an agony from face to face, as he bent upon his knee beside the insensible girl. ‘Will no one look at me? Will no one speak to me? Does no one know me? Is there no voice among you all, to tell me what it is!’
….There was a murmur among them. ‘She is gone.’
….‘Gone!’ he echoed.


Gone!
by Richard Doyle

* * * * *

I enjoyed several things about this, but it is a rather strange tale, not at all festive, and the central story left me totally unconvinced. The two sisters are the sort of drooping, too perfect girls in which Dickens specialises, and Alfred is the male equivalent. The mystery is, why has Marion gone? Has she run off with another man? Or is there some deeply moral and self-sacrificing reason behind her strange actions? Go on, guess!

Fortunately, there are several characters who are much more fun. Clemency Newcome, the maid, and her strange courtship by/of her husband-to-be provide most of the humour and the warmth that the central story lacks. The girls’ father, Doctor Jeddler, believes all human life is farce, though the events of the story will make him a wiser man (but less happy, which seems a pity). There are a couple of lawyers, Snitchey and Craggs, who are a good double-act and allow Dickens to make some pointed remarks about one of his favourite subjects, the law. Their wives, while only having small parts to play, add considerably to the entertainment value of the whole thing by their rivalry with each other. And the mysterious man who may or may not have seduced our sweet little Marion away from her loving family has enough moral ambiguity to make him a significantly more attractive hero than the good but insipid Alfred.

The Secret Interview
by Daniel Maclise

Why is it called The Battle of Life? Why all the battlefield and buried corpse references, some of which are quite revolting…?

On this ground where we now sit, where I saw my two girls dance this morning, where the fruit has just been gathered for our eating from these trees, the roots of which are struck in Men, not earth…

No idea! Possibly just so Dickens could make a point about war being a Bad Thing.

Yet not a hundred people in that battle knew for what they fought, or why; not a hundred of the inconsiderate rejoicers in the victory, why they rejoiced. Not half a hundred people were the better for the gain or loss. Not half-a-dozen men agree to this hour on the cause or merits; and nobody, in short, ever knew anything distinct about it, but the mourners of the slain.

But I really couldn’t see the relevance of this to the actual story. Oh well, not to worry – I enjoyed it anyway, and of course it has a happy ending! But I am hoping next week’s might have something to do with Christmas…

The Sisters
by Daniel Maclise

Festive Joy Rating:      🎅 🎅

Overall Story Rating:  😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Dickens at Christmas! The Cricket on the Hearth

But where’s Christmas??

After last week’s surprisingly dark and unfestive The Chimes, I didn’t know what to expect from the next of Dickens’ Christmas books. But I was hoping for something a bit more cheerful for this week’s…

* * * * *

The Cricket on the Hearth
by Charles Dickens

The kettle began it! Don’t tell me what Mrs. Peerybingle said. I know better. Mrs. Peerybingle may leave it on record to the end of time that she couldn’t say which of them began it; but I say the kettle did. I ought to know, I hope? The kettle began it, full five minutes by the little waxy-faced Dutch clock in the corner, before the Cricket uttered a chirp.

Title page
by Daniel Maclise

We meet little Mrs. Peerybingle, Dot as she is known affectionately to her husband John, as she waits for said husband to return home from his work as a carrier. Dot is a young thing, very young indeed, and John is well into middle-age, but despite this disparity they seem an idyllically happy couple, especially now they have their own little Baby to make their lives complete. It is a scene of saccharin-sweet domestic bliss…

It was pleasant to see Dot, with her little figure and her baby in her arms: a very doll of a baby: glancing with a coquettish thoughtfulness at the fire, and inclining her delicate little head just enough on one side to let it rest in an odd, half-natural, half-affected, wholly nestling and agreeable manner, on the great rugged figure of the Carrier. It was pleasant to see him, with his tender awkwardness, endeavouring to adapt his rude support to her slight need, and make his burly middle age a leaning-staff not inappropriate to her blooming youth.

