The Third Man and The Fallen Idol by Graham Greene

The Third Man

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Rollo Martins is a writer of Western novels, which are reasonably successful but not particularly lucrative. So when he is contacted by an old school friend, Harry Lime, offering him a job in Vienna he jumps at the chance. But when he arrives, he is met with the news that Harry is dead, and his funeral is arranged for that day. Rollo goes to the funeral and meets Colonel Calloway, who had been investigating the scheme that Harry was involved in – a scheme that showed Harry to be morally repugnant, if true. But Rollo doesn’t believe it – he knows Harry sailed close to the wind and wasn’t above scamming and cheating people, but the scheme as described by Col. Calloway is too cruel, too inhumane. So Rollo sets out to do his own investigation, in reluctant cahoots with Calloway but with a different motivation. But has Harry carried out a bigger scam than any of them suspect? And what will Rollo do when he finds out the truth?

There’s an interesting introduction from Greene in which he explains that, when asked to write a “film play”, he finds it necessary to first set the story out in novel form, before condensing it for the screen. Then he gets together with the director – in this case Carol Reed – to hammer out the changes needed to make the story work on screen, taking account of casting and locations, etc. Greene tells us that we should not therefore think that the eventual changes were made by the director – they were all things agreed to and sometimes suggested by Greene, and worked by him into the final screenplay.

Effectively, therefore, this is a first draft, and it shows. The story is there, substantially as it will finally remain. But there’s not the usual depth in the setting and characterisation of most Greene novels – clearly he has left much of the nuance to be brought out by director and actors. I did, however, feel that the basic plot is much clearer in the book – I’ve always found the film to be a bit murky as to what Harry Lime’s scheme actually was.

In the film, Orson Welles’ wonderful performance lights up the screen, lifting a good film into great territory in the last half hour or so when he finally appears. This also has the odd effect of throwing the viewer (this viewer, anyway) rather onto Lime’s side, despite his supposed nefarious actions. In the film also, Joseph Cotten makes an attractive and reasonably heroic Holly Martens (the name changed because Cotten is American, not English as Greene originally envisaged the character, and Carol Reed felt the name Rollo would sound silly for an American. Weirdly, he didn’t seem to feel the same about the name Holly!) In the book, Rollo/Holly is a drunken womaniser with few redeeming qualities, his loyalty to his old school friend being about his only likeable feature. And Lime is much more clearly a money-grubbing opportunist with zero conscience or compassion.

Book 18 of 80

The setting of post-war, partitioned Vienna gives both book and film a noir feel and an atmosphere of danger and tension. In the book, however, Greene makes much use of snow, and of the city full of buildings still damaged by bombing, some to the point of ruin, to add to the atmosphere. The film, presumably for technical reasons, omits the snowy winter element, and while Reed does show some shots of damaged buildings I didn’t feel this was quite as prominent as in the book.

The film, however, is better in many ways. The music, of course! The girl Anna – Harry’s girlfriend and soon to be Holly’s love interest – is so much better in the film. Reed has taken Greene’s limp rag of a man-dependent female and given her a strength and moral core she simply doesn’t have in the book. The performance by Alida Valli is one of the film’s major strengths – I felt she and Welles completely outshone Cotten, although he is the nominal hero. And the end of Anna’s story is changed entirely for the better – to use a fashionable term, she is given “agency” which she lacks completely in the book.

The short comedy interlude, where Holly gets roped into giving a talk to a group of people who think he writes heavyweight literature rather than Westerns, is better in the film, though still out of place in both book and film in my opinion. The scene in the sewers is a marvel of film-making – it’s in the book, but not nearly as effective, and Reed gets a truly emotional element into it that the book doesn’t quite achieve. Welles – what can I say about Welles’ performance that hasn’t been said before and better? Nothing, so I’ll limit myself to saying he makes the film. Without him, it wouldn’t be a classic.

So overall, the basic story is the same but there are some significant differences and, in the end, the book is good while the film is great. And, as Greene tells us in the introduction, that was the plan all along.

The Fallen Idol

This is another story later adapted into a screenplay by the pairing of Greene and Reed, this time for a film I haven’t seen. A young boy, Philip, is left in the care of the butler and his wife while his parents go away for two weeks. (Already my credibility meter is in overload.) He witnesses something that he only half understands, and by revealing it, inadvertently betrays the butler, whom he saw as a friend. His confusion, the betrayal and the impact on Philip’s future life are all portrayed well. However, the depiction of the two women characters in this is so deeply misogynistic that the whole thing left a bad taste (and explains my temporary reluctance to read more Greene till the effect wears off) – I can only hope these characterisations too were improved in the process of making the film. Interesting to learn of Greene’s process for writing for the screen, but I wouldn’t recommend this one at all in its written form.

Book 4 of 12

This was the People’s Choice for April (I’m still so behind with reviews!) and a good one – I enjoyed both the reading and the watching, and learning about how the original story was developed for the film. Thanks, People!

Amazon UK Link

Hard Times by Charles Dickens

Bread and circuses…

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In the industrial town of Coketown in the north of England, we meet the Gradgrinds. Mr Gradgrind is a school board Superintendent, a Utilitarian, a lover of facts and an enemy to fancy. Mrs Gradgrind is a woman dull to the point of near-imbecility and, out of laziness and disinterest as much as anything else, supports her husband’s child-rearing methods. Gradgrind’s primary guinea pigs for his Utilitarian experiment are his five children, especially the two eldest, Louisa and Tom. The school that Gradgrind superintends forcefeeds facts into the heads of children, and stifles any individuality or creativity. Into this learning factory comes Sissy Jupe, the child of a circus performer who has begged to be allowed to attend school so that she can be educated. But when Louisa and Tom are caught one day daring to peep into the forbidden circus, Gradgrind blames Sissy’s influence, at the suggestion of his great friend Mr Bounderby, and throws Sissy out of school.

Mr. Gradgrind Catches Louisa and Tom at the Circus
by Charles S. Reinhart

Mr Bounderby is a self-made man who has dragged himself up from beginnings so inauspicious that it’s amazing he survived at all, much less going on to become a rich and powerful business magnate. We know this because Bounderby tells the story to everyone he meets. If he could rise from being abandoned by an uncaring mother, then so could anyone else if only they had his determination – such is his philosophy, justifying his cruel hard-heartedness to his employees and to anyone who has fallen on hard times. Bounderby, well on in middle-age, casts his lecherous eye on young Louisa before she has even left school, and as soon as she can be considered an adult, asks Gradgrind for her hand. Poor Louisa is one of those cold females Dickens excels in – damaged by her upbringing to the point where all passion, all emotion even, is buried so deep inside even she thinks it is dead. So she agrees to marry Bounderby.

Book 17 of 80

These are the main characters whose story we follow through one of Dickens’ shorter and more overtly polemical novels. He has two main themes – the hardships of workers contrasted with the harsh, unfeeling selfishness of the new industrial magnates; and the need for children to be allowed to explore their imagination and have some fun, alongside fact-based learning. Written at roughly the same time as Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, a book he encouraged her to write and which was serialised in his periodical Household Words, both examine the new industrial world of the North and both are arguing for better conditions for workers, but that’s where the comparison ends. Gaskell’s characterisation is more realistic, perhaps, and her story is much bleaker – her characters are chiefly notable for dying (constantly) of poverty or industrial disease, whereas Dickens’ characters go through all his usual things – broken hearts, tragic misunderstandings, amazing coincidences, false accusations and redemption. Gaskell wins the prize for realism, but Dickens wins the more coveted prize for being entertaining!

Louisa’s frozen heart in peril, observed by Mrs Sparsit
by Charles S. Reinhart

There is some humour in the schooling of the children, as they repeat back meaningless definitions of nouns they have learned by rote with no depth of understanding. But it’s dark humour – Dickens’ low opinion of education shows up in many of his books, from the deliberate sadism of Wackford Squeers, to here, where Mr Gradgrind has the best of intentions, but no understanding at all of childishness and the need for children to grow spiritually and imaginatively even as they absorb facts. (I wonder what he would think of our schools now, on the rare occasion that they’re open, with children encouraged to tick boxes on multiple choice questionnaires to get “right answers”, rather than learning to comprehend, think for themselves and write in grammatical English – exam fodder. Gradgrind would fit in well in many parts of our education system today, I suspect. And the upsurge in demand for child mental health services makes it clear that many of our children are being as damaged by their education as poor Louisa. But I digress!)

Sissy and Louisa being nauseatingly sweet
by Charles S Reinhart

The story of the conditions for workers is darker. Here our humble hero is Stephen Blackpool, an employee in one of Bounderby’s mills. Through his wife, we see the damage that alcohol can do, to all sectors of society, of course, but always more harshly to the poor. Stephen is caught between two forces over which he has no control – the employers and the new unions, beginning their long, unfinished battle for power. While Dickens is very sympathetic to the plight of the workers, whom he shows as decent and honest, he has little time for the union leaders, showing them as self-seeking demagogues, stirring up the men to justify their own existence, and with little true concern for the workers whom they exploit as much as do the employers. While there is little doubt (in most quarters!) that (some) unions have been a force for good overall, helping workers to win better pay and conditions over the century and a half since Dickens was writing, I’m sure we can all think of examples of the kind of demagogic union leader Dickens portrays here – Arthur Scargill immediately springs to my mind, and there are one or two operating today who also fit the bill (names redacted to prevent outraged comments from their supporters 😉 ). So while I felt the portrayal was unfairly one-sided, it still bore a lot of credibility. And in Stephen we see an early example of how the unions persuade friend to turn against friend, if any man dares to refuse to follow the herd. Again Scargill’s campaign against the “scabs” was forefront in my mind as I watched poor Stephen driven from his job, his home and his community for the crime of refusing to go on strike.

Stephen Blackpool and his drunkard wife
by Charles S. Reinhart

So as always with Dickens, plenty to think about and plenty that is still sadly relevant today. And of course his writing is always a joy to read. However, this book feels rather under-developed in comparison to his greatest novels. There are moments of humour, but none of the exuberance and wit that usually provide a welcome contrast to his more polemical elements. There’s a distinct shortage of the memorable characters he normally does so well – Bounderby is a great character, as is his awful housekeeper, Mrs Sparsit. But neither Louisa nor Sissy won my heart much though I sympathised with both, and the evil people (even Bounderby) aren’t as beautifully caricatured as, say, a Uriah Heep or a Fagin. The story is more straightforward, without much of the mystery and suspense that his best books contain. Overall, I enjoyed it – of course I did: it’s Dickens! – but I don’t think it comes close to his best. Well worth reading but perhaps not one I would recommend as a first introduction for newcomers to his work.

