The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett

Broadening the mind…

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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.

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

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Bath Tangle by Georgette Heyer

Regency chicken soup…

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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.

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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!

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The Fair Maid of Perth by Sir Walter Scott

St Valentine’s Day villainy…

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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.

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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!

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Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

Shades of the prison-house…

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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.

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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.

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The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers

Britannia rules the waves?

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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).

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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.

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*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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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No Name by William Wilkie Collins

Money, money, money…

😦 😦

When Magdalen and Norah Vanstone are left orphaned by the sudden and unexpected deaths of their parents, they are further shocked to discover that their parents had not been married when the girls were born. Not only does this make the sisters illegitimate – a shameful thing in itself – but due to a quirk of the law it also prevents them from inheriting their father’s wealth. The money goes to their father’s estranged brother, Michael Vanstone, who resolutely refuses to help them. Norah accepts this but the fiery Magdalen cannot. She decides she will regain their lost inheritance, whatever the cost…

It’s many years since I read Collins’ two most famous books, The Moonstone and The Woman in White, neither of which became a favourite. I thought perhaps the passing of time would have made me able to appreciate him more, especially since so many people hold him in such high regard. I’m afraid I found this book tedious, filled with unlikeable characters about whom I cared not a jot.

As always, I came away with the impression that Collins was trying to ‘do a Dickens’ and was failing pretty dramatically. He suggests the book is going to address a social injustice, as Dickens does so well, but in reality his treatment of the stigma of illegitimacy is superficial. He attempts to create characters with that kind of caricaturing Dickens does so well, but they come off like pale imitations. We have the swindler, Captain Wragge, who helps Magdalen with her revenge scheme. He’s given little quirks like recording all his swindles as carefully as if they were legitimate business deals, or having certain mannerisms in the way he talks. But he doesn’t have either the humour of Dickens’ minor characters nor the truly sinister feeling of Dickens’ villains. His wife is a simple-minded giantess, whom he treats despicably. In a Dickens story, she would either be tragic or comic. Here, she’s merely a plot vehicle – pitiable but irritating when she’s on the page, and forgotten when she’s not required.

Millais frontispiece to 1864 Sampson Low edition

Admittedly Magdalen is a more rounded character than some of Dickens’ many insipid young girls. Unfortunately, she’s such an unpleasant little money-grubber I found it impossible to get up any liking or concern for her. Yes, it must be sad not to be rich if you thought you would be, but frankly she’s hardly poor either in comparison to the true poverty of so many at that time. Norah is considerably more likeable – she decides to earn her living and gets on with it. She and Miss Garth, the girls’ old governess, were the only two characters I cared about at all, and unfortunately Collins dumps them a third of the way through and from then on we only hear little snippets about how they’re getting on, while we spend far too much time with whining Magdalen, the Wragges and the Vanstone household. The problem for me was that the villains were no more despicable than the ostensible heroine of the novel.

William Wilkie Collins
Portrait by Rudolph Lehmann

But OK, so he’s no Dickens, and his characters’ sole obsession is with acquiring and hoarding money. I could probably still have squeezed some enjoyment out of that if only it hadn’t been so unnecessarily long! I hear you, Collins’ fans – no, it’s not as long as some of Dickens’ books, but Dickens would have had a cast of thousands, each described to unique perfection, with a dozen sub-plots all being juggled masterfully. Here we have one dull plot – “Give me back my money!” – and a handful of unattractive characters, and it’s dragged out for over 700 tortuous pages! Do we all know how it will end? I think we have a fair idea! It’s a Victorian novel after all and there are conventions. So the journey matters since the end is barely in doubt. And this journey is like being on a train for twenty hours with the blinds drawn, and nothing good to read…

Oh dear! I was going to try to make this sound more balanced but sometimes reviews take on their own momentum. There is an interesting introduction in my Oxford World’s Classic edition, by Virginia Blain, Associate Professor in English at Macquarie University in Sydney. Unsurprisingly, she’s considerably more enthusiastic about the book than I, and I enjoyed reading (and disagreeing with) her opinion!

I’m sure fans of Collins’ style will enjoy the book. But for those of us who prefer the flamboyance and genius of a Dickens, then I fear this will taste as thin and unappetising as a plate of Scrooge’s gruel…

Book 36 of 90

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

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Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

A rose by any other name…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When John Durbeyfield is told by a local antiquarian that he is the last of the ancient family of D’Urberville, sadly decayed, Durbeyfield immediately puts on airs, much to the amusement of his fellow villagers. For John is balanced precariously on the line that divides subsistence from poverty and his all too frequent drunkenness ensures he will soon fall. But it is his daughter Tess who makes the mistake that will finally edge the family into destitution, so, from a sense of guilt, she reluctantly agrees to her mother’s suggestion that she should visit the D’Urbervilles, a rich family in a neighbouring town, and claim kinship. There she will meet the son of the family, Alec D’Urberville, and make another mistake that will affect the rest of her life…

On original publication, the book was subtitled A Pure Woman, signalling Hardy’s defence of his heroine against a society that judged the morality of a woman by her chastity. Did Tess succumb willingly to the seductive Alec, or was she raped? The question is left unanswered in the book, perhaps because society wouldn’t have differentiated – an unmarried girl who was no longer virginal had lost her worth, however it happened. Had Tess been less pure of nature, she may have been able to conceal her transgression and create a second chance for herself with the besotted Angel Clare, and we see her struggle with the temptation to do this. This reader willed her to do it, her mother advised her to do it, but Tess, pure to the point of idiocy, believed in a world of fairness, where men and women would be judged by the same standards – if she could forgive, surely she could be forgiven? Poor Tess!

….He conducted her about the lawns, and flower-beds, and conservatories; and thence to the fruit-garden and greenhouses, where he asked her if she liked strawberries.
….“Yes,” said Tess, “when they come.”
….“They are already here.” D’Urberville began gathering specimens of the fruit for her, handing them back to her as he stooped; and, presently, selecting a specially fine product of the “British Queen” variety, he stood up and held it by the stem to her mouth.
….“No – no!” she said quickly, putting her fingers between his hand and her lips. “I would rather take it in my own hand.”
….“Nonsense!” he insisted; and in a slight distress she parted her lips and took it in.

Written in 1891, the sexual theme of the book and the moral questions it poses seem daring for the time, and result in a rather odd combination of a feminist demand for women to be judged equally to their male counterparts, with a heroine described in such sexualised terms that it’s hard to see her as anything other than the embodiment of sex itself. Hardy condemns men for seeing women purely as sexual beings, while seeming to do the same himself. Tess’s lips, eyes, arms, figure, skin are all lusciously described, again and again, so that we are never allowed to think for one moment that any of the men she encounters are attracted to her mind. And yet Hardy shows he is aware of the effect on women of being viewed in this way when he has Tess wrap herself in bulky clothes to disguise her figure and cover her face with a shawl so that men will leave her alone.

