Completed: The Woman in White

Is anyone as shocked as I am to find out that it’s the end of April already? I’m really not sure where the past month went. And alas, my reading seems to have vanished with it–despite a readathon earlier this month, I haven’t finished a single book since mid-March. Guess what my plan is for May? But at least I still have a small pile of drafts to post here–it makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, even if I also wrote these up over a month ago. Sigh.

Cover: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White
Wilkie Collins
England, 1859

I was determined to finally read The Woman in White last autumn as a suitably seasonal read, and although I only write it up now, I did more or less succeed in reading it during the appropriate season.

I’ve long been a Collins fan, having found The Moonstone unputdownable when I read it in high school, but somehow or another I’d never managed to read his other famous mystery. While I didn’t fly through it the way I did The Moonstone (a fault, perhaps, of me as a reader), I found is surprisingly engaging considering that the mystery seemed slight, with much of the outcome well-foreshadowed.

It is a story told through the narration of several different pens, and it begins with a long section of narration by Walter Hartright, a drawing teacher who firsts meets the mysterious woman in white on his way home one night. In his recollections, he seems unexpectedly affected by the brief encounter, though perhaps this is to be expected when only days later he discovers a strong physical resemblance between the woman and one of his new pupils. The idea of a woman in white conjures up the idea of a ghost, and indeed, this flesh-and-blood woman proves to have a sort of ghostly presence throughout the rest of novel, turning up again and again, whether in person or in conversation. The mystery of her past and her present will prove to have unexpected ramifications for the remainder of our cast of characters.

And yet, it does not seem at first as if the existence of this mysterious woman should have any true impact. Walter is to teach Laura Fairlie and Marion Halcombe drawing in the months before Laura’s marriage to Sir Percival Glyde. The marriage was sanctioned by Laura’s father shortly before he died, and there seems nothing sinister in the arrangement, at least not at first. But time, money problems, and Laura’s unfortunate affection for Walter, will prove that all is perhaps not as it first seems with Sir Glyde or his friend Count Fosco.

No man under heaven deserves these sacrifices from us women. Men! They are the enemies of our innocence and our peace–they drag us away from our parents’ love and our sisters’ friendship–they take us, body and soul, to themselves, and fasten our helpless lives to theirs as they chain up a dog to his kennel. And what does the best of them give us in return?

An early example of the mystery genre, The Woman in White remains a classic of the form. It is full of suspense and mystery and memorable characters, none of whom are extraneous to the plot. And although it sits well with the realm of Victorian sensationalist novels, I found it surprisingly feminist–it seems that Collins was not a fan of the institution of marriage, or at least the ways it could harm women. It is not merely that he gives us Marion, a strong, intelligent woman, but the undercurrent of criticism of the limitations which Laura faced as a married woman, unable to control her destiny. And although Laura may at first appear to be the prototypical Victorian lady, she has her own sort of inner strength as well, disturbed though it may be by her husband’s harsh treatment.

Suspenseful and full of great characters–Count Fosco is a fascinating study–it is no wonder that The Woman in White endures. I imagine I could read it again and get something yet different out of it. Now I’ve only to wonder why it took me so long to read it in the first place?

Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Cover: Tess of the D’Urbervilles (Penguin cloth bound edition)Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Thomas Hardy
England, 1891

I can’t believe tomorrow’s the first of April already. I really don’t know where the first three months of this year have gone (although I can tell you that they were cold, gloomy, but fortunately with not too much snow). But I’ve barely read anything–judging by the number of books finished so far. Hopefully the arrival of spring (err…off-and-on–it snowed last night, just a dusting) will prompt more reading?

Some of it could be what I’m reading, too. I’ve been attempting to read the first Harry Potter novel in Spanish, which is, of course, much slower going for me than it’s English counterpart. (But I’ve been learning, too: I didn’t know there were two words in Spanish for where we would say ‘owl’ – and they apparently mean different owls!) And I’ve been oh-so-slowly making my way through The Iliad–it’s simply proving a slow read for me, much the way Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and Tess of the D’Urbervilles were for me last year.

I’ve seen a number of articles/listened to a number of stories about how the Internet has changed the way we read—that people don’t sit and read for long periods of time, that our eyes and minds wander, that we don’t think as deeply. I’m beginning to wonder if that mightn’t be true for me—it certainly took long enough for me to read Tess of the D’Urbervilles: nearly five months, and it’s only 398 pages in my copy. Nor do I remember such difficulties finishing classics when I was in high school (including reading Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge), before I had ready access to the Internet and its distracting influences. Of course there’s also option b, which came to me the other night as I was shifting in my reading chair yet again: in high school I could sit for hours on end in one position before I noticed a crick in the neck or a stiffness of the back. No such luck today!

But to Tess itself.

I believe it to be one of Hardy’s better known novels; it is the story of an initially naïve young woman (barely more than a girl at the start) and the trials of her life, starting from the time an amateur historian misguidedly informs her father that he believes the family of descended from the ancient D’Urberville line. It spans a number of years, and both highs and lows, but all following along a trajectory that is seemingly determined for Tess–though the narration makes clear several “if-only” moments–from the moment her father learns of his grand ancestry.

