Reading · The Classics Club

Completed: Lady Susan by Jane Austen

Cover: Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon by Jane AustenLady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon
Jane Austen
(England, c. 1794-1818)

It is a pity that Austen didn’t live to complete her final novel.

Although I picked Lady Susan/The Watsons/Sanditon off my shelves intending just to read Lady Susan, which was completed, though unpublished in Austen’s lifetime, in the end I decided to reread the two unfinished novels as well.

The first time I read this collection, I was disappointed primarily that The Watsons was left hanging–Emma’s story held so much interest to me. But coming at it years later, I realized that there are so many elements of The Watsons in her other novels that the plot seems anticipatable by inference, while on the other hand Sanditon appears to have just enough variation from Austen’s “norm” that it tantalizes with a world of possibilities of what might have been. While I would assume the marriage plot elements of her complete novels would be present, there’s little enough of the novel (though ever so much more than The Watsons) that I can’t say for sure who would end with who, though I may make some guesses. Nor, perhaps more importantly, can I be sure of which characters will see growth–for there are plenty of silly, or perhaps in the case of Sir Edward, dangerous, characters. Will Arthur Parker remain indolent or will a pretty girl prompt him to action? Will Sir Edward remain on his path of intrigue, or will rejection strike sense into him? (Doesn’t seem likely.) And perhaps the biggest question of all: Will Sanditon see success as a holiday town, or was part of Austen’s satire to be its failure, or even just indifference? All such questions must remain only in speculation, alas (though there seems to be no shortage of continuations by other authors).

Lady Susan, on the other hand, is very much finished. According to the introduction in my copy, Austen had even written it out in a fair copy, but did not submit it for publication, perhaps because she was unsatisfied with the epistolary style. While the style leads to a quick read, it does place limitations on how much of the story we can see –for only that which can be told in a letter can be portrayed.

There is exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a person pre-determined to dislike, acknowledge one’s superiority. (Letter 7, Lady Susan to Mrs. Johnson)

Lady Susan herself is a frequent contributor to these letters. A widow with a teenage daughter, it seems plain that her ambitions are to get her daughter out of the way–by way of a wealthy husband, if at all possible–and to perhaps make a new match for herself, or at least to divert herself a while until she can, perhaps, resume her affair with a married man. She is clearly a clever woman, and one with much spirit, who seeks her own amusement and entertainment, feeling little true sympathy for others. Although at times one may wonder if she is not unfairly treated by her times and society, limiting as it is with its expectations of “proper” female behavior and the limited opportunities for female advancement or even survival, Lady Susan’s own letters give her away as unfeeling towards her own daughter and cavalierly toying with the emotions of men in pursuit of her own motives. She cares not if she breaks hearts or tempts a man away from his relationship with another woman (though perhaps, in at least one case, this will be better in the long term for the young woman in question). Despite the limitations of the form, there is still enough here to form quite an entire picture of the Lady.

Lady Susan is by no means Austen at her finest, but it is an early example of her keen observation of society around her and remains entertaining for all its brevity. It formed the basis for the 2016 film Love & Friendship, a film I have yet to see but which I eagerly look forward to watching.

I read Lady Susan as part of the 2018 TBR Challenge, for “A Classic by a Woman Author” for the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge, and for my Classics Club list.

Reading

Completed: Longbourn by Jo Baker

Cover: Longbourn by Jo BakerLongbourn
Jo Baker
(2013, England)

Some years ago I reread Pride and Prejudice for the third or fourth time, and so enjoyed my time in the world of the novel, that I thought I should like to spend some more time there, specifically by way of Longbourn by Jo Baker. The “upstairs-downstairs” premise intrigued me, especially in light of my enjoyment of the 1910s-20s-set Downton Abbey. I was well aware that Austen’s world only represented a small slice of all the possible experiences of Regency England, and very curious to read a novel representing the lives of the “downstairs” staff at the Bennet’s home, Longbourn. (And yes, it did take me well over a year before I returned to Longbourn. I make plans, but the follow-through…)