Tess’s class plays as much of a role in her story as her gender. Hardy uses the device of her distant distinguished ancestry to show the deep hypocrisy at the heart of the British class system. First, we learn Alec is not really a D’Urberville – his family have bought the name and family crest to disguise their sordid background in trade. Then later, Angel feels that Tess’s claim to the D’Urberville name will somehow make acceptable what he sees, even in his passion, as an unsuitable alliance with a girl way beneath him on the social scale. Tess alone cares nothing for her ancestry – she is who she is and hopes to be loved for that alone. Poor Tess!

Nastassja Kinski as Tess in Roman Polanski’s 1979 film.

Hardy also shows the changes that are taking place in the agrarian society with increased mechanisation leading to fewer jobs and replacing the rural idyll (did it ever really exist?) with more brutal, distinctly unnatural methods of farming. Hardy’s depiction of rural life is wonderful in both its beauty and its brutality, in the wholesomeness of a life in tune with natural rhythms and the increasing soullessness of farming maximised for profit. First we see Tess as one of a group of happy milkmaids, forming deep natural connections with the cows they milk day by day, the cows giving more milk to the touch of the maid they prefer, and the maids singing the songs they know will lull the cows into placidity and greater yields. This is contrasted with a brilliant depiction of Tess – a child of nature if ever there was one – in a later job, battling with the giant threshing machine, racing to feed its insatiable maw, and being shaken to the point of illness by its vibrations as it belches its smoke over the field, giving true meaning to the phrase hell on earth.

….“Did you say the stars were worlds, Tess?”
….“Yes.”
….“All like ours?”
….“I don’t know, but I think so. They sometimes seem to be like the apples on our stubbard-tree. Most of them splendid and sound – a few blighted.”
….“Which do we live on – a splendid one or a blighted one?”
….“A blighted one.”

Although the book focuses almost exclusively on Tess, in many ways she’s a passive heroine, with that passivity forced on her by a society which gives women of her class only two options in life – motherhood or physical labouring – each attended by the constant fear of poverty and homelessness. For Tess, her beauty and the little bit of education she has gained at the new National School (run by the church for children of the poor) seem to give her a third option – to attract a man of a higher class and economic status. But that would depend on her finding a man who could see past her class, past her beauty, past her error, to the purity of her natural essence. Poor Tess.

Book 35 of 90

A wonderful book that asks many questions that are still relevant in today’s world. I enjoyed it even more on this long overdue re-read and am now fired up to re-read more of his books as soon as I can.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics. It includes an excellent introduction by Penny Boumelha, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, which of course casts considerably more insight on the themes of the novel than I’ve touched on here.

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The Gothic Book Tag

Health Alert: Stock up on medicinal chocolate…

Well, during my two-week break (did you miss me? You better have…), I’ve been reading up a storm, most of it horror or Gothic or otherwise packed with spookifulliness. So you will need to take safety precautions before visiting my blog over the next couple of weeks – it would be awful if your eyes started from their spheres and your hair stood on end like quills upon the Fretful Porpentine.

It’s a fretful porpentine!

(Poor porpy – he keeps looking at his hibernation box longingly, but I’ve told him he’s got a long way to go yet…)

My advice is – take precautionary chocolate at least three times daily for the next month. This can be in the form of truffles, hot chocolate or fudge cake – the choice is yours. But keep some 80% plain chocolate aside for emergency top-ups as required.

To start the ball rolling (is it a ball? Or is it in fact the head of the headless ghost??), I thought I’d join in with the Classic Club’s

The Gothic Book Tag

1. Which classic book story has scared you the most?

Truthfully I rarely find books can maintain scariness for more than odd moments – I think short stories are much more effective. So I’m going with The Monkey’s Paw by WW Jacobs – a story that sends chills down my spine every time I think of it. If you want to be terrified this Hallowe’en, here’s a link

2. Scariest moment in a book?

That would be the moment in The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, when Eleanor realises the hand she has been clutching for comfort doesn’t belong to whom she thought it did…

“God God,” Eleanor said, flinging herself out of bed and across the room to stand shuddering in a corner, “God God – whose hand was I holding?”

3. Classic villain that you love to hate?

Sauron. There are so many great villains in The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien, in fact – Denethor and Saruman are up there amongst my most hated too, but Sauron wins because he’s not really in the book in person – he simply broods over it like a malignant dark cloud of supernatural terror…

4. Creepiest setting in a book story?

The island in The Willows by Algernon Blackwood – from the moment those willows clapped their little hands I developed a total horror of the place…

Then we lay panting and laughing after our exertions on the hot yellow sand, sheltered from the wind, and in the full blaze of a scorching sun, a cloudless blue sky above, and an immense army of dancing, shouting willow bushes, closing in from all sides, shining with spray and clapping their thousand little hands as though to applaud the success of our efforts.

5. Best scary cover ever?

6. Book you’re too scared to read?

Nope! Can’t think of one! There are loads I won’t read because the subject matter sounds too gory or graphic, but that’s not a matter of fear, simply of good taste… 😉😎

7. Spookiest creature in a book story?

Thrawn Janet – if you can cope with the Scots language in Robert Louis Stevenson’s great story, then this tale of a woman who has become the victim in the fight between good and evil and may now be the Devil’s pawn is wonderfully chilling. The image of her tramp-trampin’ and croonin’ lives with me…

Syne she turned round, an’ shawed her face; Mr Soulis had the same cauld grue as twice that day afore, an’ it was borne in upon him what folk said, that Janet was deid lang syne, an’ this was a bogle in her clay-cauld flesh. He drew back a pickle and he scanned her narrowly. She was tramp-trampin’ in the cla’es, croonin’ to hersel’; and eh! Gude guide us, but it was a fearsome face.

8. Classic book story that haunts you to this day?

The Apple Tree by Daphne du Maurier – the imagery of the tree as a possible reincarnation of the unpleasant main character’s dead wife is nightmarish…

Up and down went the heavy axe, splitting and tearing at the tree. Off came the peeling bark, the great white strips of underwood, raw and stringy. Hack at it, blast at it, gouge at the tough tissue, throw the axe away, claw at the rubbery flesh with the bare hands. Not far enough yet, go on, go on.

9. Favourite cliffhanger or unexpected twist?

Meg’s heroic exploit in Tam o’Shanter – Robert Burns plays it mainly for laughs in his classic ghostly poem, but there’s some wonderful horror imagery in there too, and I love that the brave horse Meg/Maggie wins the day, though making a great sacrifice as she does…

For Nannie, far before the rest,
Hard upon noble Maggie prest,
And flew at Tam wi’ furious ettle;
But little wist she Maggie’s mettle!
Ae spring brought off her master hale,
But left behind her ain grey tail:
The carlin claught her by the rump,
And left poor Maggie scarce a stump.