Domestic Bliss
by John Leech

The little house is blessed by having a resident Cricket which lives on the hearth and chirps merrily when all is well.

“The first time I heard its cheerful little note, John, was on that night when you brought me home—when you brought me to my new home here; its little mistress. Nearly a year ago. You recollect, John?”

Oh, yes! John remembered. I should think so!

“Its chirp was such a welcome to me! It seemed so full of promise and encouragement. It seemed to say, you would be kind and gentle with me, and would not expect (I had a fear of that, John, then) to find an old head on the shoulders of your foolish little wife.”

Caleb and Blind Bertha
by John Leech

But this contented little household is about to be shaken to its core. A stranger arrives who seems to disturb Dot’s usually cheerful state of mind.

It was a loud cry from the Carrier’s wife: a loud, sharp, sudden cry, that made the room ring like a glass vessel. She had risen from her seat, and stood like one transfixed by terror and surprise. The Stranger had advanced towards the fire to warm himself, and stood within a short stride of her chair. But quite still.

The stranger’s arrival disrupts the happy home and the lives not only of John and Dot but of several of their friends and neighbours. Will the Household Spirit in the form of the Cricket on the Hearth be able to restore harmony and joy to all?

* * * * *

First off, Christmas doesn’t feature at all in this one! Instead the day of celebration we’re heading towards is the first anniversary of the wedding of John and Dot, and the story focuses on marriages between older men and young girls. John loves Dot with all his heart and has done ever since she was a child. (I know, creepy, but it seems to have been relatively normal back in those times – look at Knightley and Emma.) The question that John belatedly is forced to consider is, can little Dot possibly love him in the same way, or has he been unintentionally cruel in persuading her to devote her youth to him? It has never before occurred to him that her heart may have prompted her towards a man nearer her own age. The stranger is the catalyst for this dark night of the soul for poor, kind, honest John, but to take the point further and show another side to it, Dickens includes another couple about to be wed where the age difference is even greater and the bride is being more or less forced into the marriage by her mother because the bridegroom is wealthy.

Boxer
by Edwin Landseer
(Rubbish illustration, Landseer! Boxer is a sweetie-pie,
not a reincarnation of the Hound of the Baskervilles!)

The story takes an age to start. It’s about three pages before that kettle mentioned in the first paragraph finally comes to the boil, and then we have to fight through pages of sugar-sweet descriptions of the happy little home before things take off. But once it gets going, it has all Dickens usual mix of humour and pathos, and some typically quirky and enjoyable Dickensian characters. John is lovely, and Dot grew on me after a shaky start. Mr Tackleton is the villain of the piece – the older man who is about to marry a young girl he knows doesn’t care for him in the least, he’s also the mean and nasty employer of the other two main characters, dear old Caleb the toymaker and his blind daughter Bertha. Plus there’s a lovely dog called Boxer who’s a great character in his own right, adding much fun to the proceedings!

He had business elsewhere; going down all the turnings, looking into all the wells, bolting in and out of all the cottages, dashing into the midst of all the Dame Schools, fluttering all the pigeons, magnifying the tails of all the cats, and trotting into the public-houses like a regular customer. Wherever he went, somebody or other might have been heard to cry, “Halloa! here’s Boxer!”

It’s novella length, with plenty of room for jealousy, self-doubt, sorrow, generosity of spirit, joy and, of course, redemption. I enjoyed it very much and was left feeling pleasantly uplifted. So despite it not mentioning Christmas, I reckon it still counts as appropriately seasonal, being full of goodwill and joy to all men (and women) (and dogs).