In that particular goal I was not disappointed. The novel opens with wash day, and the detail which Baker incorporates quite naturally into the scene both speaks to the level of research she must have completed as well as informing the reading just how physically difficult life could be for the poor and working classes of the pre-electrified era. The novel was also a compelling read, tying in cleverly to the source material. Baker knows Pride and Prejudice quite well; she picks up on (and quotes, at the start of each chapter) little details from Austen that I had not fully noticed before. In one particular scene, as the young ladies of the house are greatly anticipating the Netherfield Ball, the weather prevents them going into Meryton themselves, and so, Austen tells us, the “very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by proxy.” Baker fills in the rest–it may be too wet for refined young ladies, but not so for the housemaid; she it is who must make the muddy, soaking trek, for new decorations for ladies’ dancing shoes must be had. This may strip the “romance” from the “world of Austen,” but it fleshes out an era that many of us may only know via period film or novels.

However, I am reminded again–or maybe just finally forced to admit–that commercial historical fiction just isn’t for me. (I qualify because I have found some more “literary” historical fiction, such as The Bluest Eye, more compelling.) No matter how well researched, there always seems something just a bit “off,” a hint of the social mores or biases of the writer’s own time period that ultimately takes away from my enjoyment of the story. I can’t point to anything particular here (the way I can with Year of Wonders), but there’s just this niggling feeling that the 21st century has crept into the plot. And perhaps I bring that in as the reader as much as the author has. So while I feel I could recommend it to a fan of the genre, I think I can safely leave my reading time for other literary horizons. Maybe Austenesque satires? I do have a copy of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies on my shelves…

Classic Children's Literature · Reading

Completed: The Arm of the Starfish by Madeleine L’Engle

Cover: The Arm of the Starfish by Madeleine L'Engle The Arm of the Starfish
Madeleine L’Engle
US, 1965

In terms of the order of events in L’Engle’s wider story universe, The Arm of the Starfish is not the next book after A Wrinkle in Time. That would be A Wind in the Door (1973). But in terms of publication, The Arm of the Starfish was the second, and on a whim I decided that I would read all of the books, not just in the Time Quintet but in the Poly O’Keefe stories as well, in the order of publication. (This does have the negative consequence of delaying my return to my TBR list by a bit, but only a bit. I’ll be back in TBR-land shortly!)

Despite only three years between publication, The Arm of the Starfish seems a world away from A Wrinkle in Time. Not only is this because the two returning characters–Meg O’Keefe (née Murray) and Calvin O’Keefe are now married adults with seven children, but because unlike A Wrinkle in Time, The Arm of the Starfish seems much more grounded in the world we the readers know–there are no fantastic beings, no otherworldly travels, no giant evil IT to defeat. Indeed, the evil in this book is only too human–but surely as destructive and enticing for all that. The only element that really sets this novel in the realm of science-fiction is the depiction of Dr. O’Keefe’s science experiments involving starfish regeneration.

Our protagonist in The Arm of the Starfish is Adam Eddington, a young, but clearly intelligent and destined-to-be successful, man who is spending his last summer before college working for Dr. O’Keefe in his Portuguese island-based lab. However, things start to go awry before Adam even lands in Portugal, from the fog-delay at the airport to his mysterious encounter with the young beauty, Kali, to the airplane’s diversion to Madrid and Adam’s first encounters with Canon Tallis and Poly O’Keefe (the oldest of the O’Keefe children). Entrusted with seeing Poly safely to Lisbon and her father’s arms, Adam finds himself trapped in a larger conspiracy when Poly disappears from the plane and no one on board seems inclined to believe Adam’s story of her very existence.

While the Time Quintet books are more firmly in the realm of science-fiction, exploring cosmic concepts and universe-wide battles of good and evil, The Arm of the Starfish sits closer to the thriller genre, always steering towards a final, dangerous, confrontation. Its themes are of the darkness that lust for power or money or prestige can drive one to and of the small battles of individuals, both within themselves and against others.

Although a very different reading experience, diverging as it does in both style and story from its predecessor, The Arm of the Starfish, like Wrinkle, centers around a young protagonist with faults and self-doubt, whose failings sometimes may frustrate the reader, but who learns from his mistakes and grows over the course of the novel. In turn, the reader learns from Adam, and from his struggles.