Amazon UK Link

In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden

Give me strength…


A woman enters a convent. Then there are over 500 pages of what her life is like there. I abandoned it at 15 %. Here’s my grumpy comment on Goodreads made at the point where I, figuratively speaking, threw my Kindle at the wall…

Yes, I knew it was about nuns so I really shouldn’t have been surprised by the endless details of what every bell is called, the way last rites are done, the titles and job descriptions of every single one of the many thousands of people in the community. (I may have exaggerated the number, but when ten different people are named in one paragraph, they become a blur – as one character mentions, they all seem like identical penguins.) If anyone wants to know what it’s like to be a woman who chooses to lock herself away with a hundred other women, and then they all spend their time bitching about each other, this is the book to read.

Abandoned at 15%.

This paragraph was where I realised I was yearning to be reading something, anything, else…

Dame Ursula was not kneeling in the Abbess’s room; as mistress of novices her first duty was to the novitiate; Dame Ursula was called Ursa, the Great Bear, or Teddy according to her moods, ‘though we’re not supposed to nickname,” Hilary warned Cecily. With the councillors knelt French Dame Colette Aubadon, mistress of church work : Dame Camilla, the learned old head librarian: Dame Edith of the printing room: Dame Mildred, gardener, while Dame Joan Howard, the infirmarian, stood on the other side of the bed from Mother Prioress.

Ok, eight names, not ten as I claimed in my rant, but still.

Book 15 of 80

And this is the paragraph that finished me off…

The nuns, as they gathered, had knelt, some sobbing, some white and quiet, round the room and down the corridor as Dom Gervase administered Extreme Unction, touching eyes, ears, nostrils, lips, hands and feet with holy oil in the sign of the cross, sealing the five senses away from the world: ‘By this holy anointing and of his most tender mercy, may the Lord forgive you whatever sins you have committed through your sight’ or ‘hearing’ or ‘sense of smell’ or ‘speech’ or ‘touch’. Dom Gervase’s voice had faltered as he began but it had grown firm and clear as he prayed. Then the nuns had heard the words…

There’s more, much more, of this but I couldn’t bear it. My atheism may make me more critical than a Catholic might be of this, but I honestly think it’s terrible writing – the ultimate in ‘tell’ and a total info dump, as interestingly written as a description of the last rites in wikipedia.

Book 3 of 12

Oh dear, I’m afraid this was not only one from my Classics Club list but was also the People’s Choice for March – the second one-star abandonment in a row! Sorry, People! Thankfully April’s choice is a Graham Greene so I’m 99% certain to at least make it to the end! 😉

Amazon UK Link

Grey Mask (Miss Silver 1) by Patricia Wentworth

Complicated but fun!

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Jilted on the eve of his wedding by Margaret Langton, Charles Moray has spent four years travelling the world, during which time his father has died and Charles has inherited the family home. Now back in England, he turns up unexpected at the house one evening, to find the doors unlocked. Cautiously entering, he hears strange voices and hides in a place where he can spy on the people who seem to be having a strange meeting. He is shocked to see a man in a grey rubber mask, apparently giving out mysterious orders to a stream of underlings who are called in to see him, referred to only as numbers instead of names. Charles is even more shocked when he recognises No. 26 as his lost love, Margaret Langton. Meantime, we meet young Margot Standing, freshly returned from school in Switzerland on the death of her extremely rich father. Margot is expected to be the heiress, but her father appears to have left no will, and questions are being asked as to Margot’s legitimacy. And then Margot goes missing…

I laughed at the complexity of the real blurb for this book when I read it, but now having tried to write my own little blurb I realise it’s not easy to summarise! The plot of the book is complicated in the extreme, but Wentworth handles it beautifully so that the reader is never left feeling lost. Despite this being billed as the first Miss Silver book, Charles is the real lead character, and he and his little group of friends are great fun to spend time with. Those friends soon include Margaret, though the question of why she is No. 26 in Grey Mask’s gang is left unanswered until late on in the book. It’s obvious that Charles and Margaret are the main love interest, if only Charles can work out what’s going on and save Margaret from whatever she’s become involved in. But there’s a secondary romance between dizzy but delightful young Margot Standing and Charles’ silly-ass friend Archie – I felt their romance would have fitted well in either Wodehouse or Heyer!

Patricia Wentworth

Miss Silver has a small but important role. Because Charles is worried about Margaret’s involvement in whatever’s going on, he doesn’t want to go to the police, so he approaches Miss Silver on the advice of a friend. She is a professional private investigator, though an unlikely one, who knits babies’ bootees while conducting meetings. In this one, she’s a bit too miraculous and all-knowing, with no real insight into how she achieves her amazing results. There are also some derivative elements in the book, such as Grey Mask being a kind of take on Moriarty – the centre of a spider’s web of criminality where no one knows the names of the people above them in the organisation. However, it’s done well enough for the derivation not to be too off-putting, and there’s plenty of originality in other aspects to off-set it.

Forget credibility! The story becomes more ridiculous as it goes along, but fortunately the four central characters have become so much fun by then that I didn’t really care. It makes sense in that there are no gaping holes or loose ends, but that doesn’t mean it’s in any way believable. I had a good idea as to who Grey Mask might be from fairly early on, mainly because the hiding of his identity was a little clumsy – for a start we know from the beginning that he’s a man which immediately eliminates at least half of the characters. The underlying motive of the gang becomes clear quite soon, and the story is as much about keeping Margot safe while finding a way to bring the criminals to justice without risking Margaret’s involvement becoming known while sorting out the various romances… still with me? As I said, it’s complicated! But it’s also a lot of fun, and I raced through it with a smile on my face – who could ask for anything more?

Book 16 of 80

This was the book chosen for me by the Classic Club Spin Gods, and they picked a winner this time!

Amazon UK Link

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Those and such as those…

🙂 🙂 🙂

The tale of how a civilised Southern girl went to the savage wilds of the North and survived. When Margaret Hale’s father has a crisis of conscience which causes him to give up his nice little rectory in lovely green sunshiny Helstone and move the family to the dark satanic Milton in Darkshire, Margaret will learn about the evils of capitalism, the deserving poor, the undeserving rich, and how a good man shows his love by riding roughshod over the law for his beloved’s sake.

I read this months ago – far too long ago to write a proper review of it now – and despite my sarcasm I actually think it has its good points, in a dreary woe-is-me kind of way. Gaskell gives a credibly bleak depiction of the industrial cities that were the economic lifeblood of the nation, but that fed on human sacrifices. She shows the appalling conditions of the workers and their families, leading them to a life of unrelieved misery and ill-health, followed by early death. She avoids poeticising or romanticising the clouds of pollution that poisoned the water and the air, or the fluff from the cloth factories that got into the lungs of the workers and killed them, though she does somewhat romanticise the lives and deaths of the poor.

But oh, it’s a wearisome journey! There is some slight humour in the very early part when we are with the happy, healthy, civilised Southerners, but as soon as they travel North, impenetrable gloom descends and never lifts again. Death follows death follows death. I fear I eventually started betting with myself how long it would be till the next death just to give myself an incentive to go on listening. Even the love affair – because of course there’s a love affair – is a dull, unsatisfying thing.

Book 14 of 80

Here are some brief snippets from my contemporaneous notes which will give some idea of my mood while reading…

“Cowardly Hale leaves it to Margaret to tell his wife [that he is leaving the church and moving them north]. What a pathetic specimen of a man – I do hope we’re supposed to despise him.”

“Naturally snobby Margaret finds him common and he finds her proud, so clearly they’re the love interest!”

“Half whiny, half polemical lectures – no humour. Bring back Dickens!”

“Truly miserable. Mrs —-, probably cancer – will she outlive B—– – lung disease? Or will Mr —- have a stroke and beat them both to it?”

“I actually laughed when B—— died – I knew she would tell us again how wonderful God was, and she did!”

(Following an episode when Margaret and her privileged associates conspire to subvert the law to save themselves from facing the consequences of their entitled selfishness…) “Those and such as those, eh?”

“She makes Steinbeck look like a stand-up comedian.”

Haha, as you can see, the iron was entering my soul! Why, you may be asking, am I giving it three stars, then? Well, the story was pretty awful – I disliked nearly all of the characters, especially the upper classes who were a bunch of miserable, entitled whiners for the most part, including Margaret, while “the poor” were either angelic or driven to vice and sin because of the evils of capitalism. The death per chapter thing got old fast. But despite that, her insight into the early days of industrial relations is very good – the evils of capitalism may be miserable to read about but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. She shows the beginnings of the union movement with workers banding together to find strength in numbers. She shows how even in the mad drive for profit and production, some few employers were open to the idea of negotiation with a view to improving conditions for their workers. And we see the precariousness of the lives of the industrial rich, too, who could lose a fortune as easily as they made it, and who didn’t have the family connections of the landed gentry to support them through financial woes.

Elizabeth Gaskell

The book was first published in serial form in Dickens’ Household Words, and apparently he became frustrated by the excessive length to which Gaskell spun her tale. As sales plummeted after the first few episodes, Dickens demanded, but didn’t get, conciseness, and apparently (according to wikipedia) described the story as “wearisome to the last degree”. Well, I’ve read wearisomer, but then Dickens never had the experience of reading East of Eden – happy man! In truth, I think his judgement is too harsh – there’s much to admire in the book, but it’s one to read for the description of the social conditions rather than for an interesting plot or sympathetic characters. As often happens when an author is so heavily polemical, I wondered if she wouldn’t have been better to write a factual book. But then lots of people think this is wonderful, so what do Dickens and I know? 😉

Audible UK Link

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes


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Our narrator, Dix Steele, has moved from New Jersey to Los Angeles, where he plans to write a mystery novel. Or at least that’s what he told his uncle, who has grudgingly agreed to pay him a small allowance for a year while he tries his hand at writing. He tells the same tale to Brub Nicolai, a wartime buddy with whom he renews his friendship, and Brub’s new wife, Sylvia. But Dix has a dark secret – he likes to strangle young women. And Brub has a new career, as a police detective…

Told in the first person, this is a psychological study of what we would now call a serial killer. This has been done many times in the years since 1947 when this was first published, of course, so a trip to the inside of the head of a psychopath isn’t as startling as it may have been at the time. The gruesomeness of the murders is mostly kept off the page, and Hughes also keeps it clean – there are hints at a sexual element to the crimes, but we are not made privy to the details. All of this means that, although it probably counts as noir in terms of subject matter and outcome, it feels considerably lighter than the little classic noir I’ve previously read. Not that I’m objecting to that – a lot of noir is far too grim and bleak for my taste, and I’m always happier when graphic sex and violence is left to the imagination.