10. Classic book story you really, really disliked?

Berenice by Edgar Allan Poe. I suspect Poe must have been having toothache on the day he wrote this horrible little story…

The eyes were lifeless, and lustreless, and seemingly pupilless, and I shrank involuntarily from their glassy stare to he contemplation of the thin and shrunken lips. They parted; and in a smile of peculiar meaning, the teeth of the changed Berenice disclosed themselves slowly to my view. Would to God that I had never beheld them, or that, having done so, I had died!

11. Character death that disturbed/upset you the most?

I’m not going to name the character because that would be a major spoiler, but I will say the death at the end of Agatha Christie’s The Last Séance in her The Hound of Death collection has lingered in the scaredycat portion of my mind for the best part of half a century now, and shows no signs of going away…

The curtains of the alcove seemed to have been pulled back a little, the medium’s figure was just visible through the opening, her head fallen forward on her breast. Suddenly Madame Exe drew in her breath sharply. A ribbon-like stream of mist was issuing from the medium’s mouth. It condensed and began gradually to assume a shape, the shape of a little child.

12. List your top 5 Gothic/scary/horror classic reads.

A Christmas Carol
We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus
The Island of Dr Moreau
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

13. Share your scariest/creepiest quote, poem or meme.

….“Oh, Man, look here! Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.
….They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.
….Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.
….“Spirit, are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.
….“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”

From A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

🎃🎃🎃🎃🎃

Imagined Corners by Willa Muir

Repression, religion and sex…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Calderwick is a small town on the east coast of Scotland – a town that looks in on itself, that has “turned its back on the sea”. When Hector Shand marries, he brings his young bride Elizabeth to live in the town he left in disgrace some years earlier, after he had ruined another young girl’s reputation. Hector is the half-brother of the mill owner, John Shand, one of the leading men in the town, and they have a sister, another Elizabeth (known as Lizzie or Elise), who also left the town many years earlier in disgrace, running off with a man to whom she wasn’t married. Now Elise, newly widowed from yet another man, is returning to Calderwick too. Muir sets out to look at Calderwick society – Scottish society – both from the perspective of those who consider it home and from those who are looking at it with the fresh eyes of incomers.

This book is full of doubles, used as complements and contrasts to each other, as a method of showing both sides of the themes Muir raises. I’ve become aware through reading various scholarly introductions and reviews of Scottish classics that the double, or duality, is a particular feature of Scottish writing – Jekyll and Hyde, the good and bad brothers in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, the separated twin sisters in Marriage, and many others examples in books I haven’t yet read. Scholars suggest this may have arisen as a result of the Union, which has left Scots with a legacy of divided nationality – Scottish and/or British. Another theory is that it arises out of the tensions in Scottish society as it began to emerge from the stranglehold of Calvinism. Both of these theories could be applied to this book, I feel.

The themes Muir deals with include a kind of feminism, cultural rather than political; parochialism; the worth or otherwise of higher education; and, of course, religion – all Scottish fiction worth its salt addresses the effect of Knox and his hellfire on the Scottish psyche. I felt Muir was trying to do too much in this relatively short novel and as a result failed to get far beneath the superficial in most of her themes. From my perspective, it doesn’t reach the profundity of insight for which I feel it’s aiming.

However, it’s an interesting and enjoyable read, with some good, though somewhat exaggerated characterisation, and an excellent picture of the kind of society prevalent in the smaller towns of Scotland in the early 20th century. Calderwick is apparently a fictionalised version of Montrose, where Muir grew up. Published in 1935, it’s set in 1912, though the attitudes of many of the characters felt to me much more in tune with the ‘30s than the pre-WW1 era. In fact, if it weren’t for the references to the style of women’s clothing, I’d have read it thinking it was about a post-war society. There are no references to what’s going on in the wider world that might have rooted it in time – there’s a curious feeling of isolation, as if Calderwick is unaffected by the world outside.

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The two Elizabeths are both struggling with the status of women in society. Elise, the elder, escaped to Europe, a place Muir seems to suggest allows greater freedom, although even there she eventually succumbs to the conventional by marrying. Young Elizabeth, newly married, is an idealist with that kind of ecstatic fervour that seems to be prevalent in modernist feminist writing – so tiring. Quickly discovering that her husband isn’t quite the man she thought, she decides to be a Noble Wife – a support and guide to her husband-child, all-forgiving, a kind of Earth Mother. It’s all rather nauseating. Muir uses it to discuss how women were expected to maintain moral (sexual) standards higher than those of the men, to provide a kind of moral structure on which they could lean, and to help them control their rampant sexuality. There’s much daring talk of sex and Elizabeth’s enjoyment of the physical side of love, in defiance of the repression forced on women by Church and society. In a world where sex is seen as sinful (for women), Muir suggests, then women who discover they enjoy it immediately have to question their own moral righteousness. Oh, how I recognise the Scottishness of that! Knox’s trumpet still blasts…

The other main family is the Murrays. William is the minister of the Free Church, a particularly Calvinist version of Presbyterianism. His brother Ned is suffering from some kind of mental breakdown due to something that happened while he was at university. As Ned spirals ever downwards, William wrestles with his faith. Why would God allow this? Is it a punishment? William knows that God is a god of anger as well as a god of love, but in Scottish Presbyterianism the anger part generally takes precedence. As Ned descends into madness, and William wrings his hands helplessly and looks unavailingly to his God for help, their sister, Sarah, rolls up her sleeves and gets on with the job of trying to hold all their lives together. It’s not made explicit, but Muir clearly implies that, in a crisis, forget God and man – it’ll all end up on the shoulders of the womenfolk.

Willa Muir

Although it’s very well observed, I found that Muir’s resolutions to the various storylines feel overly contrived to make her points. While I certainly recognise the patriarchal society and the repressive religion that has blighted Scotland for centuries (are we out of it now? Hmm, perhaps), I felt that, as with much feminist literature, she has treated her men unfairly, making each either weak or immoral. There’s a kind of implied suggestion (or perhaps I’m inferring it unfairly) that the only way to get away from the repression is to flee Scotland (and maybe men too) – I’d have preferred at least one of them to decide to fight from within, as so many strong Scottish women have done in real life, working alongside the many good Scottish men to change the culture immeasurably for the better. Muir’s own views may have been coloured by the fact that she spent much of her life in the shadow cast by her more famous husband, the poet Edwin Muir, and spent many years working as a translator to fund his creative endeavours. We’re all the products of our own experiences, in the end.