My one piece of discomfort with The Arm of the Starfish was its portrayal of a native village on the fictional island of Gaea. L’Engle’s native characters feel as if they venture a little too close to stereotype (along the lines of “noble native”) for comfort, although they are only ever seen in a positive light. Also—and I admit here, I don’t know anything about actual Portuguese islands—the village, and its inhabitants, seemed more like something I would expect to read of in the South Pacific or Latin America than off the coast of Portugal. Stereotype or not, it threw me off mentally, every time it was described. In contrast, L’Engle’s depictions of Lisbon felt (and again, I can’t speak to personal experience) as if they were written by someone who has seen Lisbon in person.

All-in-all, a fast-paced enjoyable book, though perhaps not as enchanting as the better-known A Wrinkle in Time.

 

Reading

Completed: Murder on the Orient Express

Cover: Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha ChristieMurder on the Orient Express
Agatha Christie
(1934, England)

I don’t usually reread mysteries. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever reread a mystery before this. But last November, when I saw the Kenneth Branagh adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express in the theater (which I rather enjoyed, although David Suchet will always be my favorite Hercule Poirot—and that mustache! I almost didn’t watch this version just because of Branagh’s mustache!), I realized that I didn’t really remember the original novel all that well and was curious how closely the film aligned to its source. (Answer: rather closely, actually. There were some nationalities of characters changed, I assume to accommodate the actors in the roles, and the film added some material, especially after the final reveal. But on the whole, faithful.)

I must not have been the only one with the idea in mind, as it took a few months before a library copy was available. (And then a couple more to write this. Sigh. Must really get better at prompt blogging.) But then I found myself very happily ensconced in Christie’s world. Although I already knew the “who” of this “who-done-it,” this proved no detriment to enjoying the story. It was a delight to watch Poirot work, to see how the pieces fit together, to watch the lies spun—knowing they were lies, and why—, to simply sit a spectator in this particular setting so foreign from myself. For as dark as murder mysteries can be—even the “cozy” mysteries, when one thinks about it, are stories of the dark side of human nature—there is something about the world of Christie, whether visited via Poirot or Miss Marple, that I find akin to my favorite comfort food. I think it is in part a visit to an era past (here, I may be accused of romanticizing, perhaps) and rules and manners that are so far removed from those of today—or at least, from my experience—that is is a sort of time-travel, as well as a mystery. And there is also, of course, the reassurance that the criminal party will get their just due in the end. So unlike the messiness of reality, where there is so often little assurance that justice will be served. It has been many years since I really spent much time with the “golden era of detective fiction,” but really, between this one and Crooked House, I find myself thinking that it’s past time to continue my re-acquaintance with Christie and to finally meet some of her contemporaries. After all, it’s not like I don’t have a list to start from

Reading

Completed: Crooked House by Agatha Christie

This is the front cover art for the book Crooked House written by Agatha Christie (First Edition)Crooked House
Agatha Christie
(England, 1949)

It’s been a long time since I’ve read an Agatha Christie. High school, in fact. But when I chanced upon a trailer for Crooked House, I couldn’t help but be intrigued—it referred to Crooked House as Christie’s most “twisted tale.” Having now read it, I’m more inclined to continue to think And Then There Were None as the more “twisted” of her novels. However, the mystery itself does indeed prove that the titular setting of much of the action is well named, and not merely for its physical appearance.

The victim is family patriarch, Aristide Leonides, and the cast of suspects his household: largely family, both by blood and marriage, but also including a former nanny and a tutor. Over the course of the novel, it appears at any given time that all occupants may have quite a suitable motive to wish Aristide dead—but which is the real killer?

This is the question that narrator Charles Hayward sincerely wishes to know the answer to, for Aristides’ granddaughter Sophia will not consent to marry Charles unless the mystery is solved, so concerned is she by who might actually be the responsible party, and that a dark cloud might hang permanently over the family.

I confess that, although Christie laced Crooked House with plenty of clues as to the identity of the killer, I never did stop to think about it long enough—or perhaps pay close enough attention!—to discern it for myself. But that did not prevent my thorough enjoyment of the fast-paced mystery, or my appreciation for the clever way in which Christie lays it all out both for Charles and for us while also hiding just enough that we can choose to stay surprised if we wish.