What I objected to rather more was the incredibly slow pace of the first half of the novel. We very quickly learn that Dix is a killer, and that L.A. is gripped by this series of murders. We see the fear of the women, and of their men on their behalf. And through Brub we see the bafflement of the police, getting nowhere in their investigation and unable to predict where and when the next murder will happen. All of this is excellent, but then it dips into a sort of longueur where these things are gone over repeatedly and nothing much changes. I found it required an effort of will to keep going.

Book 13 of 80

However, it picks up considerably in the second half, and happily I at last found myself gripped. Dix falls for a beautiful dame, Laurel, a sultry, sexy feline in female form. Is she a femme fatale? Or is she destined to be another victim? Is she a temptress, a loose woman, or a forerunner of the sexually liberated women about to hit the scene? Dix thinks he sees her for what she is and believes they are destined for one another, but is that how Laurel sees it? Is Sylvia in danger? We like Sylvia – she’s all that is good about America, according to the values of the time; the feminine woman, attractive but not too corruptingly sexy, the respectable home-maker, the loving support to her husband, the little woman who needs protection. Though there might be more to her than that – we see her only through Dix’s unreliable eyes, and he gradually comes to fear that she may have seen through his outer shell.

Dorothy B. Hughes

Hughes does an excellent job of using the uncertainty in Dix’s mind to keep the reader in suspense too. Does Brub suspect Dix of being the killer, or is that just Dix’s increasing paranoia at work? As Dix’s fear of being caught grows, everything that happens begins to take on a sinister feel. Is the gardener outside really a gardener or is he a police spy? Is that car following Dix or is it just someone heading in the same direction? Dix thinks he’s clever enough to fool Brub and anyone else who might suspect him, but still his actions grow more erratic. The paranoia is the element that makes the second half work so well.

I’m unconvinced about the psychology hinted at as to why Dix became a serial killer, although that may be because we are more used these days to the idea of serial killings as being senseless, motiveless crimes. However, I felt it worked well in the context of the book (sorry, I know I’m being vague here – it’s deliberate to avoid spoilers).

Overall, the suspense of the second half made up for the slowness of the first half and I’m glad I didn’t give up on it. Now to watch the film version starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame – I get the impression it might be rather different from the book which is always fun…

Book 1 of 12

This was the People’s Choice for January (I’m running late!), and proved to be an enjoyable one – thanks, People!

Amazon UK Link

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

Girl meets boys…

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This is not a review – it is my personal reaction to the characters in the book and is spoiler-filled from start to end. So if you haven’t read the book and intend to some day, please don’t read this.

The sorry tale of an idiot girl who keeps choosing the wrong man until finally there’s only one left, so she takes him. Given that every other man she’d picked had ended up dead or worse, one can only assume the final man is as stupid as Bathsheba, so they’ll probably live happily ever after.

I have to start by saying that I was forced to read this book in school and analyse it to death and, as I’ve remarked before about other classics, this always had a tendency to make me hate books I would otherwise probably have loved. This time round I didn’t hate it – in fact, despite the following, I enjoyed most of it quite a lot – but I still disliked all the characters and wasn’t too keen on Hardy himself!

Why I disliked Bathsheba…

To be fair, dislike is a bit strong. I didn’t believe in Bathsheba the farmer. One day she’s a humble nobody, next day she’s running a farm which, we only find out towards the end, the landlord could easily have given to an established (male) farmer but chose to give to a teenage girl with next to no experience. Fictional licence is fine, but make it realistic, please. All the people who work for her accept her, which seems unlikely in the extreme, and she turns out to be a wonderful farmer, despite not knowing what to do when the sheep get sick, and not reminding her employees to make the wheat ricks safe from the weather and so on. But she looks good when she goes to market and drives a good bargain, apparently, among all the middle-aged male farmers who apparently accept her too.

And then there’s her taste in men! I must admit I found this aspect much more believable than her farming prowess. Her youth makes sense for this part of the story, although her indecisiveness, especially about Boldwood, seems at odds with the strong, independent character she is otherwise drawn as. Why do the men love her? Well, apparently because she’s beautiful. All three of them “love” her before they’ve exchanged more than half a dozen words.

And lastly but most importantly, there’s her reaction to Fanny’s child. On seeing the tiny body in its mother’s dead arms, does Bathsheba show some womanly sympathy? No, she feels sorry for herself. She’s so narcissistic she could almost be twenty-first century!

The one feat alone—that of dying—by which a mean condition could be resolved into a grand one, Fanny had achieved. And to that had destiny subjoined this rencounter to-night, which had, in Bathsheba’s wild imagining, turned her companion’s failure to success, her humiliation to triumph, her lucklessness to ascendancy; it had thrown over herself a garish light of mockery, and set upon all things about her an ironical smile.

Why I disliked Sergeant Troy…

Well, this one is easy, since we’re supposed to dislike him! I actually think he’s the best-drawn and most believable character in the book. His motivation for loving Bathsheba is straightforward – she’s relatively rich, and that’s an attractive trait in a woman as far as Troy is concerned. Hardy does a great job showing his emotional shallowness – his excessive but short-lived grief for Fanny, his coldness and cruelty to the women who fall for his animal charm, his laziness and drunkenness.

Why I disliked Boldwood…

I couldn’t decide what exactly Hardy wanted us to think about Boldwood. There’s a suggestion that we should feel sorry for him – that he was tricked into loving Bathsheba by her foolish sending of the fatal Valentine card. But I thought he was a stalker and a creep, a man who would use any form of emotional blackmail to force a reluctant girl half his age into a marriage it was obvious she didn’t want. Again his “love” for Bathsheba has nothing to do with her character or personality – she is bold and independent, but he wants her to be pliable and submissive. It is her beauty he loves – he is a middle-aged lecher salivating over a young girl. I kept thinking there should be a #MeToo hashtag at the end of every paragraph he sleazed through.

Book 12 of 80
Classics Club Spin #32

Why I disliked the yokels…

I get very tired of books that have a chorus of yokels behaving humorously for the amusement of us sophisticated educated types. Funnily enough, Hardy often has yokels in his books and this is the first time they’ve annoyed me. I suspect he got better at showing them as real human beings as he aged and gained experience, but here they really are shown like a lower form of life – stupid, easily swayed, drunken at every opportunity. Compare and contrast with the yokels in Silas Marner, who are actual people rather than sideshow entertainment.

Why I disliked Fanny…

OK, I didn’t dislike Fanny – she broke my heart and the chapters in which she dies and is laid in her coffin with her infant are the best writing in the book and made me cry. But did Hardy really have to make her so stupid she turned up at the wrong church on her wedding day? Who would do that? Has any bride in the history of the world not visited the church before the wedding to at least ensure she knows how long the journey will take her? Would Hardy have made any man be quite that profoundly stupid? (Maybe a yokel…)

Why I disliked Gabriel…

Controversial, I know! But hear me out! Firstly, again he fell in “love” without actually getting to know Bathsheba and then decided to hang around her like a whipped puppy regardless of how often she married other men. Do I admire that? No! Why didn’t he simply get over her and move on? But OK, unrequited love I can forgive. What I can’t forgive is what he did to Fanny’s infant. In order to avoid selfish little Bathsheba being hurt, he erased the words “and child” from Fanny’s coffin. That little baby, who had no life, not even a name, erased even from that tiny recognition of its existence. No, I can’t forgive that – it makes me angry every time I think of it. And that puts Gabriel on a par with Boldwood the creep and Troy the cad in my book.

Why I disliked Hardy…

I love Hardy! And despite everything I loved his writing in this book and found it intensely readable and mostly enjoyable. But it was written early in his life and that shows in his attitudes. In later years he’s hailed as a feminist, but here he slips into sexism bordering on misogyny again and again. It’s not just that Bathsheba is pathetic despite being supposed to be strong and independent. It’s the actual language he uses. A few examples – there are many more:

Strange to say of a woman in full bloom and figure, she always allowed her interlocutors to finish their statements before rejoining with hers.

Loving is misery for women always. I shall never forgive God for making me a woman…

Bathsheba, though she had too much understanding to be entirely governed by her womanliness had too much womanliness to use her understanding to the best advantage. Perhaps in no minor point does woman astonish her helpmate more than in the strange power she possesses of believing cajoleries that she knows to be false – except indeed in that of being utterly sceptical on strictures that she knows to be true.

She was of the stuff of which great men’s mothers are made.

Your mother must have been so proud, Mr Hardy, to think that she had fulfilled a woman’s primary function of producing a great man. 😉

So, overall, not my favourite Hardy but still very much worth reading!

Amazon UK Link

Guy Mannering by Sir Walter Scott

The missing heir…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

One dark night a traveller in the south-west of Scotland loses his way, and begs a night’s lodging at Ellangowan, the house of Mr Godfrey Bertram. Mrs Bertram is in labour and soon gives birth to a son, their first child. The traveller, Guy Mannering, has revealed he has studied astrology and agrees to cast the child’s fortune. But when he discovers that the stars foretell three distinct periods of danger, each potentially fatal to the child, he insists that the fortune should be read only when the child is five years old. But young Harry Bertram will meet the first period of danger before his fifth birthday is over, when a conflict takes place between smugglers and the local excise-men, during which Harry disappears. The shock sends Mrs Bertram, again pregnant, into labour, and she gives birth to a daughter, Lucy, but dies in childbirth.

