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I picked Lady Susan/The Watsons/Sanditon off my shelves intending just to read Lady Susan, which was completed, though unpublished in Austen’s lifetime, in the end I decided to reread the two unfinished novels as well.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

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Classics Spin 16: Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Cover: Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (Penguin Classics ed)Cold Comfort Farm
Stella Gibbons
(1932, England)

The education bestowed on Flora Poste by her parents had been expensive, athletic and prolonged; and when they died within a few weeks of one another during the annual epidemic of the influenza or Spanish Plague which occurred in her twentieth year, she was discovered to possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living. (Ch 1)

The problem with satire: if you haven’t read the books that a novel is satirizing it is difficult to get the joke. Not that a novel mayn’t be enjoyable on its own, but there’s certainly an added depth when the source material, if you will, is known. Herein lies my challenge with Cold Comfort Farm. I don’t know that I have read any of the novels Gibbons pokes fun of. Indeed, other than the obvious references to DH Laurence (character Mr. Mybug is a fan), I don’t know that I could even point to what novels she satirizes. Clearly, rural romances, but what and by whom I don’t know. Granted, I’m not terribly familiar with the literature of the 1920s, but I wonder if perhaps, much the way many of the “horrid novels” Austen gently pokes fun of in Northanger Abbey have vanished from common knowledge (save by way of Austen), the books Gibbons gently attacks are also mostly forgotten?

Regardless, my lack of knowledge only means a lack of depth of appreciation for Cold Comfort Farm. Indeed, I do not believe a foreknowledge of rural romances essential to enjoyment of the story at hand–nor even to laugh aloud at times at the absurdities there-in. The overarching plot is easily summarized: Flora Poste finds herself orphaned and with insufficient funds to live on her own in the city, so she decides to descend (with their permission, of course, form must be followed) upon rural relatives she has never met and “tidy” their lives–lives which, it turns out, are very much in need of tidying.

I found I rather like Flora. There is something so no-nonsense about her that is appealing. True, the accusation made to her by one of her city friends that she is a “busy-body” is not wrong, but she is so charming about the whole proceedings that no one seems to mind.

Each of the characters in the novel–from Flora to farmer Ruben to nature-child Elfine to preacher Amos to mad Aunt Ada Doom, among many others–is  clearly a type. It is here that I begin to see the edges of the satire. I don’t need to have read the other novels to recognize the types, nor to see Gibbons begin to subvert them, as we watch Flora’s interactions with–and meddling with–the others begin to bring out (or create) additional facets of their personalities. Between this and the absurdities of the storyline, Cold Comfort Farm turned out to be not only very diverting, but by the end of the novel, absolutely page-turning as I just had to know how it would all turn out–despite being very sure, given the genre, that all would be well! Perhaps at some point I will have to return to Gibbons’s work–either one of her later novels or perhaps, after searching out and reading some of her targets, a reread of this one.

Read from my Classics Club list as part of the 16th Spin. Hey! I both read AND posted on it by the deadline for a change…!

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Another Classics Spin

Question Mark - cover place holder

Well, I’m getting slightly better at this – for the 16th spin, I managed to finish the book and post on it after the spin deadline but before the new spin…so that’s progress, I suppose! Regardless, seeing another spin around, I thought it would be worthwhile to let chance pick one of my spring reads. This is mostly my list from the last spin, with some additions from my 2018 TBR Challenge list.

And you, are you spinning?

    1. Brontë, Anne – Agnes Grey (England, 1847)
    2. Huxley, Aldous – Brave New World (England, 1932)
    3. Gibbons, Stella – Cold Comfort Farm (England, 1932)
    4. Gaskell, Elizabeth – Cranford (England, 1853)
    5. Cather, Willa – Death Comes for the Archbishop (US, 1927)
    6. Austen, Jane – Emma (England, 1816)
    7. Hardy, Thomas – Far From the Madding Crowd (England, 1874)
    8. Ellison, Ralph – Invisible Man (US, 1952)
    9. Austen, Jane – Lady Susan (England, 1794)
    10. Wright, Richard – Native Son (US, 1940)
    11. Grey, Zane – Riders of the Purple Sage (US, 1912)
    12. Tolstoy, Leo – The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories (Russia, 1886-1912)
    13. Bromfield, Louis – The Farm (US, 1933)
    14. Wharton, Edith – The House of Mirth (US, 1905)
    15. Wilde, Oscar – The Picture of Dorian Gray (Ireland, 1891)
    16. Faulkner, William – The Sound and the Fury (US, 1929)
    17. Wells, H.G. – The Time Machine (England, 1895)
    18. James, Henry – The Turn of the Screw and Other Stories (US, 1878-1908)
    19. Trollope, Anthony – The Warden (England, 1855)
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.)

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And the Title Is….