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Marriage by Susan Ferrier

The Scottish Jane Austen…?

😀 😀 😀 🙂

When Lady Juliana is ordered by her father to marry a Duke she doesn’t love for money and social advantage, the girl refuses. Spoilt and with her head full of romantic ideas, instead she elopes with her young lover, Henry Douglas – a handsome but penurious Scotsman. Henry has relied on his guardian to keep him in style, but the guardian is furious about his marriage and cuts him off. Soon, the shallow and vain Juliana realises that living on love is not nearly as much fun as living in luxury. As their funds dwindle to nothing, they are forced to beg shelter from Henry’s father, a rather insignificant and uncouth laird in the Highlands. Their marriage continues to worsen, but Juliana bears twin daughters, one healthy, one sickly. When Juliana gets a chance to return to London, she promptly takes it, taking the healthy daughter, Adelaide, with her and leaving the other, Mary, in the hands of her sister-in-law. The story carries us through Juliana’s marriage and on to the lives of her two daughters, showing how their different upbringings determine their personalities.

Apparently when this book was originally published in 1818, it was hugely popular, outselling even Jane Austen. Now, on its recent re-publication, Ferrier is being touted as “the Scottish Jane Austen”. I fear not. While Austen’s books sparkle with wit and intelligence, this one, though often humorous, has nothing like the lightness of touch nor the true insight into society of Austen’s work. It’s grossly overlong and has large stretches of pure sentimentality that would make even Dickens cringe.

Part of the problem is that, in conjunction with so many Scottish authors following the Union, Ferrier was probably writing with an English audience in mind, and I assume that’s why she felt it necessary to drag all her characters down to London for the largest section of the book. While the Scottish sections are fun and give a believable if deliberately caricatured picture of Highland life and Edinburgh society, once she reaches London there is no sense of place and the society she describes feels considerably less authentic, more as if it’s based on books Ferrier has read than on a lifestyle she has lived and observed.

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The other major flaw is one common to many writers of that era – the drooping perfection of her main female character, the good sister Mary. Often, these drearily angelic women are surrounded by quirky or dastardly characters who liven the story up, and there are some of these in this book, too. But for my taste we spend far too much time with the saintly Mary and hear far too much about her religious scruples – about her religion in general, in fact. Regular readers of my reviews will know by now that Scotland has an unhealthy relationship with religion due to the misogynistic old killjoy Knox and his buddy Calvin. And, goodness! Mary has been well trained by her pious foster-mother to see anything the least bit fun as the temptation of the Devil.

Adelaide, on the other hand, never comes to life as a character at all. There primarily to provide a contrast to Mary, her purpose is to show what happens to girls brought up by shallow mothers to consider wealth and status all-important. I felt she could either have been made hissably unlikeable (like Lady Catherine de Bourgh) or perhaps have caused the reader to pity her (like Mrs Collins) or even allowed us to laugh at her (like Mrs Bennet). But in fact I never felt I had got to know her at all, and therefore felt nothing for her.

Fortunately, the book has some redeeming qualities that make it reasonably enjoyable despite its weaknesses. Juliana’s reaction to the rough, unsophisticated life of Henry’s Highland family gives room for a lot of humour in the first section, as does Ferrier’s description of the Highland landscape as a bare, harsh, barren place of rain and mud. More realistic than the prettified, shortbread box version of the Highlands that was beginning to be created by those of a Romantic inclination at that time. As Mary travels south years later to visit her mother and sister, she stops off in Edinburgh, and Ferrier creates some excellently caricatured characters there, almost in the vein of Dickens.

Susan Ferrier

The best bit for me, though, is the character of Mary’s English cousin, Lady Emily. Sarcastic and independent, Emily relentlessly mocks the aristocratic society of which she’s a part and supports droopy Mary through all her trials. One can tell Emily’s opinion of Mary’s constant moralising and rejection of fun is rather similar to my own – i.e., one suspects she often wants to slap Mary with a wet fish. But for some reason, despite this, Emily grows to love Mary and indeed, (to my horror), even occasionally wonders if she should emulate her. If there is any resemblance to Austen, it’s in the character of Emily, and it was she, not Mary, who kept me turning pages.

Overall, I enjoyed parts of the book a lot but felt that I had to trudge through too much moralistic sentimentality along the way. I’m not a great enthusiast for the women-writing-about-women-for-women type of book in general, and think this would probably work better for people who do enjoy that. It’s certainly good enough that it doesn’t deserve to have been “forgotten”, but to compare it to Austen does it a disservice by setting up expectations it doesn’t meet. As entertainment, this one has much to recommend it in parts, but neither the quality of the writing nor the depth of insight it provides take it into the true literary fiction category.

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The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain

Sex and death…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Frank Chambers is a bum who drifts from place to place, making a living out of gambling and petty cons. One day he finds himself at a garage outside Los Angeles without funds or a ride. He cons a meal out of the owner, a Greek by the name of Nick Papadikis. Nick’s looking for help around the place, so offers Frank a job. Frank’s about to refuse when he catches sight of Nick’s wife, Cora, a luscious brunette who oozes sensuality…

Then I saw her. She had been out back, in the kitchen, but she came in to gather up my dishes. Except for the shape, she really wasn’t any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.

Now Frank has a reason to stick around, and it’s not long before the lip-mashing commences. And soon Frank and Cora feel that two’s company.

My initial reaction to this novella was a feeling of disgust. Frank’s objectification and sexualised descriptions of Cora made me faintly nauseous, and their joint racism about Greeks and “Mex” and anyone else who might not be whiter than white didn’t help much. But then as I got to know Cora better I discovered she was just as revolting as Frank, so I acquitted Cain of misogyny and racism, and convicted him of misanthropy instead. And, oddly, once I reached that point, I found the book much easier to get along with.

….She started for the lunchroom again, but I stopped her. “Let’s – leave it locked.”
….“Nobody can get in if it’s locked. I got some cooking to do. I’ll wash up this plate.”
….I took her in my arms and mashed my mouth up against hers.
….“Bite me! Bite me!”
….I bit her. I sunk my teeth into her lips so deep I could feel the blood spurt into my mouth. It was running down her neck when I carried her upstairs.

There’s no doubt it’s compellingly written in the true noir style. Reading it is a little like being held up on the motorway because there’s been a crash just ahead – you know you shouldn’t stare but you can’t help yourself. As a study of two amoral, self-obsessed monsters drawn to each other through lust, it’s brilliantly done. But, like Damien Hirst’s dead cow, can it really be considered art? I’ve mentioned more than once that I tend to judge literature on the basis of Flaubert’s famous quote:

Human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when all the time we long to move the stars to pity.