Fast forward 17 years, to probably the mid-1780s. All has gone wrong at Ellangowan, and Mr Bertram is being forced to sell up. Guy Mannering, now a middle-aged widower with a daughter of his own, Julia, has returned from India where he has spent his career as an army officer. Harry is still missing. And then Mr Bertram dies, leaving Lucy almost destitute. Mannering decides to ask her to make her home in his house, to be a companion to Julia. Ellangowan is sold, but with the proviso that if the heir returns, the property shall revert to him…

This was Scott’s second book, and I must say I found it considerably better than its more famous and more lauded predecessor, Waverley. Partly this is a matter of taste – I’m rather tired of the Scottish obsession with the Jacobite era, when Waverley is set. But I also thought the characterisation in Guy Mannering is much truer and more realistic, and, perhaps because it’s not set around such a pivotal event, I felt Scott explained the background more clearly, rather than assuming the reader would be aware of it. Both gypsies and smugglers play important roles in the story, and Scott incorporates a lot of information about both groups and how they were perceived in Scotland at this time, all of which is interesting from both a historical and a literary viewpoint.

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I was less keen on the structure. The gap of seventeen years after the first section of the book is somewhat dislocating. Suddenly half the characters whom we have become invested in are dead, while the other half are much older, having lived a full life in the interim. Personalities have changed, sometimes with reason, due to events that have happened in the interim, and sometimes simply due to age. My other issue might arise from my pedantic nature, but when a book is called Guy Mannering I expect Guy Mannering to be the central character. But after casting the child’s fortune, he disappears for the entire first section of the book, and when he reappears after the gap, so does a young man we are introduced to as Vanbeest Brown, who is the hero for the rest of the book. Mannering’s role is secondary at best, and arguably not even that.

Sir Walter Scott by Sir Henry Raeburn
Scottish National Portrait Gallery

However, there are some great characters in the book, some of whom were household names in Scotland in my youth, though I’m not sure they still are. Vanbeest Brown (have you guessed who he is yet?) is an enjoyable young hero who is constantly falling into scrapes, but is also always helping his friends out of them. There’s Meg Merrilies, the gypsy woman, who also appeared at Harry’s birth and plays a vital role throughout the story. Dirk Hattaraick is the boo-hiss baddie (or at least one of them!), a Dutch smuggler plying his trade around the shores of Britain and Northern Europe. Dominie Sampson is Lucy’s childhood tutor and is a sort of tragicomic figure, although personally I found him too caricatured. Farmer and dog-breeder Dandie Dinmont is the major rural character, loyal and true, and so popular was he that there’s a real breed of dog called Dandie Dinmont terriors in his honour. In Edinburgh, we are amidst the lawyers, and here advocate Paulus Pleydell is central, as the man who will sort out the legal entanglements the various characters fall into, including the inheritance issues, and take on a kind of avuncular role towards the young people. And the two girls, Julia and Lucy, are so much better drawn than the female characters in Waverley. Lucy might be a little too much like the future self-sacrificing heroines beloved by the Victorians, but Julia is mischievous and gay, her romantic excesses tempered by her sense of humour.

After a good start, I found the book got very slow for a while as Scott set up all the characters and their various settings and situations. But the second half speeds up considerably and is full of intrigue and action with lots of danger, spiced with just the right amount of romance. There’s some Scots dialect, but not enough to be problematic, and in general the writing is excellent. The two main settings, the rural south-west and the city of Edinburgh, are very well depicted and provide an interesting contrast. Scott weaves his large cast of characters in and out of his dance with great skill, and ensures we like all the good ones and hate all the bad ones, which is just as it should be! He should have called it Harry Bertram though…

Amazon UK Link

Classics Club Spin #32 – result!

It’s number…

It’s from the English section…

It’s set in Wessex…

It’s about love…

Its title is from

It’s 496 pages…


Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

The Blurb says: ‘I shall do one thing in this life–one thing certain–that is, love you, and long for you, and keep wanting you till I die.’

Gabriel Oak is only one of three suitors for the hand of the beautiful and spirited Bathsheba Everdene. He must compete with the dashing young soldier Sergeant Troy and the respectable, middle-aged Farmer Boldwood. And while their fates depend upon the choice Bathsheba makes, she discovers the terrible consequences of an inconstant heart.

Far from the Madding Crowd was the first of Hardy’s novels to give the name Wessex to the landscape of south-west England, and the first to gain him widespread popularity as a novelist. Set against the backdrop of the unchanging natural cycle of the year, the story both upholds and questions rural values with a startlingly modern sensibility. 

* * * * *

Thanks, Spin Gods!

The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler

That demned elusive Dimitrios…


Latimer, a novelist, becomes fascinated, for reasons so obscure that even he doesn’t know what they are, by a criminal he has just been told was found dead. This criminal, Dimitrios, appears to have been a multitasker, involved in every crime across Eastern Europe for at least a decade – from theft and murder, to drug smuggling, to political assassination. They sought him here, they sought him there, the police of several countries sought him everywhere, but to no avail. Now our intrepid, though immensely dull, hero intends to follow the trail backwards with a view to – I don’t know – find out who the real Dimitrios was, or something. He will do this by meeting people in various underdescribed and unevoked locations across several countries, listening while they tell him lengthy stories about political events that may or may not be based on reality – don’t know, don’t care. Have never been quite so bored in my entire life, except possibly during the whale classification sections of Moby Dick. Since I am refusing to read past the 30% mark this is not a spoiler, but I assure you with 100% confidence the twist is going to be that the corpse turns out not to have been that demned elusive Dimitrios after all…

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Loads of people love this book, though why is a mystery to me. Let me give you an example – if you find this paragraph thrilling, then you’ll probably find the whole book fascinating. However, if, like me, you feel a discombobulating sensation as of braincells masochistically imploding one by one, then you probably won’t…

From the start, Stambulisky’s policy towards the Yugoslav Government had been one of appeasement and conciliation. Relations between the two countries had been improving rapidly. But an objection to this improvement came from the Macedonian Autonomists, represented by the notorious Macedonian Revolutionary Committee, which operated both in Yugoslavia and in Bulgaria. Fearing that friendly relations between the two countries might lead to joint action against them, the Macedonians set to work systematically to poison those relations and to destroy their enemy Stambulisky. The attacks of the comitadji and the theatre incident inaugurated a period of organised terrorism. On 8th March, Stambulisky played his trump card by announcing that the Narodno Sobranie would be dissolved on the thirteenth and that new elections would be held in April.

Book 8 of 12

This was The People’s Choice for August. Sorry, People – I don’t hold you in any way responsible for my misery. Not only was I fooled into buying this book but I even added it to my Classics Club list. If anyone other than myself is to blame, it’s the people who gave it five stars on Goodreads. I can only assume they are part of a dastardly conspiracy (probably led by Dimitrios himself) to trap the unwary…

Amazon UK Link

Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith

An interesting character study…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Mrs Scott is elderly now, living alone in her small cottage since her only son emigrated to Canada. One day a rider comes to visit her – Patrick Sellar, the factor of the local landowner, the Countess of Sutherland. He tells Mrs Scott she must leave her home and go to live by the sea where the crofters will have to learn to live by a new trade, fishing. The crofters’ land is wanted for sheep – a more profitable venture for the landlords. As Mrs Scott seeks help from her neighbours and the church, we learn about her past and see her gradually come to understand herself better than she had. And eventually we see how she faces up to an uncertain future…

The story is set in Sutherland in the early 1800s at the height of the Highland Clearances, which is one of those landmark events by which Scotland defines itself, and which still provides food for the sense of grievance that feeds the socialist aspirations of a large majority of the population and the nationalist aspirations of a large minority. Patrick Sellar is a real historical figure, though Mrs Scott is fictional. Unfortunately Crichton Smith’s grasp on historical facts is somewhat tenuous – not unusual in a nation where history is distorted too readily into a propaganda tool and where historical accuracy is rarely allowed to get in the way of the grievance mythology.

However, Crichton Smith’s glaring timeline errors irritated me so much that I found it distracting. For instance, he calls the landlord “the Duke” throughout. In fact, the Duke in question wasn’t a duke at that time – he was the Marquess of Stafford. The land belonged to his wife in her own right as the sole heir to the Sutherland Earldom, and her title at this time was the Countess of Sutherland. This, that the Countess of Sutherland was the most prominent of the landlords involved in the Clearances, is, I would have said, one of the best known facts about the whole era, so it both surprised and annoyed me that Crichton Smith consistently got the titles wrong.

Then there’s the question of Mrs Scott’s age. We are told that her husband left her and their very young son, joined the army, and died a few months later in Spain during the Napoleonic wars, so presumably sometime between 1808-14. Patrick Sellar’s career as factor ended in ignominy in 1817 after he was tried for some of his cruel actions while evicting the tenants. So how exactly did a woman young enough to have her first child after 1800 become an old woman before 1817? Crichton Smith claimed his purpose was not to write a historical novel – fair enough, but even if the Clearances are only background to Mrs Scott’s story, a little bit of historical credibility would have been good.

Book 9 of 80
Classics Club Spin #30

However, indeed the Clearances are not Crichton Smith’s main target. The story is mostly about another recurring theme of Scottish literature – the stranglehold of the reformed Church on the people and its abuses, and here he does a much better job. Mrs Scott naturally turns to her church in her trouble, but finds that church and landlords are in a symbiotic relationship, each upholding the other, and neither showing much concern for the poor and powerless. Circumstances lead her to take help from a local man, Donald Macleod, who is seen as a troublemaker by those in authority, as an atheist and as a man who stands up for what he sees as his rights. (Donald Macleod was apparently also a real person but not one familiar to me.) And as she spends time with him and his family, Mrs Scott comes to re-assess her own church-driven moral rigidity and stern humourlessness, and to realise that this may be what caused first her husband and then her son to leave her.

It is written in simple language, in third person but from Mrs Scott’s perspective. Her age and the circumstances in which she finds herself gain her sympathy from the beginning, but initially the reader too sees her as her son must have done, as a woman so determined to judge others by her strict moral code that she makes the lives of those around her miserable. As we learn her story, though, our sympathy grows – her life has been hard and perhaps her natural liveliness and humour were driven out by her early experiences. Abandoned by her feckless husband, she has devoted her life to her son, but her emotional repression means that she shows this devotion through nagging and criticism rather than through gestures of love and affection. And when he too abandons her, all she has left is her church – a church that preaches hell and damnation more than love and salvation, that rules through authoritarian fear. It is her final abandonment by the church that is the catalyst for her to re-assess her life. So there is a sense of hope in the end, not that life will be easier nor that eviction can be avoided, but that Mrs Scott may free herself of the shackles of misery in which the church has bound her, and learn a more open way of thinking even at her late age.