 

Cover: Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

With #4 spun, it looks like I’ll be reading Mary Barton over the next few weeks (hopefully!). It’s been a while since I’ve read Gaskell, but I do really like her, so I’m excited for this one. And it will be nice to get back to some Victorian literature; it’s been quite a while.

Looking forward to a short work week, too—hopefully some extra reading time to get this started.

Happy reading!

The Classics Club

Another Classics Spin

Question Mark - cover place holder

If at first you don’t succeed….

This is apparently the 16th Classics Club spin. I don’t know how many I’ve attempted, and it’s been even fewer I’ve completed successfully (maybe one?), but it seems always worth the try.

Actually, I’d been thinking just the other day that’s it’s been a while since I’ve really read any books to sink my teeth into, or even any 19th or early 20th century fiction. (Of course, then I remembered that I read Twenty-thousand Leagues Under the Sea this summer, which I keep managing to forget.) So as it happens, this spin is quite timely. Because I’m craving some 19th or early 20th century reading, my spin list is largely from the middle of my Classics Club list, and I’ve left it in chronological order. I’m rather rooting for #1, Lady Susan, as I pulled that out for a reread a few weeks ago, though I haven’t gotten to it yet. But really, anything here would be good, especially as the bulk of the books are currently on my shelves just waiting to be read!

And you, are you spinning?

  1. Austen, Jane: Lady Susan (England, c. 1794)*
  2. Austen, Jane: Emma (England, 1816)*
  3. Brontë, Anne: Agnes Grey (England, 1847)
  4. Gaskell, Elizabeth: Mary Barton (England, 1848)
  5. Gaskell, Elizabeth: Cranford (England, 1853)
  6. Trollope, Anthony: The Warden (England, 1855)
  7. Collins, Wilkie: The Woman in White (England, 1860)
  8. Hardy, Thomas: Far From the Madding Crowd (England, 1874)
  9. James, Henry: The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Fiction (U.S., 1878-1908)‡
  10. Tolstoy, Leo: The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories (Russia, 1886-1912)
  11. Wilde, Oscar: The Picture of Dorian Gray (Ireland, 1891)*
  12. Wells, H.G.: The Time Machine (England, 1895)
  13. Wharton, Edith: The House of Mirth (U.S., 1905)
  14. Cather, Willa: Death Comes for the Archbishop (U.S., 1927)
  15. Faulkner, William: The Sound and the Fury (U.S., 1929)
  16. Gibbons, Stella: Cold Comfort Farm (England, 1932)
  17. Huxley, Aldous: Brave New World (England, 1932)
  18. Bromfield, Louis: The Farm (U.S.-Ohio, 1933)
  19. Wright, Richard: Native Son (U.S., 1940)
  20. Ellison, Ralph: Invisible Man (U.S., 1952)
The Classics Club

Completed: The Taming of the Shrew

Cover: The Taming of the ShrewThe Taming of the Shrew
William Shakespeare
(England, c. 1590-91)

This was a reread, I believe. (Going by memory.) At the very least, I have seen it performed live, locally (out-of-doors, actually, with a mock-Tudor (c. 1920s) gatehouse for a backdrop–a great setting!). Like so many of Shakespeare’s comedies–or perhaps like any play–, the actual humor is better seen performed than read. But that did not mean it was not an enjoyable read, though I fear I do not fully understand it.

I believe it is fairly well known: a young man, Petruchio, desiring to increase his wealth, agrees to marry a shrewish woman, Katerina, so that her father will permit her sister, Bianca, to be wooed and wed. (A friend of Petruchio’s is one of Bianca’s several suitors.) He then proceeds to “tame” Katerina, by methods that, if taken at face value and/or by 21st century standards seem downright abusive. But if they are rather seen as part of the farce of a play–no, not merely a play, but a play within a play–perhaps I begin to now see the value of the Induction?–then perhaps the story is something different, a comedic look at relationships between men and women and how they play each other rather than purporting any moral or life lesson.

Interestingly, reading around, including the introduction to my copy, it seems to be a play that is tricky to interpret: while it is easy to assume, especially based on Katerina’s last speech, that Shakespeare was indeed a product of his time and to be reminded that in that era women were property, it seems that the director’s interpretation is what really guides our understanding. Perhaps Katerina has truly been “tamed”–or perhaps she has simply learned a better way of controlling her husband and winks at the audience. It does seem, though, based solely on the words on page, that she really is a vile character, for she treats her sister dreadfully. Though, one has to wonder: is this jealousy of Bianca or a desire to avoid marriage and its risks and constraints at all costs?

After reading this, I also watched the 1967 film version starring Elizabeth Taylor. Which, while amusing, I must confess my favorite adaptation remains 1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You, which is both a clever high-school-set modernization and a perhaps tamer version of all characters involved. I’ve still to watch Kiss Me Kate, though, and I do have a weakness for musicals, so…

I read The Taming of the Shrew as part of my original Classics Club list.