I could see the bears frantically dancing but the stars had all gone out. Maybe that’s why they call it noir. I’d call it a glamorisation of sado-masochism, except that it’s way too sordid to be glamorous. When our lovely heroes aren’t indulging in some vicious sex that seems to involve lots of bruising and blood – but it’s OK ‘cos Cora likes being hurt – then Frank’s beating people senseless…

….When he was half out the door I cut the juice in the sign, and it blazed down in his eyes. He wheeled, and I let him have it. He went down and I was on him. I twisted the gun out of his hand, threw it in the lunchroom, and socked him again. Then I dragged him inside and kicked the door shut. She was standing there. She had been at the door, listening, all the time.
….“Get the gun.”
….She picked it up and stood there. I pulled him to his feet, threw him over one of the tables, and bent him back. Then I beat him up. When he passed out, I got a glass of water and poured it on him. Soon as he came to, I beat him up again. When his face looked like raw beef, and he was blubbering like a kid in the last quarter of a football game, I quit.

And yet, oddly, despite their vicious callousness, they are two of the most incompetent murderers I’ve come across. Of course, that’s partly the point – it’s when the police and lawyers become involved that the story reaches its real moral dilemma – under pressure, will their love/lust for one another be enough to hold them together? When you know the bad, bad things your lover has done, can you ever trust him/her? Can you be sure that when he/she says he/she loves you that he/she really does and wasn’t just using you? And once the excitement of murder is over, how do you feel about the dullness of everyday life – does the passion last when you no longer have to sneak around and hide, when there’s nothing left to plot? This second half of the book is far more interesting than the sex-saturated first half – to me, at any rate.

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I don’t know how to rate it really. It’s undoubtedly superbly done so I admire it for that. I’m not the greatest fan of pure noir so haven’t read extensively in the genre, but the little I have read has usually given me one good guy to root for amid the gritty darkness, and a femme fatale who may behave badly but is morally ambiguous. This one gives two people with no redeeming features whatsoever, so that I could only hope things would end badly for them. Again, that’s the point, so it succeeds in its aim. I found it well written, psychologically convincing, and it creates a truly noir world in which everything is soiled and corrupt and no gleam of light beckons. But it left me feeling I needed to scrub my mind out with a Brillo pad. I’ve settled on four stars – compelling rather than enjoyable, but I can understand why it’s considered a classic.

This is my Classics Club Spin #18 book.

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Mildred Pierce by James M Cain

Then…

😦 😦

When Bert Pierce loses everything in the Great Crash, he turns to another woman to soothe his bruised ego. This is understandable, since the woman he has married, the eponymous Mildred, is not someone you’d really look to for sympathy or support, though on the upside she bakes good pie. So when Bert leaves/is thrown out, Mildred decides to make pies for a living and astonishingly this enables her to become incredibly rich despite the Depression. Mind you, when I’m depressed, pie always helps, it’s true. However, this amazing success isn’t enough for her snobbish daughter who spends all the money while sneering at her mother’s method of earning it. As Veda grows up, their relationship becomes increasingly fraught…

Nope, couldn’t get on with this one at all. I stuck it out to the bitter end, and boy, was it bitter. But I spent most of it wishing that a plague or asteroid would hit, wiping them all from the face of the earth. The only thing that makes Mildred remotely likeable is the fact that Veda is so horrible. Having a mother as dull and tedious as Mildred couldn’t have been any fun though, especially since she veered from pathetic weakness to beating her child viciously. The best I could say about either of them is that they deserved each other. I, however, felt that I didn’t deserve either of them.

The fact that I found neither of them psychologically convincing was a major part of the problem, as was my extreme doubt over the unbelievable success of Mildred’s business ventures. Was it really so easy for a rather stupid, completely inexperienced woman to get thousands of dollars of credit during the Depression even if she did bake good pies? If so, I wonder why so many people suffered. They should just have gone to the bank and got a suitcase full of dosh and set up a small business. Apparently the whole depressed world was just longing to go out and spend money on pie and other such essentials of life. I don’t know what Steinbeck was whining on about in The Grapes of Wrath – the Joads could have just borrowed some money and set up their own orange juice business.

(Hopefully the movie will be better…)

But, in truth, neither of these was the real issue. I’d have accepted Mildred’s and Veda’s dodgy and unexplained rivalry and their easy-to-acquire wealth without much thought, had it not been for my struggles with the actual writing. When you find yourself searching your Kindle to find out how often an author uses the word ‘then’, then you know he’s lost you. Books don’t often make me resort to Trumpesque Twitter storms, but this one did – I had to relieve my feelings somehow or I’d have thrown the Kindle at the wall, and then have had to sell enough pie to buy a new one. The question of how many ‘thens’ there are will remain forever unanswered – the Kindle could merely tell me it was ‘over 500’. Now at least I know the maximum the Kindle will count up to.

…Mrs Gessler went to work. She pinned Mildred’s dress up, so it was a sort of sash around her hips, with a foot of white slip showing. Then she put on the galoshes, over the gold shoes. Then she put on the evening coat, and pulled the trench coat over it. Then she found a kerchief, and bound it tightly around Mildred’s head. Mildred, suddenly transformed into something that looked like Topsy, sweetly said goodbye to them all. Then she went to the kitchen door, reached out into the wet, and pulled open the car door. Then she hopped in. Then she started the motor. Then she started the wiper. Then she tucked the robe around her. Then, waving gaily to the three anxious faces at the door, she started the car, and went backing down to the street.

If I’d handed something like that in to my primary school teacher, I’d have been rapped over the knuckles with a ruler (yes, they really did things like that back in the dark ages) and sent away to rewrite it. What a pity Cain’s editor didn’t do the same! I’d even have lent him/her my ruler.

And the endless, tedious descriptions of how the business worked, down to the last tiny details, meant that I spent most of my time bored rigid. As I’m sure you probably are too by this lengthy whingefest of a review, so I shall cease. Needless to say, not one of my favourite books, and I truthfully don’t understand why it’s considered a classic. I’d have thought quality writing would have been an essential criterion for a book to acquire that status. But apparently not.

Book 31 of 90

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The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

Must remember to weed the garden…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Bill Masen wakes up in hospital, he’s surprised that none of the nurses have been along to get him up and ready for the day. It’s to be a big day – the bandages that have covered his damaged eyes for a week are due to be removed and Bill will find out if he can see. He missed the big meteor shower last night – amazing green streaks shooting across the sky in a wonderful light-show – but most everybody else in the world had watched them. Bill is about to discover he’s one of the lucky few…

Gosh, I had forgotten just how brilliant this book is! I’m sure everyone has an idea of the basic story even if they’ve never read it or seen a film adaptation, because it’s one of those books that has become a cultural reference point for so much later literature and film. When Bill removes his bandages, he discovers that the vast majority of people have been blinded by the lights in the sky. Only a small number of people like himself who, for various reasons, didn’t see them have retained their sight. It’s a tale of survival in a world turned suddenly dystopian. And with the breakdown of society, the strange walking plants known as triffids have been set free to prey on a suddenly vulnerable humanity.