Read as a classic crime story for Back to the Classics.

Reading · The Classics Club

Completed: Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

Cover: Mary Barton by Elizabeth GaskellMary Barton
Elizabeth Gaskell
England, 1849

Poverty. Murder. Alcoholism. Political disenchantment. Class strife. Wealth inequality. Opiate abuse. Domestic violence. No, Mary Barton is not set in the troubled 2010s, though at times it felt as if it would fit within the current conversation, proving only that while we may have come some ways since then (the dire poverty and starvation scenes are, I hope, more extreme than any currently found in Europe or the US), we are still troubled by many of the same challenges that have plagued humanity throughout our history.

He had hesitated between the purchase of meal or opium, and had chosen the latter, for its use had become a necessity with him. He wanted it to relieve him from the terrible depression its absence occasioned. (Chapter X)

Gaskell’s debut novel, Mary Barton does not appear to me to be as well-known as several of her others. Nor do I believe the writing to be a prime example of top-notch Victorian literature (based on my limited knowledge/experience; I may be off-base!), though Gaskell was clearly a keen observer of character. But it seems an important novel nonetheless, as it presented to her Victorian middle-class readers a vivid picture of the lives of the working poor, people whose desperation they were perhaps otherwise unaware of.

And when I hear, as I have heard, of the sufferings and privations of the poor, of provision shops where ha’porths of tea, sugar, butter, and even flour, were sold to accommodate the indigent,–of parents sitting in their clothes by the fireside during the whole night for seven weeks together, in order that their only bed and bedding might be reserved for the use of their large family,–of others sleeping upon the cold hearthstone for weeks in succession, without adequate means of providing themselves with food or fuel (and this in the depth of winter),–of others being compelled to fast for days together, uncheered by any hope of better fortune, living, moreover, or rather starving, in a crowded garret, or damp cellar, and gradually sinking under the pressure of want and despair into a premature grave; and when this has been confirmed by the evidence of their careworn looks, their exciting feelings, and their desolate homes,–can I wonder that many of them, in such times of misery and destitution, spoke and acted with ferocious precipitation? (chapter VIII)

Set in the mill town of Manchester, 1839-42, Mary Barton centers largely around the story of Mary, a young, sometimes naïve seamstress, and her millworker, unionist father John, as well as pieces of the lives of their friends, the Wilsons (George and Jane, their son Jem, George’s sister Alice and her foster son Will), and Margaret Jennings and her grandfather Job Legh. John has grown embittered by the hardships of his life, including the deaths of his young son, and later, his wife in childbirth. A secondary thread of the novel follows his descent from a decent, hardworking man, to a man poisoned by his hate for “the masters.” But the real story is that of Mary’s romantic entanglement with Harry Carson, the son of one of the millowners, the devotion of Jem Wilson to her nonetheless, and the consequences of their respective interactions. Unlike the love triangles of fluffier novels, this is a story that seems doomed only for despair.

Indeed, much of the novel is dark. The poverty of the millworkers—especially in times when work was scarce—was keen. Mortality was high. It seems a depressing sort of novel, yet Gaskell provided notes of hope throughout, whether the kindness of friends or complete strangers or the positive and cheerful attitude of another. And the through line of romance balances the political aspects of the story. It is clearly a political story, one that resonates over 150 years later, but it is also an entertainment, though one that illuminates a world that may be far different than the reader’s own. Somehow Gaskell balances these competing interests seamlessly, only dipping into the maudlin or overly-coincidental at select times. In the end, a satisfying read.