Iain Crichton Smith

After a very shaky start caused by the historical howlers, I eventually became absorbed in Mrs Scott’s story. It’s a short book and isn’t saying anything particularly new or profound – it is covering ground that has been well travelled in Scottish fiction, one might say trampled into a mire. But Crichton Smith keeps the story intentionally intimate by showing the effects of large events on one individual, and that makes it an emotional read, especially in the second half. I’m not convinced it really has the weight or quality to be considered a true classic, but it works well as a character study and an interesting, if slight, commentary on the way the church in Scotland has been used as a tool to keep the underlings under.

Amazon UK Link

Friday Frippery! Classics Club 10th Anniversary…

…and a questionnaire

The Classics Club is celebrating its 10th anniversary and has posed us all ten questions about our experiences with the club and with classics in general…

1.  When did you join the Classics Club?

I signed up in June 2016, and took five and a half years to finish my first list of ninety books, having made several changes to the original list along the way. I started on my second list at the beginning of this year – just eighty books this time – and am racing through them in the first flush of enthusiasm that only a shiny new booklist can bring!

2.  What is the best classic book you’ve read for the club so far? Why?

All of these questions are nearly impossible to answer, and my responses would probably be different on a different day! Excluding re-reads (which therefore excludes Dickens who would otherwise always win) I think I’d have to say The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Not only was it considerably more enjoyable than I expected with a lot of humour, but it’s Scottish, and it really helped put a lot of later Scottish fiction into context for me. It has the duality and the national obsession with our love/hate (mainly hate) relationship with our Knoxian brand of Calvinism, both themes that run through much of our literature. I think of it often, which has to be a sign of a great book.

3.  What is the first classic you ever read?

The thing is, I’m relatively ancient, which means that many children’s books I read when young which are now considered classics weren’t old enough to be thought of as classics when I read them! The Narnia books, even The Hobbit, weren’t classics when I read them. Possibly The Wind in the Willows was one of the first that would have counted by my own definition of being more than fifty years old, although I’m pretty sure I read the Holmes stories when I couldn’t have been much older (though shockingly even some of the later Holmes stories wouldn’t have counted as classics when I first read them!), and also some Rider Haggard, especially King Solomon’s Mines. Little Women and its sequels. And Anne of Green Gables, of course! But which was the first? Your guess is as good as mine!

4.  Which classic book inspired you the most?

I don’t know that any have really inspired me, but I did look on Anne of Green Gables as my role model when I was a kid. You could say Dickens’ books inspired me never to become a writer – I decided very early on that I’d never write a book if I couldn’t write one as good as his. The rest is history… 😉

5.  What is the most challenging one you’ve ever read, or tried to read?

Hmm, I’m never quite sure what “challenging” means in the context of books. I’ve disliked many that I’ve read – Lolita, Moby Dick, East of Eden – and abandoned many because I hated them – Earth Abides, Cannery Row, Last Exit to Brooklyn – but I wouldn’t say any of them challenged me. Maybe Heart of Darkness – it took me three reads to really appreciate it and I certainly found the notes essential, so yes, perhaps that counts as challenging.

6.  Favourite movie adaptation of a classic? Least favourite?

That really is an impossible question! Most favourite – any Hitchcock adaptation, especially Strangers on a Train, Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility, In the Heat of the Night, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, etc., etc. So I’m going to pick Moby-Dick – I thought the book was pretty bad but the film cut out all the stuff I disliked about the book and did what the book should have done but didn’t – turned Captain Ahab’s hunt for the whale into a thrilling adventure! I loved the film! And in the same vein, I’ll pick Slaughterhouse-Five as my least favourite – it seemed to miss out most of the complexity which made the book so thought-provoking and the changes the director made to the story weakened its impact and depth. I didn’t hate the film but I wouldn’t really recommend it either.

7.  Which classic character most reminds you of yourself?

The Queen in Snow White.

8.  Has there been a classic title you expected to dislike and ended up loving? Respecting? Appreciating?

Hmm, it would be rare for me to put a book I actually expected to dislike on my reading list – so rare I can’t think of one, in fact. I read purely for pleasure so whenever I open a book I hope it will thrill me, and am disappointed if it doesn’t – as happens frequently! However sometimes my expectations are lower than others – like with Silas Marner recently which, based on my lukewarm reaction to Middlemarch, I thought might be a middling read but ended up enjoying far more than I expected to.

9.  Classic/s you are DEFINITELY GOING TO MAKE HAPPEN next year?

Goodness, I don’t know! That’s far too far in the future! OK, I’ll pick one randomly from my new list and then we’ll see if I actually stick to it – Crime and Punishment!

10. Favourite memory with a classic and/or your favourite memory with The Classics Club?

Hmm, another difficult one! I remember how breathlessly I raced through The Great Gatsby the first time I read it long, long ago. I remember how much fun and laughter I had buddy-reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom books with a blogging friend.

I remember how I sobbed over that bit in Little Women/Good Wives that I can’t specify since it would be a spoiler, but you all know the bit I mean! I remember how I swooned over my Darcy – and still do! And with the Classics Club? My favourite memory of it would be seeing some of my blog buddies join in with lists of their own, so that now we can all compare spin lists and exchange opinions! And seeing some of you reading some relatively unknown Scottish classics on my recommendation, and enjoying them! And the chit-chat that reviewing classics always seems to inspire.

Thanks again to all the moderators past and present who have given generously of their time to make the Classics Club the huge success it is!

Have a Classic Day! 😀

Silas Marner by George Eliot

The importance of community…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Unjustly accused of theft, Silas Marner, his faith in God and man shattered, flees his home and church and sets himself up in a new place where he knows no one and no one knows him. Raveloe is a small rural village with a strong sense of community among the working class, who, as tradition demands, show deference to the local Squire and his feckless sons. Here Silas lives alone, plying his trade as a linen weaver and accumulating a store of gold which he carefully hides and takes out each night to lovingly count. And so his life may have continued, but that one night his hoard of gold is stolen. He is still reeling and depressed from this disaster when, a short time later, a little girl walks through his door. Silas discovers the body of the child’s mother nearby in the snow, and decides to adopt the girl, whom he calls Hephzibah, or Eppie for short.

Being one of the small minority who didn’t love Middlemarch, I began this one with a lot of hesitation – a book I felt should read rather than one I wanted to. So the pleasure of discovering that I loved it was all the greater for being unexpected. This one has what, for me, Middlemarch lacked – a strong plot. Its brevity is undoubtedly another point in its favour!

It gets off to a bit of a rocky start, as Eliot pontificates for a while about “the poor”, in that supercilious way that suggests they are one homogenous mass, easy to categorise, define and condescend to. “The poor”, apparently, are rather stupid, highly superstitious, easily led, and would fall somewhere not far above beasts of the field in a zoological league table. Whenever one of these 19th century writers talks about “the poor”, I feel I get a better understanding of why people invented guillotines. Happily, however, once she has staked her claim to social and intellectual superiority, she moves on quite quickly, and her depiction of individual members of “the poor” is much more nuanced and insightful than this opening monologue had led me to fear.

Book 6 0f 20

I also feared that Eppie might be one of these saccharin, perfect angels that infest Victorian fiction, usually shortly before they die tragically. Happily not! Eppie is wilful, naughty and refreshingly normal, and won past even my pretty strong anti-child defences. Silas’ reaction to her arrival is very well portrayed, as he sees her as a kind of redeeming gift from the God whom he felt had deserted him. Since she’s a very young child on her arrival, Silas, a man with no experience of children, has to reach out for help, forcing him to become part of the village life he had until then shunned. Perhaps he never quite regains his lost trust in man or God to the same level of naivety of his youth, but he learns to love again, and to appreciate neighbourliness and kindness and the value of community.

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The other side of the story is darker, and gives it a weight that prevents Silas’ story from being too sweet. The reader knows the identity of the dead woman, although the villagers do not, and we know why she was there that night, in a snow storm. “The poor” may get Eliot’s condescension, but she is stern on the fecklessness of those who live off the labour of others – the Squire class. Squire Cass himself is a man of pride and temper, and his sons have grown up with weak characters and a sense of entitlement that leads them into vice, each of a different kind. Eliot allows the possibility of redemption, but she intends to make her characters work for it.

George Eliot

I particularly enjoyed the occasional intervals where we eavesdrop on the men of the village, gathered of an evening in the local tavern to swap stories and exchange gossip. There’s a lot of humour in these passages, but they also give a great depiction of the social hierarchy of village life, based not so much on wealth as on age and experience, with a sense of earned wisdom being passed down through the generations. Eliot also shows how the women of the village try to ensure that motherless Eppie is given the guidance on womanly matters that Silas can’t provide.

Having been rather rude about Andrew Sachs’ narration of The Power and the Glory recently, I was delighted to find him excellent in this one. Without the distraction of “foreign” accents to contend with, he gives a full range of very good characterisations, each well suited to the social class of the character in question.

In the end, the various strands all come together satisfyingly, managing to be sweet without a surfeit of sugar. An excellent listening experience, and I’m now keen to explore more of Eliot’s work.

Audible UK Link

Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar

Drink and death…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When Claude Margolis is found stabbed to death, suspicion falls not unnaturally on a woman who has been spending time with him recently, Virginia Barkeley, who is found wandering the streets nearby in a drunken state and covered in blood. Virginia’s husband hires lawyer Eric Meecham to defend her. However his lawyerly skills aren’t needed for too long, since although Virginia can’t remember the events of the evening, another witness has come forward whose evidence seems to clear her. But something doesn’t feel quite right about the whole thing to Meecham, and he finds himself trying to find out exactly what did happen to Margolis…

This is billed as noir, but although it has some noir elements I don’t think it sits fully in that genre. It’s closer to a traditional mystery in style with Meecham playing the role of the unofficial detective. None of the various women fulfils the requirements of the femme fatale, being considerably more realistic and well-rounded than those usually are. Meecham is a little cynical about human nature, but he’s not completely world-weary, he works within the law, and he treats women like real people even if he does display the occasional “me Tarzan, you Jane” mentality typical of the time.