The 1962 movie…

First published in 1951 and set in a future not far distant from that date, it’s one of the finest examples of the science fiction books that grew out of Cold War paranoia. The world’s first nuclear bombs had been dropped just six years earlier, and the arms race between the US and the USSR was well underway, with each building up stocks of weapons which it was believed could destroy the world. Nuclear bombs were only part of that; Wyndham looks at another aspect, perhaps even more frightening – biological warfare, as scientists turned their brains and technology towards discovering new and horrific ways of destroying their nations’ enemies. Man hadn’t yet made it into space, but that achievement was on the near horizon, again as part of the race for superpower status between the two dominant military mights. And, in a seemingly more peaceful and benevolent manner, man was mucking about with nature in ways that were unprecedented – developing new plants, fertilisers and pesticides without much consideration of possible unintended consequences. All concerns that still exist, though we’ve perhaps become too blasé about them now, but that were fresh and terrifying as Wyndham was writing.

1962 again… and yeah, the woman in the book really doesn’t dress like that to fight monsters…

The joy of this book is that the science horrors are more than balanced by an exceptionally strong human story, with excellent characterisation. On leaving the hospital where he woke up, Bill soon meets a young woman, Josella, also sighted. The book tells their story, and through them of the various ways in which humanity attempts to survive. Wyndham looks at questions of morality and society – should the sighted people try to save the blind, hopeless though that task will be given the huge disparity in numbers? Or should they try to save themselves and create a new world for their children? Should they form small communities or gather together to forge whole new societies? How should they go about preserving the knowledge of the past? What knowledge deserves to be preserved? What form of government should be recreated? Are marriage and monogamy appropriate in a severely depleted population or does childbirth take precedence over all else? What role does religion play in this new world? Now that the flesh-eating triffids vastly outnumber the sighted human population, will man remain in his position at the top of the food chain, or has his time passed?

The 2009 TV miniseries version…

Josella has as strong a survival instinct as any of the men and an equal ability to adapt to new ways of living. She’s witty and amusing and occasionally a little wicked. She’s a true partner for Bill, rather than a pathetic encumbrance that he has to protect. She is, without exception, the best female character I can think of in science fiction of this era and indeed for decades to come. She feels utterly modern, as if she were written today. And Wyndham makes it clear this is no accident – he uses one of his characters to discuss the relative positions in society of men and women and how women’s perceived weakness has arisen out of convention – a convention that women have used to their advantage as much as men have to theirs. And he suggests strongly that if women want to be equal, they can be – they just have to decide that they will be and stop playing the feminine weakness card. A bit of tough love, perhaps, and the teensiest bit patronising, but… not bad at all for a man in the 1950s!

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For those of you who automatically dismiss science fiction as not your kind of thing, I promise you this book – any of Wyndham’s books, in fact – will make you change your mind. The writing and characterisation is first-class, and the science is in there because we live in a world where science is important, and where it can be a force for either great good or annihilation of the species. Questions we should all be aware of and thinking about, and all packaged up in a fantastic story – it’s as much literary fiction as any other book that seeks to examine the “human condition” and, frankly, better than most. Great book!

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The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

Hide and Seek…

😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s May 1914 and war is looming over Europe. Richard Hannay has returned from South Africa and is finding England dull. He’ll give it another couple of days, he decides, and if nothing exciting happens, he’ll return to one of the outposts of Empire. But then a man he doesn’t know turns up at his door seeking help. Scudder tells him that he’s discovered a conspiracy, one that, if it succeeds, will shake the world. It’s four weeks until he can reveal what he knows to the authorities, though, and he begs Hannay’s help to keep him hidden till then. When Scudder is then killed, Hannay finds himself possessed of a secret and Scudder’s coded notebook, running from the conspirators who want to kill him and the police who want to arrest him for Scudder’s murder. And so the chase is on…

Buchan described the book as a “shocker” and that’s basically what it is – what we’d now call an action thriller. Published in 1915, its first audience knew that whatever Hannay did, he didn’t succeed in preventing war, so that couldn’t be the point of the conspiracy or of the attempt to defeat it. Not unnaturally, the Germans don’t come out of it well, and unfortunately neither do the Jews (no Jews actually appear in it, but they’re still referred to in what I wish were outmoded anti-Semitic terms) nor the Southern Europeans – thankfully, it’s been a while since I heard the word “Dago” being used. This is always a problem with books of this era and sometimes I find it easier to overlook than others, I think based on whether the author simply uses the words or whether it feels as if he really means to be derogatory. I found Buchan borderline – it bothered me, but not so much I couldn’t look past it and enjoy the story.

The story itself is mostly a simple chase round the moorland in the south-west of Scotland, a place Buchan knew well in real life. This centre section between Scudder’s murder and the dramatic dénouement forms the bulk of the book, and is divided into chapters each of which forms a little story on its own. (In the introduction, there’s an extract from a letter from an early reader, a soldier in the trenches in France, thanking Buchan for this format since it allowed him to read and assimilate a chapter any time he got a moment of calm. “The story is greatly appreciated in the midst of mud and rain and shells, and all that could make trench life depressing.”) Each mini-story involves someone Hannay meets during his travels – a road-mender, an innkeeper who would like to be an author, an aspiring political candidate, etc. Most of these are educated men, so that the bulk of the book is in standard English, but in the occasional working-class encounter Buchan gives us some excellent Scottish dialect.

Hitchcock’s version. Woman? What woman?? There is no woman!

The framing story of the conspiracy I found frankly incomprehensible for the most part, especially at the beginning when Scudder is clearly referring to all kinds of people and events that were probably familiar to a contemporary audience but mostly weren’t to me. It does become clearer at the end, although it also all becomes rather silly. However, I’m not a soldier in the trenches of WW1 nor even a worried mother waiting at home, so the thrilling aspects of trying to put a spanner in the works of the nasty Hun don’t resonate with me as they would have done at the time. In truth, I was finding it a bit tedious in the middle – there’s an awful lot of coincidence and near-miraculous luck, and it’s one of those ones where the hero just always happens to have the knowledge he needs: how to break codes, for example, or how to use explosives. But when it reaches its climax and I finally found out what the conspiracy was all about, I found myself nicely caught up in it (once I had switched off my over-heating credibility-monitor).