Happy ending
by John Leech

Festive Joy Rating:      🎅 🎅 🎅 🎅

Overall Story Rating:  😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

 

The Turn of the Screw and Other Stories by Henry James

Mostly about the Other Stories…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This collection is made up of four stories – the novella length title story and three shorter ones. The Turn of the Screw is, of course, a classic of the horror genre, and since I’ve already had my say about it in a Tuesday Terror! post, here’s a brief summary of the others…

Sir Edmund Orme – Our narrator becomes fascinated by a mother and daughter, Mrs Marden and Charlotte, because of what he feels is their peculiarly strong concern for each other. Then, as he finds himself falling in love with Charlotte, the narrator begins to see a strange man, who never speaks, and his appearances seem to coincide with Mrs Marden’s “episodes”. Eventually, she takes him into her confidence and tells him the story of her one-time lover, Sir Edmund Orme.

Despite having a ghost in it, the story really isn’t scary or spooky. It’s strange, however, and a little unsettling, mainly because the narrator comes over as something of a predator who coldly uses Mrs Marden’s fear and Charlotte’s love for her mother to achieve his own ends. It’s superficially entertaining, but left me feeling rather as if I’d been made an accessory to something rather cruel.

Owen Wingrave – the title character is a young man from a military family who is being crammed for the entrance exam to get into Sandhurst, the army’s elite officer training college. However, Owen has different views – he despises war, and believes that politicians who lead their nations into war should be hanged, drawn and quartered. When he drops out of training, his family and friends put pressure on him to think again, and when the girl he loves implies that he is a coward, to prove her wrong he agrees to spend a night in the haunted room of his family castle…

The ghostly factor of this one is well-nigh non-existent, but it’s a good story for all that. It’s a rather poignant look at how military tradition forces young men to seek glory rather than choosing a more peaceful path in life.

The Friends of the Friends – another I’ve written about previously in a Tuesday Terror! post. This tells the story of two people, a man and a woman, who share the distinction of each having seen a ghost. This coincidence makes their mutual friends want to bring them together, but circumstances always seem to prevent them meeting. Eventually it seems they will meet, but it isn’t to be – one of them dies before the meeting takes place. The other one, however, as we know, can see ghosts…

Again unsettling rather than scary, this starts out quite jollily with a lot of jibes about society and so on, but gradually darkens into a story about jealousy taken perhaps to the point of madness.

* * * * *

While for the most part I found the writing good and certainly effective at conjuring up an atmosphere, I several times came across sentences so badly constructed that they required me to go back and read them again to catch the meaning, and sometimes they were still obscure after that. Perhaps sometimes James was doing this for effect, to add to the vagueness and ambiguity. But truthfully, I mostly felt it was simply clumsy, lazy writing that he hadn’t bothered to revise properly before publication, and as a result I’ve entirely lost the desire to read any of his novels.

Aside from that criticism, each of the four stories is well-structured, and the sense of vagueness that surrounds the narrative intention has the effect of leaving them open to interpretation. I found this tended to make them linger in my mind for longer than most spooky stories, as I mulled over what was beneath the surface. And generally speaking, I concluded that what was there was rather unpleasant – hints of child sexual abuse in The Turn of the Screw, a controlling lover in Sir Edmund Orme, family pressure taken to extremes in Owen Wingrave and extreme jealousy in The Friends of the Friends. Horror stories always tend to be based on unpleasant things, of course, but here it somehow left me feeling more uncomfortable than usual and I’m not sure I know why. Perhaps because the horror aspects are mostly low-key and so the underlying story stands out more than usual, or perhaps because James uses ambiguity to force the reader to, in a sense, fill in the blanks, making it feel as if the unpleasantness comes from inside her own mind. Whatever the reason, it meant that though I quite enjoyed them while reading I found they left a slightly nasty aftertaste – especially The Turn of the Screw. I wonder if that was James’ intention? I suspect it may have been.

Henry James

You can probably tell that I feel quite ambivalent about this collection. I rated each of the three shorter stories as four stars and The Turn of the Screw as five, but that’s mostly due to my appreciation of their impact rather than an indication of my enjoyment.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link