However, there are undoubtedly bleak aspects to the story that may be why some consider it noir. Drink plays a large part – not just Virginia’s blackout, but there’s another character, an elderly woman who, late in life, has become an alcoholic after a lifetime of not drinking. As her son says of her “One drink, and she was a drunk. She’d been a drunk for maybe thirty years and didn’t find it out until then. For her the world vanished in that instant.” It’s a really excellent portrayal of the shame of alcoholism for an elderly, respectable woman – hiding and lying, trying to keep up appearances, and always desperately trying to find the money to buy the next bottle.

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Her son, Earl Loftus, is another interesting characterisation. Still a young man, he is dying of a then incurable condition – leukaemia – and Millar shows how this affects his thoughts and actions, and the people around him. I am deliberately avoiding saying how Earl fits into the story, since the plot is revealed slowly and steadily as the book progresses and almost any information about it could count as a spoiler. But I found the depiction of him as a dying man credible and quite moving, and his actions seemed to arise naturally out of his situation.

The pace is slow and steady throughout, perhaps a little too slow in the middle section where I found my interest dipping for a while. But Meecham is a likeable lead character who shows a lot of empathy and understanding for the weakness and frailties that lead the other characters to act as they do. I could have done without the instant “true love” he finds with a character with whom he has exchanged all of about six sentences, especially since I found the girl annoyingly keen to become his adoring, submissive slave. (Is it just me, or are female authors of this era often more sexist than their male counterparts? Seems to me male crime writers of the ‘50s and ‘60s like their female love interests to be strong, sexy and a bit dangerous, while female authors make them clingy and pathetic. Maybe I just notice it more when it’s a female author who annoys me in this way.)

Margaret Millar

Some aspects of the plot are fairly easy to work out, but enough is held back to allow for a surprise at the end – a surprise that in truth seemed to me to lessen the general credibility up to that point, although not enough to lose me completely. It’s very well written, with the strength lying more in the characterisation than the plot. Overall, I preferred the only other Millar I’ve read to date, The Listening Walls, but I enjoyed this one enough to cement her in her place as an author I’d like to investigate further.

Amazon UK Link

The Painted Veil by W Somerset Maugham

Adultery in the time of cholera…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Despite her charm and beauty and although she has had many admirers, Kitty Garstin at the age of twenty-five finds herself still unmarried and close to ending up on the shelf. The situation becomes more urgent when her younger sister makes an excellent match, and Kitty is horrified at the idea of her sister marrying first. So she accepts a proposal from a man she doesn’t love – Walter Fane, a bacteriologist who is about to take up a position in Hong Kong, (called Tching-yen in the book). Once out in the colony, Kitty falls for the easy charm of Charlie Townsend, the Assistant Colonial Secretary, and they begin an affair. Kitty thinks this is true love, but for Charlie it’s merely one episode of many – his true love is his wife, despite his infidelity to her. So when Walter finds out about the affair he gives Kitty a choice – divorce him and marry Charlie, or accompany him to an area of China in the midst of a cholera epidemic. It’s then that Kitty discovers Charlie has no intention of leaving his wife, and seems quite comfortable with the idea of Kitty going into China…

Although written in the third person, the book is told from Kitty’s perspective throughout, and so we only get to know as much about the other characters as she knows. This leaves Walter as rather vague, since Kitty never really understands him, not even why he should be in love with someone that he clearly sees, justifiably, as his intellectual inferior. When Walter makes his demand that she accompany him into the cholera zone, she believes that he is hoping that she will die there. And she may be right.

I found Kitty rather annoying at first, empty-headed and shallow. She never really develops a great deal of depth in her personality, but Maugham certainly creates depth in his characterization of her. In some ways it’s a coming of age story, as Kitty’s experiences first show her how empty of any meaning her life has been, and then give her the opportunity to grow. It’s also a study of the position of this class of women in that era, when a good marriage was still the ultimate sign of success and when divorce was still so scandalous that it would thrust a woman out of respectable society. Kitty has been trained and educated only to be ornamental and charming, so one can hardly blame her for her shallowness. Her role as a wife is to support her husband and to have children. Perhaps if Kitty had had a child she may not have indulged in an affair, but being the wife of a man obsessed by his work and having servants to do all the tedious work around the home leaves Kitty, and all colonial women to an extent, with very little to fill their empty days.

Book 6 of 80

First published in 1925, the book is of its age when it comes to colonial attitudes. Some of the language that Maugham uses in describing the Chinese characters and culture certainly seems offensive to modern eyes, more so, I felt, than in some other colonial writing from the same era. However, it does give an idea of how foreign and unsettling everything seems to Kitty, and as the story unfolds she shows at least a little desire to understand more about the people she finds herself living amongst. But mostly China is relegated to a beautiful and exotic background against which a very English story plays out.

There’s also a religious aspect to the book that rather puzzled me. Kitty has no belief in a God, but once in the cholera zone she begins to help out at the local convent which is caring for both cholera patients and orphans, and in her conversations with the nuns there’s a suggestion that she comes to feel that her lack of faith is part of the emptiness inside her. Yet there’s no suggestion of her converting to a life of religion. I couldn’t quite make out what Maugham was trying to say about religion – he seemed to admire the dedication and faith of the nuns without accepting the truth of their beliefs. I googled him afterwards and actually think that maybe this is a reflection of his own ambivalence – he seems to have been an atheist or agnostic of the kind who struggles with and perhaps regrets his lack of faith.

W Somerset Maugham

I loved the book for the quality of the writing and the characterization, and particularly appreciated the way he developed Kitty gradually and realistically over the course of the story. But I had two minor quibbles that just stopped it from being a five-star read for me. The first is entirely subjective and isn’t a criticism of the book – I had seen and thoroughly enjoyed the film before I read it and that unfortunately meant that I knew how the story was going to play out, which took away any suspense and reduced my emotional response. My second criticism is more objective – I hated the way it ended, the last few pages being filled with a kind of pretentious, breathless hyper-emotionalism that didn’t seem to match the rest of the book, nor tie in with Kitty’s character as we had come to know her. Again, it had the same kind of jumbled religious undertones that I felt had been confusing throughout, so perhaps Maugham was trying to resolve Kitty’s feelings about faith in some way in the end. But if so, I’m afraid it didn’t work for me.

Despite that, overall I found it interesting, thought-provoking and enjoyable, and very well written, and it has certainly left me keen to read more of his work. 4½ stars for me, so rounded up.

Book 6 of 12

This was the People’s Choice winner for June. An excellent choice, People – well done!

Amazon UK Link

Classics Club Spin #30 – result!

It’s number…

It’s from the Scottish section…

It’s set in Sutherland…

It’s about the Highland Clearances…

Its title is a Bible quote…

It’s 160 pages…


Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith

The Blurb says: When she rose in the morning the house at first seemed to be the same. The sun shone through the curtains of her window. On the floor it turned to minute particles like water dancing. Nevertheless, she felt uneasy…

What had the girl said? Something about the ‘burning of houses’. They just couldn’t put people out of their houses, and then burn the houses down. No one had ever heard of that before. Not in the country…”

In this modern classic, from one of Scotland’s greatest writers, Consider the Lilies captures the thoughts and memories of an old woman who has lived all her life within the narrow confines of her community during one of the cruellest episodes of Scottish history – the Highland Clearances.

Written with compassion, in spare, simple prose, Consider the Lilies is a moving testament to the enduring qualities which enable the oppressed to triumph in defeat.

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Thanks, Spin Gods!

Classics Club Round-Up 5 – Scottish

When I joined the Classics Club back in June 2016, I created a list of 90 books which I planned to read and review during the next five years. I divided the original list into five sections: American, English, Scottish, Crime and Science Fiction. So rather than trying to summarise the whole thing in one post, I’ve decided to give each section a post to itself as I complete it. Here’s the fifth and final…


As I’ve said many times, I’m ashamed of how few Scottish classics I’ve read, partly because we were mainly taught English literature in our education system and so English classics have always been my comfort zone. But this isn’t a good enough excuse to cover the several decades since I left school! So I was keen to have a Scottish section on my CC list – 20 books, some of which are well known and many others I’d never heard of, selected from various Best Of lists or from the recommendations of family and fellow bloggers. As well as reading the novels, I’ve read a little along the way about the history of Scottish fiction and its characteristics, and learned the meaning of the wonderful phrase “Caledonian antisyzygy” – “the existence of duelling polarities within one entity” or, more simply, duality or opposites – which features in different forms throughout Scottish fiction and, indeed, life: Jekyll and Hyde, good and evil twins or siblings, Highlander/Lowlander, Jacobite/Hanoverian, Protestant/Catholic, nationalist/unionist, etc., etc.

Starting with the bad and working up towards the good then – the quotes are from my reviews or, in the case of abandoned books, from my notes on Goodreads:


Annals of the Parish by John Galt – removed from the list to make room for one I acquired and wanted to include, Marriage.

Grey Granite by Lewis Grassic Gibbon – “I wonder what happened to Lewis Grassic Gibbon? Sunset Song is undoubtedly great, Cloud Howe is mediocre and dull, and this one is dreadful. Did he only write the other two to cash in on the success of the first?” Replaced by The White Bird Passes.

The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett – I know loads of people love Dunnett, but I hated her writing style, and gave up on this one at a very early stage. Replaced by The Silver Darlings.


Bad is, of course, a subjective term…

Children of the Dead End by Patrick MacGill – “It wasn’t long after this point that I decided I’d had enough of the adventures of Mr Misogyny and his dog-kicking boots.”

The Bull Calves by Naomi Mitchison – “It has its good points, but it fails in the major criterion of what makes a good novel – it has no plot to speak of, certainly not one that builds any suspense or tension, or makes the reader care about the outcome.”


Marriage by Susan Ferrier – “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.”

The House with the Green Shutters by George Douglas Brown – “Well, I’m willing to bet Brown would have got on well with my old friend John Steinbeck. They could have had misanthropy competitions to see who could be the most miserable. I’m tempted to suggest that Brown might have won.”

Cloud Howe by Lewis Grassic Gibbon – “There’s a lot of drunkenness which would certainly have been true of Scottish society, but a lack of warmth and generosity of spirit, which doesn’t ring true to me and seems in direct contrast to the feeling of community in Sunset Song.”

Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie – “It takes about half the book before the shipwreck happens, and for most of that time we are introduced to a variety of quirky caricatures . . . and listen while they tell each other how awful life is because they have no whisky.”

The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins – “…religious symbolism abounds in an Old Testament, Garden of Eden corrupted by nasty humanity kind of way, but it’s all a bit simplistic – the good people are so very innocent, and the bad people are hissably dastardly villains.”


Flemington by Violet Jacob – “Jacob takes us from high society to low, into the drawing-rooms of Edinburgh in the company of the self-important Lord Balnillo and his friends, and into the world of intrigue carried out in inns and back streets under cover of night…”

Imagined Corners by Willa Muir – “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.”

No Mean City by Alexander McArthur and H. Kingsley Long – “Its brutal, violent depiction of gang culture is in a large measure responsible for the persistent reputation of Glasgow as the city of gangs – a reputation still exploited by many contemporary Glaswegian crime writers…”

The Silver Darlings by Neil M. Gunn – “His portrayal of the sea as a heartless mistress, dealing out wealth and death arbitrarily, is wonderful, and the sailing scenes are some of the best parts of the book.”


The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett – “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.”

The Fair Maid of Perth by Sir Walter Scott – “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.”

Catherine and Ramorny in the dungeon

The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson – “When Bonnie Prince Charlie arrives in Scotland in 1745 to reclaim the lost Stuart crown, the Durie family of Durrisdeer must decide where their loyalties lie. If they make the wrong choice, they could lose everything, but pick the winning side and their future is secure.”

The New Road by Neil Munro – “First published in 1914, Munro is clearly setting out to drag some realism back into the narrative of the Jacobite era, in contrast to the gradual romanticisation that took place during the 19th century both of the risings and of Highland society in general.”

The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – “The background story takes us to the Pennsylvanian coal-mines of the 1870s, where we meet Jack McMurdo, an Irishman who has just arrived there after fleeing justice in Chicago. He quickly becomes involved in the Scowrers, a gang of unscrupulous and violent men who control the valley through fear, intimidation and murder.”

The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison – “The quality of the writing and characterisation; the beautiful descriptions of the wild landscape and weather of the Highlands; the delicately nuanced portrayal of the position of women within this small, rather isolated society; the story that manages tragedy without melodrama and hope without implausibility – all of these mean it richly merits its status as a Scottish classic.”

The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson – “…allowing the reader to find amusement, along with Janie herself, in the scrabbling existence of the women of the Lane and the hardships of Janie’s life. And Janie’s uncomplicated love for her neglectful, inadequate mother makes the reader see her with sympathetic eyes too, for, whatever Liza’s flaws may be, she loves her daughter.”

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark – “Spark skewers this Edinburgh society with its fixation on class, its soul-destroying respectability, still suffering from the blight of Calvin’s and Knox’s self-righteous, unforgiving Protestantism, obsessed by immorality and sin.”

The wonderful Maggie Smith in her prime…


Oh, this was a tough decision! The Gowk Storm, The Master of Ballantrae, The New Road, The White Bird Passes – all wonderful books, all eminently Scottish. But my winner has to be the most Scottish of all, full of that Caledonian antisyzygy stuff! It’s a satire on the idea of predestination, an examination of the origins of the sectarianism which still disfigures Scotland today, a tale of sibling rivalry, a story of madness, murder and the devil. And surprisingly, it’s also full of humour…

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg – “The justified sinner of the title is the younger brother, Robert. Abandoned by the man the law says is his father, and subjected to the religious fanaticism of his guardian and his mother, it’s perhaps not surprising that the boy grows up to be somewhat twisted and jealous of his elder brother, who seems to have a golden life. But Robert’s problems really begin when Reverend Wringhim informs him that God has decided Robert should be one of the elect, predestined for salvation. The question the book satirises is – if one is predestined for salvation, does that mean one can sin free of consequences? In fact, is it possible for the elect to sin at all or, by virtue of their exalted status, do things that would be sinful if done by one of the damned cease to be sins when done by one of the elect? The book is not an attack on religious faith in general, but Hogg has a lot of fun with all the gradations of extremity within this particularly elitist little piece of dogma.”

Portrait of James Hogg by Sir John Watson Gordon

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In summary, then, too many Jacobites in the historical fiction, too many miserable drunks in the 20th century batch. But also loads of great reads and it’s been a thrill seeing a few of my fellow bloggers read some of the books I’ve loved, and mostly loving them too. I also enjoyed doing a review-along of one of the books on the list, The Silver Darlings, which surprisingly my fellow review-alongers enjoyed even more than I did. I still wouldn’t count myself as well-read in Scottish classics, but I’m better than I was!

And that, as they say, is a wrap for my first Classics Club list!

Thanks for your company on my journey!

Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens

A novel without a hero…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Paul Dombey is a wealthy, proud and cold man, with only one desire – to have a son to bear his name and to carry on the business he has built. His downtrodden wife has already given him a daughter, Florence, but what use is a daughter? What good is she in business? However, finally the son arrives – young Paul, who within a few hours will be motherless as Mrs Dombey dies, almost unremarked by anyone except the broken-hearted Florence. This is the tale of young Paul’s life…

Well, at least so the title would suggest. And for the first third of the book we do indeed follow Paul, as he grows into a weakly child and is sent off to school in Brighton where it is hoped the sea air will restore his health. *spoiler alert* Alas! ‘Tis not to be. Our little hero dies and we are left with a huge gaping hole, possibly in our hearts (I certainly sobbed buckets!), and most definitely in the book!

Dickens quickly regroups and from then on Florence is our central character and she does her best, poor little lamb. But Dickens’ heroines are only allowed a little latitude for heroism. They must be sweet, pure, loving and put-upon, and they must rely on male friends and acquaintances, mostly, for help in their many woes. So Dickens promptly introduces a new hero – young Walter Gay, nephew of Solomon Gills who owns a shop dealing in ship’s instruments. Walter promptly falls in love with Florence (they are both still children at this stage) and sets out to be her chief support and defender. For alas, although she is now Dombey’s only child, this merely makes him resent her even more. So we, the readers, mop up our tears over Paul and get ready to take Walter to our hearts instead. And what does Dickens do then? Promptly sends Walter to Barbados on a sailing ship so that he disappears for years, and for most of the rest of the book! I love Dickens, but I must admit he annoys me sometimes!

Book 5 of 80

You’ll have gathered that I don’t think this is the best plotted of Dickens’ books. I had some other quibbles too – unlikely friendships, inconceivable romantic attachments, less humour than usual, especially in the first section. However, as always, there’s lots to love too. Florence, despite the restrictions placed on her, shows herself to be strong, resilient and intelligent. She is pathetic in her longing for her revolting father’s love, but that’s not an unreasonable thing for a child to be pathetic about. I’ll try to avoid more spoilers, but she does take control of her own future to a greater degree than most of Dickens’ heroines, and Dickens gives her a lovely dog, Diogenes, which allows her to have some love and cheerfulness in her lonely life.

In fact, there are a lot of rather good women in this one – good as characters, I mean, rather than morally good. I think they’re more interesting than the men for once. There’s Polly Toodles, young Paul’s wet nurse who is loved by both the children and has plenty of room in her generous heart for a couple of extra children despite her own large brood. Through her and her husband, we see the building of the railways in progress and Dickens is always excellent on the subject of industrialisation and the changes it brings to places and ways of life.

Then there’s Mrs Louisa Chick, Dombey’s sister, and her friend, Miss Lucretia Tox who is a beautifully tragic picture of faded gentility – a romantic heart with no one who wants the love she would so like to give. Although she’s a secondary character, I found her story quietly heart-breaking. Susan Nipper, Florence’s maid, is a bit of a comedy character, but again she is strong and resourceful, and loyal to her mistress, as indeed Florence is loyal to her. They provide an interesting picture of two women from very different classes and levels of education who nevertheless find themselves in solidarity against an unfair world. Mrs Pipchin, Paul’s landlady in Brighton, is not cruel to the children exactly, but she is cold and grasping – it’s all about the money with her.

A major character later in the book is Edith Granger, whom Dombey condescendingly decides to marry. She reminded me very much of Estella in Great Expectations, in that she had been brought up to fulfil a purpose not of her own choosing; in her case, to marry a rich man. Mostly her inward struggle is portrayed very well. However, some of her actions seemed not just illogical but frankly unbelievable, so that I found my sympathy for her waning over the course of the book. And possibly the strongest female character is Alice, whom, since she appears only quite late on and is central to the book’s climax, I can’t say much about at all without spoilers, except that she is righteously full of rage and out for revenge, and Dickens does vengeful women brilliantly!

Oh, there are some men in it too, but I’ve run out of space! Maybe I’ll talk about them the next time I read the book… 😉

Charles Dickens

Overall, I didn’t think this one worked as well as his very best in terms of plotting and structure, and I felt the absence of a hero for most of the book left it feeling a bit unfocused. But as always I loved the writing, and the huge cast of characters provide us with everything from comedy to cold-hearted cruelty, with a healthy dash of sentimental romance along the way. The oppressed position of women is a central theme – from Florence’s dismissal from her father’s love for the sin of being born female, through Edith being as good as sold into marriage, to Alice’s story and the reasons for her fury against one man in particular but also against the society that looks the other way or blames the woman when women are mistreated by men. I’d almost suggest Dickens was being a bit of a feminist here! Not one of my top favourites, but a very good one nevertheless, and as always, highly recommended!

Amazon UK Link

Classics Club Round-Up 4 – English

When I joined the Classics Club back in June 2016, I created a list of 90 books which I planned to read and review during the next five years. I divided the original list into five sections: American, English, Scottish, Crime and Science Fiction. So rather than trying to summarise the whole thing in one post, I’ve decided to give each section a post to itself as I complete it. Here’s the fourth…


When it comes to the Classics, English is my comfort zone. In my day, it was English literature we were primarily taught in school, with a sprinkling of American and almost no Scottish. The same applies to history. The result is that I understand classic English literature without having to work at it, and I understand the social, cultural and historical background. So when I pick up an English classic, I am conditioned to enjoy it, and almost always do. More objectively, I also happen to think that the English have given us some of the greatest writers and finest fiction in the history of the world.