John Buchan

I’m a bit ashamed to say that I actually found the introduction in my Oxford World’s Classic edition more interesting than the book! Christopher Harvie, Professor of British and Irish Studies at the University of Tübingen in West Germany, gives the usual mix of abbreviated biography and literary context, and does so in clear and accessible English without any academic jargonese. What a fascinating life Buchan had! I had no idea! As well as writing a zillion books, he held all kinds of posts in his life, from Lord High Commissioner of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, to Member of Parliament, to Governor of Canada. Along the way, he also travelled extensively through South Africa, worked in intelligence and rose to be the Director of Intelligence in the Ministry of Information in 1918. (I know any Scottish readers, especially my siblings BigSister and ForeignFilmFan, are currently shaking their heads in disgust at my ignorance, but there it is. Neither of them can play Three Blind Mice on the xylophone – we each have our different areas of expertise in this life.)

Overall, then, a good read if not a great one. And, as I suspected, it turns out I hadn’t read it before – I just knew it from the various adaptations, none of which have stuck very closely to the plot of the book. I’m now keen to re-watch the ancient Hitchcock version to see how it compares – memory tells me I enjoyed it considerably more…

Book 29 of 90

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

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The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett

Bodies galore!

😀 😀 😀 😀

When Edgar Leggett’s home is broken into and some not particularly valuable diamonds go missing, his insurance company send along their operative to investigate – enter the Continental Op, the only name we are given for the first-person narrator. The CO soon decides that there’s been some kind of inside job, and that there’s more to the case than a simple burglary. Leggett has a wife and a weird, strange-looking but oddly attractive daughter, Gabrielle. The plot is entirely incomprehensible so that’s as much of a summary as I’ll give. Suffice it to say, the thing soon turns bloody, with more corpses than you could shake a stick at, supposing you would want to do such a thing. Gabrielle, who seems to be thought of by some as a femme fatale but seems to me way too pathetic to be such a thing, is at the centre of all the mysterious happenings and comes to believe she is cursed. It’s up to the CO to solve whatever it is that’s going on, and amazingly, he does.

Oddly, despite the fact that the plot is nonsensical, episodic, and barely hangs together, I still found the book entertaining. This is largely due to the snappy, hardboiled style of the writing and the relentless pace, which doesn’t give the reader much time to ponder the basic absurdity of the storyline. Plus, in the middle of it there is a passage of very effective horror writing, as the CO battles an evil apparition that may be real or may be the product of hallucination, or is possibly a combination of both. I forgave a lot of the book’s weaknesses for my enjoyment of that piece of writing.

Through the thing’s transparent flesh I could see my hands clenched in the center of its damp body. I opened them, struck up and down inside it with stiff crooked fingers, trying to gouge it open; and I could see it being torn apart, could see it flowing together after my clawing fingers had passed; but all I could feel was its dampness.

Challenge details:
Book: 91
Subject Heading: Across the Atlantic
Publication Year: 1929

It also gives a snapshot of aspects of Californian life at the time of writing – the late 1920s. Inevitably, this involves some pretty strong racist language, but I felt this was an accurate reflection of the time (built-in and possibly incorrect assumption in that phrase that things have improved since) and in fact Hammett treated his non-white characters no worse than his white ones, so at least he was pretty even-handed in that sense. We also get to see that guns were as ubiquitous then as they still are now. In fact, as I write this, I’m realising that it could as easily have been written today – weird religious cults, casual drug-taking, addiction, money-is-the-root-of-all-evil… Prohibition might be the only thing that has really receded into the past, though I liked that he touched on the idea of moral degeneracy showing as a physical thing, identifiable by physical features – a concept that pops up in true crime cases around the turn of the century and also appears in quite a lot of late Victorian horror writing. (Hammett references Arthur Machen in the text and I felt his influence could be seen both in this concept and in the piece of horror writing in the middle of the book.) Another touch I enjoyed is Hammett’s inclusion of a character who is a novelist, which gives him the chance to include some humorously self-deprecating dialogue…

“Are you – who make your living snooping – sneering at my curiosity about people and my attempts to satisfy it?”
“We’re different,” I said. “I do mine with the object of putting people in jail, and I get paid for it, though not as much as I should.”
“That’s not different,” he said. “I do mine with the object of putting people in books, and I get paid for it, though not as much as I should.”
“Yeah, but what good does that do?”
“God knows. What good does putting them in jail do?”
“Relieves congestion,” I said. “Put enough people in jail, and cities wouldn’t have traffic problems.”

Dashiell Hammett

I feel I should have more to say about this one, but I don’t. It’s quite fun, so long as you can get past the silliness of the plot. But in truth I’m not sure why it would be considered a classic any more than most other books of the era. For me, it’s doesn’t even come close to the only other Hammett I’ve read, The Maltese Falcon, which unlike this one is tightly plotted and has a wonderful femme fatale worthy of the title. I suspect that if it hadn’t been for that later one, this one may have been forgotten along with most of the pulp fiction of the time. According to Martin Edwards in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, Hammett himself later described this book as “a silly story… all style”, and I’m forced to agree with him. Still, that style covers a whole lot of weaknesses meaning that I found it an entertaining read overall, and that’s the most important thing…

Book 28 of 90

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Classics Club Meet and Greet…

The Classics Club Meme – June 2018

The Classics Club meme for June encourages us all to get to know each other better. Here’s the task…

We want you to mingle. Go to our member list and select a fellow classics clubber you’d like to feature on your blog. This can be someone who is active within the Classics Club, someone quiet who inspires with his/her posts, someone new to the club or scarce whom you’d like the club to meet. S/he can be a friend of yours, or someone you’ve never met. Tell readers why you value this club member. Highlight at least one post from his/her blog.

I must say firstly, I think this is a great idea and secondly, it made me feel quite guilty for not making more effort to seek out new CC members and introduce myself. In my defence, I’m not sure what the best way to find new members is – not everyone uses the introduction page. If any other members have found a good way of spotting new members, please let me know.

For the purposes of this month’s meme, I decided to highlight a couple of my existing blog buddies who’ve joined up recently, and then I also followed the suggestion and visited the member list, where I looked for people who have joined recently and whom I haven’t “met” before. Not only was this fun to do, but I’m hoping I’ve made at least one new blog buddy!

So here they are. Please meet, greet and visit…

Cleopatra Loves Books

I’m pretty certain nearly all of you will already know the lovely Cleo and her great, enthusiastic reviews, but I wanted to include her because I was so pleased she decided to join the Classics Club, and I’ve been thoroughly enjoying her classics reviews to date. I’m also delighted that her list includes some classic crime along with the more traditional classics, and that she’s included some of the books I’ve reviewed (or nagged her about 😉 ), including The Gowk Storm (a book everyone should read) and an actual science fiction classic, Chocky by John Wyndham – I’ve been trying to get her to read a sci-fi book for about five years now, so I can’t wait for her review of that one!