Some quotes:

“Working folk won’t be ground to the dust much longer. We’n a’ had as much to bear as human nature can bear. So, if th’ masters can’t do us no good, and they say they can’t, we mun try higher folk.” (Chapter VIII)

Besides, the starving multitudes had heard, that the very existence of their distress had been denied in Parliament; and though they felt this strange and inexplicable, yet the idea that their misery had still to be revealed in all its depths, and that then some remedy would be found, soothed their aching hearts, and kept down their rising fury. (Chapter VIII)

“Aye, dear; being patient is the hardest work we, any on us, have to do through life, I take it. Waiting is far more difficult than doing. (Chapter XII)

Then uprose the guilty longing for blood!–The frenzy of jealousy!–Some one should die. He would rather Mary were dead, cold in her grave, than that she were another’s. (Chapter XIV)

…he beset Mary more than ever. She was weary of her life for him. From blandishments he had even gone to threats–threats that whether she would or not she should be his; he showed an indifference that was almost insulting to her everything which might attract attention and injure her character. (Chapter XV)

“It’s not much I can say for myself in t’other world. God forgive me; but I can say this, I would fain have gone after the Bible rules if I’d seen folk credit it; they all spoke up for it, and went and did clean contrary.” (Chapter XXXV)

(I started Mary Barton for The Classic’s Club’s end-of-the-year classic spin. Alas, I both underestimated the length of the novel and started it too late to successfully finish by the December 31 deadline! Part of my Classics Club list.)

L'Engle · Reading

Completed: A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time
Madeleine L’Engle
(US, 1962)

Her mother carefully turned over four slices of French toast, then said in a steady voice, “No, Meg. Don’t hope it was a dream. I don’t understand it any more than you do, but one thing I’ve learned is that you don’t have to understand things for them to be.” (Ch 2)

I admit I approached A Wrinkle in Time with some trepidation. Although I had fond memories, it had been so long since I last read it, that I was afraid the magic might be gone.

I needn’t have been afraid. Not only did A Wrinkle in Time maintain the sense of magic I remembered from so long ago, I found much more insight in it than I would have as a child. L’Engle does not condescend to her reader, and so she creates a story that is not merely enchanting, but that imparts seamless lessons for living that extend to any reader.

“But nobody’s ever happy, either,” Meg said earnestly. “Maybe if you aren’t unhappy sometimes you don’t know how to be happy.” (Ch 8)

A Wrinkle in Time is the story of three children—Meg and Charles Wallace Murry and Calvin O’Keefe—who are tasked with the rescue of Mr. Murry, who went astray in space in a lab experiment gone wrong. It is a story of fighting against darkness—inner, outer, spiritual, here given form as “the Black Thing.” And it is a story of family and friendship and individuality and finding one’s place and learning one’s strengths. It introduces us to the fifth dimension, a tesseract, a “wrinkle” in time. And so Wrinkle is a science-fiction story. It is that rare science-fiction story—to my familiarity, at least—where a girl is a hero. And L’Engle makes Meg a marvelous, well-rounded hero. She is allowed not only her strengths, but her faults as well, indeed is told to use her faults. She is allowed to be both strong and weak, smart but a struggling student, determined and impatient and stubborn and angry and full of love.

Nor is Meg a “token” female character; Mrs. Murry is allowed not to merely be a mother, but a highly-educated working scientist, and the children are guided by the delightful—and wise—trio of Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which. Nor do these wonderful women come at the expense of males: Charles Wallace and Calvin are essential to the story as well, their strengths and weaknesses playing off Meg’s and providing two more examples of intelligence and individuality and two more problem solving approaches as well; and, like his wife, the scientist Mr. Murry reminds us that even as adults we still struggle with the challenges life may throw at us and with how best to protect those we love.

Refreshingly, A Wrinkle in Time seems at times to be a celebration of the intellectual, while also providing a caution against the pure intellect and a reminder to guard oneself against smugness and superiority. In the end there is a strength greater even than book smarts or wisdom or determination, but this is a lesson Meg (and the reader) must learn for herself.

I thoroughly enjoyed returning to the world of L’Engle’s words and I am even more excited for my 2018 L’Engle reading project than I was even a month ago.

“Do you think things always have an explanation?”
“Yes. I believe that they do. But I think that with our human limitations we’re not always able to understand the explanations. But you see, Meg, just because we don’t understand doesn’t mean that the explanation doesn’t exist.” (Ch 3)

For a moment her brain reeled with confusion. Then came a moment of blazing truth. “No!” she cried triumphantly. “Like and equal are not the same thing at all!” (Ch 9)

Read for 2018 TBR Pile Challenge and as a children’s classic for Back to the Classics.