The result of my predisposition towards classic English literature is that this section is heavily weighted towards the good and the great. This was helped by the fact that it contained several re-reads of old favourites, and included five Dickens novels. Anyone who’s visited my blog for any length of time can’t fail to be aware of my abiding love for Dickens!

Starting with the bad and working up towards the good then – the quotes are from my reviews:


I abandoned no books in this section. I replaced two, but only to make room for two that hadn’t been on my original list that I read along the way and wanted to add. The two that I bumped to make room would both have been re-reads, and will no doubt be re-read again some time in the future:

The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens was replaced by The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens.

The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene was replaced by Middlemarch by George Eliot.


Bad is, of course, a subjective term…

No Name by William Wilkie Collins – “As always, I came away with the impression that Collins was trying to ‘do a Dickens’ and was failing pretty dramatically.”

Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp – “Sharp clearly felt stupid is a synonym for funny. We’ll have to agree to differ on that.”


Middlemarch by George Eliot – “A book that engaged my intellect more than my emotions and, in the end, failed to make me care about the outcomes for the people with whom I’d spent so much time.”

The African Queen by CS Forester – “Do people change as rapidly as these two do, even in extreme circumstances? Hmm, perhaps, but I wasn’t entirely convinced.”


Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens – “…this is one where the individual parts may not come together as well as in his greatest novels, but it’s well worth reading anyway, for the riots and for the interest of seeing Dickens experiment with the historical novel as a form.”

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens – “The filthy and polluted Thames runs through the heart of the book, appearing again and again as the place where the foulest acts take place, and Dickens uses it to great effect as he builds up an atmosphere of tension and horror.” [I gave this one five stars at the time, but reading back over my review I feel I was too generous, so have reduced it to four for the purposes of this summary.]

Dark deeds by the river…

Lorna Doone by RD Blackmore – “The description of the harvest itself is wonderfully done, full of warmth as Blackmore describes the age-old rituals that surround this most important point of the rural year. For this picture of farming life alone, the book is well worth reading.”

Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence – “…as he finds himself struggling to develop satisfying relationships with the women with whom he becomes involved, he knows that this is at least partly due to the influence and pull of his mother’s overweening, almost romantic, love for him. Of course, this being Lawrence, this psychological question plays out largely at the sexual level.”

Bath Tangle by Georgette Heyer – “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!”


Mansfield Park by Jane Austen – “She may not have as much fun as Lizzie, and Edmund is not a hero I’d particularly want to marry myself, but Fanny knows what she wants and has the strength of mind and character to get it, and she deserves to be admired for that!”

Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley – “…I’d like to make a law where every scientist should be locked in a room for one week every year and be forced to read and contemplate this book, and maybe write an essay on it for public consumption before being considered for funding.”

Boris Karloff and Edward Van Sloan in Frankenstein 1931

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens – “Nell starts out rather better than a lot of Dickens’ drooping heroines. She’s a girl of spirit who loves to laugh . . . She’s not quite as strong as Kickass Kate Nickleby, but she’s certainly no Drippy Dora Copperfield either!”

Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens – “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!”

Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy – “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!”

Nada the Lily by H Rider Haggard – “…Haggard’s portrayal has a firm foundation in history and apparently also in the legend and folklore of the Zulu people. What I found so surprising about it is that Haggard offers the story to his British readers non-judgementally – he presents this society as it is (in his mind, at least – I have no way to gauge its accuracy) and the characters judge each other by their own standards, not by ours.”

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad – “Conrad shows the devastating impact the white man had on both the society and the land of Africa, but he also shows that this devastation turns back on the coloniser, corrupting him physically and psychologically, and by extension, corrupting the societies from which he comes.”

Rebecca  by Daphne du Maurier – “The book is famously compared to Jane Eyre, but the dead Rebecca is much more vividly alive in Manderley than the madwoman in Mr Rochester’s attic ever is. She infuses every room with the strength of her personality, as our narrator flits through the house like a ghost, or like the lowliest little maid, afraid to touch anything.”

The Code of the Woosters by PG Wodehouse – “Madeline is as soupy as ever, still thinking that each time a bunny rabbit sneezes a wee star is born. One can quite understand Bertie’s reluctance to enter into the blessed state of matrimony with her.”

The Go-Between by LP Hartley – “There is an air of nostalgia for a golden age, but below the surface brilliance the reader is aware of the rot of a rigid social code that restricts most the very people who superficially seem most privileged.”


(Obviously it was always going to be a Dickens! If I’d excluded Dickens, either Tess or The Go-Between would have been my choice. Or Frankenstein…)

Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens – “Nicholas is also more complex than most of Dickens’ young heroes. At heart he is naturally good, but he’s hot-tempered, can have a wicked sense of humour at times, is not above poking fun at the dreadful Miss Fanny Squeers, and even flirts outrageously with Miss Snevellicci. He’s tougher too – although he gets help along the way, one feels Nicholas would have been perfectly capable of making his own way in life if he had to. And he’s kind and fiercely loyal – his friendship with Smike, one of the boys from Dotheboys, is beautifully portrayed, and always has me sobbing buckets. If I was forced to fall in love with a Dickens hero, Nicholas would be the one…”

(Nicholas gets a little hot-tempered…)

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So a wonderful section – any nation that can produce such great literature can’t be all bad! 😉

Thanks for your company on my journey!

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

The underrated heroine…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Fanny Price, daughter of a woman who married beneath her and a feckless drunken father, is one of many siblings, all living in relative poverty in Portsmouth. When Mrs Price appeals to her sisters for assistance, they hatch the plan of taking Fanny into their own care, thus relieving Mrs Price of the need to provide for her. Fanny is promptly transplanted from all she has ever known to the, to her, huge house of Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, to be brought up alongside their daughters, although always as the poor relation. Here Fanny will grow up, treated kindly to a degree, but expected always to defer to her cousins and to be grateful to her uncle and aunts. Sir Thomas also has two sons, already almost grown up when Fanny joins the family, and the younger of these, Edmund, will become her protector and friend. And Fanny’s lonely little heart will respond to his true kindness…

(What follows is mildly spoilery, but I think we all know how every Austen novel ends…)

Fanny is a shy and self-effacing soul, and her modesty, lack of ready wit and frequent moralising mean that she’s often treated as the least of Austen’s heroines. I’ve always had a soft spot for her, though, and for the novel as a whole, which may not have the sparkling charm of Pride and Prejudice or Northanger Abbey but in some ways gives a broader view of the society within which Austin lived and wrote.

There’s no doubt that Fanny’s quietness and strong moral values do make her harder to warm to as quickly as a Lizzie Bennet or even an Anne Elliot. But she’s deceptively strong-willed and even defiant of the passive role demanded of all women to some degree, but especially of the poor relation, dependent on charity. As a contrast to Anne Elliot, famously persuaded by her relatives to refuse the man she loved, Fanny is clear in her own mind that love is the only foundation for a marriage, and refuses to be forced into a match her relatives think is not just suitable, but wildly above what she could have reasonably hoped for.

Of course, she takes it for granted, being a sensible little thing, that one should only fall in love with a respectable and wealthy young man – she has the example of her mother’s downfall to remind her of the perils of marrying an unsuitable man. And she’s also protected from the dangers of falling for the first man to admire her because she has already given her heart to Edmund. Nonetheless, she has to be admired for standing firm and demanding her right to make her own decisions.

It’s not only on the marital question that she shows that firmness of character, or stubbornness, if one wants to be less kind about it. All through her story she refuses to compromise her own moral judgements by acceding to the wishes of the more assertive characters by whom she’s surrounded, on small issues as well as large. It’s understandable that the people around her find her annoying sometimes, and I’m sure I would too if she were a friend or relative of mine, but as a character it makes her considerably more interesting than some of the more pathetic women in 19th century literature.

Book 90 of 90

Intriguingly she doesn’t just live by a pre-determined set of morals handed to her by her society – she thinks deeply about right and wrong, and comes to her own conclusions. Commentary on the book suggests Austen was using this to show the rise of Evangelical Christianity at the time – it’s not something I know much about, but I find it a convincing argument. To me, the more important aspect is that, while she outwardly defers to Edmund’s more educated and experienced outlook on questions of religion and morality, in fact it is she who influences and strengthens his views. He comes to recognise her moral strength in time, but Fanny is far too clever to ever let him suspect that she is deliberately setting out to mould him into her ideal of manhood. Perhaps Fanny doesn’t even realise herself that that’s what she’s doing, but there’s no doubt in my mind who will make all the important decisions for them both throughout their lives, once she finishes training him!

The outside world plays a role in the book too, though mostly off stage. Sir Thomas’ long absence in his plantation means that much has been written regarding whether the book can be interpreted as supporting or opposing slavery. In my opinion it does neither – it merely recognises that at that time many families in Britain owed their wealth to slavery, a simple truth. What we do see though is the role of men as landowners and householders, the suitable career options for the non-aristocratic wealthy, and the changing views on the Church as a sinecure for younger sons. We are also reminded of the restricted circumstances of this class of women, though interestingly all of the younger women in the book rebel against these in one way or another. Most of these rebellions end in social disaster for the women involved, but the book gives little sense of moral disapproval of their attempts to break free. Austen seems to disapprove of the silly ways they go about it rather than of the idea of rebellion itself. She uses Fanny to show how quiet, determined rebellion can be more successful than flamboyant gestures, and she largely reserves her disapproval for the men.

Jane Austen

As always, there’s far too much in any of these major classics to discuss in a reasonable length blog post, so I’ll finish with one last thing that I particularly enjoy about this book – that Austen takes us out of wealthy society to visit Fanny’s parents’ home in Portsmouth, showing us this naval town during the Napoleonic era, and allowing Fanny to recognise the comforts that wealth provides. Again I’d love to claim that Austen was making some point other than that money is a Good Thing, but I fear she isn’t. She does make it clear that wealth doesn’t guarantee health or happiness, but she doesn’t mawkishly pretend that poverty, even the relative poverty of Fanny’s family, is in any way romantic or better.

One of my favourite Austens (but then I say that about them all), and one that is often overlooked or underrated. She may not have as much fun as Lizzie, and Edmund is not a hero I’d particularly want to marry myself, but Fanny knows what she wants and has the strength of mind and character to get it, and she deserves to be admired for that!

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