Here’s a link to her Classics Club list – click here.

And here’s one of her CC reviews I particularly enjoyed…

The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin

…mainly because this book is also on my TBR so I was delighted that it got the Cleo five-star seal of approval.

* * * * *

Big Reading Life

Laila is also an existing blog buddy of mine whom I’m sure lots of you already know and follow. She joined the club in February and I’ve been enjoying her reviews and also enjoying her throwing herself into the club by participating in the spins, etc. Laila’s list has lots of my favourite authors and books on it (Dickens, Conan Doyle, HG Wells, etc), so I can’t wait to hear what she thinks of them. And I’m still on my little ego-trip, because Laila has also included The Gowk Storm on my recommendation. Hurrah! (Did I mention it’s a book everyone should read?)

Here’s a link to her Classics Club list – click here.

And here’s one of her CC reviews I particularly enjoyed…

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

…even though she admitted to not enjoying the film of the book, which I adore. Still, it just means I’ll have to pester her until she re-watches it often enough to learn to love it… 😉

* * * * *

Books by the Cup

I’m excited to introduce Books by the Cup to you, since I’ve only just met her myself! She joined the Classics Club in March this year, just one month after she began blogging! Her list has lots of Austen and lots of Dickens so I know we’re going to get along. And it’s got Moby Dick on it! My regulars will all know exactly how I feel about that particular “classic”! Rumour has it that she’ll be reviewing it soon – can’t wait to compare notes. She doesn’t have The Gowk Storm on her list, but she probably just doesn’t know yet that it’s a book everyone should read… 😉

Welcome to the club, Books by the Cup!

Here’s a link to her Classics Club list – click here.

And here’s one of her CC reviews that I particularly enjoyed…

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

…mainly because it’s a great review of the Austen novel which I think is the best (although I enjoy P&P most). Books by the Cup says “Is this my favorite Austen? No. Did I like it? Yes. Did I laugh and hold my breath in anticipation of what was to come? Yes. However, as was the case with Pride and Prejudice, I might appreciate it better the second time around…” and anybody who wants to re-read Austen is clearly a kindred spirit!

* * * * *

If you don’t already know any of these excellent bloggers, I’m delighted to recommend them to you.

HAVE A CLASSIC DAY! 😀

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

A world without Darcy…

😐 😐

Three young men are part of an expedition in some obscure unexplored corner of the planet when they hear rumours of a country where all the inhabitants are women. They don’t believe this, of course. Firstly, they’ve heard all about the birds and the bees and they know such a society couldn’t exist for more than one generation. But more importantly, they know that women are too silly and incompetent to run a whole country on their own. If the country exists at all, they decide, the men must live elsewhere and visit for… ahem… a bit of the old nuptials every now and again. However, the prospect is tantalising – all those women must be pretty desperate for a bit of male company, what? So they decide to investigate…

The book starts off quite well, rather in the broad wink-wink tone of my introduction, full of male stereotypes of females, and incidentally managing to stereotype the three males pretty heavily at the same time. Then, unfortunately, they arrive in the country they dub Herland. And from there on in it’s an utterly tedious description of how this all-female society operates. Gilman even remarks at one point, in the voice of the male narrator, that nothing much actually happened to them during their stay, so presumably she was well aware of the narrative deficiencies of the book as a novel. Pity she felt a glancing reference to them was sufficient.

And odd! Because what I learned from this book is that women are perfect in every single way, excel at everything they do, and the only thing that causes misery, disease or turmoil in the world is men! Horrible men. Gosh, don’t you just hate them all? With their cruelty and their grubbiness and their greed, and all that nasty, nasty sex business. Women build nicer houses in beautifully clean, well-ordered cities, and they never fight or quarrel or get unhappy. They are naturally far, far better than men, because their capacity for motherhood makes them want to make the world a better place for their children. Unlike nasty men, who only see children as an unfortunate by-product of sex.

The unfortunate thing about some strands of feminism, this included, is the tendency to go well beyond the desire for equality and harmony, towards replacing a world where women are subject to men with one where men are disparaged and despised by women. I’m more of a happy-medium kind of girl myself. At risk of being drummed out of the sisterhood once and for all, I’ll admit my guilty, shameful secret. I like men. Not all of them, obviously – Trump, Hitler and Harvey Weinstein wouldn’t be my idea of a fun night down the pub – but then, Thatcher, Kellyanne Conway and Myra Hindley wouldn’t be my first choices for dinner guests either. But on the whole, I think most men are just bumbling along, behaving the way society has taught them, and most women are doing much the same. And most of us, of both genders, are trying to do better.

The idea of a world with no men in it (or no women) is my idea of hell. Most of our art and ninety percent of our literature is in some way about the interaction of the sexes, even going back past Shakespeare and on to the Bible. Flirting is fun, as is the whole falling in love thing. I’ve even heard the occasional woman admit to enjoying sex! Motherhood is brilliant and for some women it is indeed the most important thing in their lives (just as fatherhood is the most important thing for some men) but it’s not the only or even necessarily the ultimate ambition for womankind. In fact, I thought part of feminism was to get us away from the idea that women are incapable of thinking about anything except having babies and bringing them up, important roles though those are.

So some feminists may see this as a great feminist tract. I saw it as adding fuel to the worst of feminism – the kind that aims to replace patriarchy with matriarchy, where women rule and men become the subjects. Of the three men in the book, one is utterly convinced of male superiority and that women are primarily sex toys; one wants to worship at the feet of femininity; and the third is shown as rational, considering both sides of every argument. (Not that women ever argue, of course, because we’re all lovely when we’re not being jealous over silly men.) He, the rational one, becomes convinced along the way of the innate superiority of women and realises that what all men really want to do is surrender to a mother figure. And that that’s what all women aspire to be. Yeah.

(I have never wanted to be Darcy’s mother…)

But apart from the inanity of the ideas expressed in the book, which I try to forgive because I’m sure Gilman must have had some bad experiences to have become quite so misandristic, it commits the even worse sin of being almost entirely dull. It’s like reading a Rough Guide to Herland, without the humour and the photographs. I kept expecting her to tell me how much I should tip restaurant staff. Interesting, if you want to have nightmares about a world with no quarrelling, no disputes, no politics, no ambition beyond motherhood and child-rearing; and worse – no Anne and Gilbert, no Jane and Mr Rochester, no Cathy and Heathcliff, no flirting, no sex, no dancing, and no Darcy! Me, I’ll stay in this world and just keep striving for equality, thanks very much. I’d rather be driven up the wall by pesky men than bored to death by these unrealistically idealised Herland women.

Book 27 of 90

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