There is so much to unpack in the novel, and the more I think on it, the more I am convinced that it needs, if not more than one reading, at least a closer reading than I gave it. There is the analysis of character: of how Tess differs from her family and companions and so suffers in ways they might not, of how Angel Clare succumbs to a morality that seems at odds with his stated religious views and which Hardy apparently condemns, and so causes further suffering to Tess and pain to himself. It is a pastoral novel, and setting and scene undoubtedly play an important part in the atmosphere and the experience of reading the novel, but reading superficially as I did, I miss any significance, any connection to plot or revelation of character.

And most interestingly to me on this first read (I feel as if I will someday be pulled back), there is Hardy’s social criticism. I recently read Wilkie Collins’ suspense-thriller The Woman in White, and am fascinated that these two well-remembered Victorian male writers seemed to have the same criticisms for the institution of marriage and the suffering of women at the hands of men. They were not of a time that the 21st reader might think of as progressive, and yet it is clear that they were observers and critiquers of the social ills that British Victorian ease and prosperity did not alleviate or prevent. (And now my brain seeks to go down a rabbit hole – thinking of Dickens and Gaskell as well – and these are only the authors I’ve read; I imagine there are others.) This illustrates the attraction of literature for the acute observer of society, but what I find most fascinating is the idea that these books, critical of their times as they were, are the ones that survive. Is it the condition of great literature that it illumines our greatest flaws, individually and socially?

I found it hard to enjoy Tess–even for a reader who is better equipped to enjoy the prose and the pacing of the story than I am, it is perhaps difficult to say “enjoy” of an ultimately tragic novel–but as I think over it more, I find myself drawn back, in a way. There will certainly be more Thomas Hardy in my reading future. I only hope I can do him more justice going forward.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Cover: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna ClarkeJonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
Susanna Clarke
2004, Britain

He wished he had stayed at Hurtfew Abbey, reading and doing magic for his own pleasure. None of it, he thought, was worth the loss of forty books. (Ch. 29)

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has been on my shelf, and my to-be-read list for quite some time. It sounded just my thing: a tale of two magicians, set in Regency England. A sort of Harry Potter-Jane Austen mash-up. It took me some time to get to it, however, as I find so often with books I own rather than books I’ve borrowed.

It is a deliciously slow read, not the brisk jaunt through magic and manners that one might expect of a genre novel. Rather, it unfolds its tale gradually, taking us from York and the Society of Magicians–more a social dinner group, than anything–to the bustle of London, the battlefields of the Iberian Peninsula, the remote English countryside, and beyond. As the story opens, neither title character is anywhere in sight, and one wonders at first if the first magician we encounter, John Segundus, will perhaps morph into one of the titular characters. He is rather our introduction to this magical world–someone who believes in magic, but doesn’t know how to yet do it himself. It is not long, however, before Mr. Norrell comes on the scene and so begins the long, winding build-up to the great climatic battle of magic and wits. All in good manners and taste, of course.

There is an interesting tension in the world that Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell inhabits, between a reality that impresses upon the reader the idea that this is almost a pure historical fiction tale–the Regency era is rendered so fully–and the wonderous magical environment overlaid upon the history. King George III and the Duke of Wellington are characters, but so are the magical Raven King and the gentleman with the thistle-down hair. More fully rounding out the depth of the invented world are the delightful footnotes, complete with (fictional) citations to historical and magical books, telling tales of the (fictional) history of English magic and folklore.

I found Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell a delightful and immersive, if slow, read (though how much of that is one me?), and I could see myself returning to its magical world again. After reading it, I watched the BBC miniseries adaptation, and was equally charmed, though I really see the TV series as a complement, rather than replacement for the novel.

Completed: A Swiftly Tilting Planet

A Swiftly Tilting Planet
Madeleine L’Engle
1978, US

They moved through the time-spinning reaches of a far galaxy, and he realized that the galaxy itself was part of a mighty orchestra, and each star and planet within the galaxy added its own instrument to the music of the spheres. As long as the ancient harmonies were sung, the universe would not entirely lose its joy. (Chapter Four)

Unfortunately, it’s been many months since I reread A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and I simply don’t remember it as well as I would wish–not merely to write about, but because, going back through passages I marked, it is a beautiful book.

A beautiful book for a dark time, a book of hope and joy, A Swiftly Tilting Planet was published in 1978, and so written in a time, in the US at least, of great cultural upheaval, political turmoil, economic fears and environmental concerns. And it reflects these concerns. Opening as the Murray family is preparing to celebrate Thanksgiving dinner, the catalyst for the plot is a phone call from the US President to Mr. Murry: the leader of a small (fictional) South American country, “Mad Dog Branzillo” is threatening nuclear war. What follows is an interesting mix of Celtic and American myth and L’Engle fantasy as fifteen-year-old Charles Wallace and the unicorn Gaudior travel back in time, seeking out the “Might-Have-Been” that they can change and so avert disaster. Meg, married to Calvin by now and expecting their first child, joins in remotely, “kything” (a sort of mind-reading) with Charles Wallace so that she knows what is going on, and providing a connection for the reader between his story and the present day. All the while, the enemy, the true Enemy, is not Branzillo, but the Echthroi, who seek to destroy the world’s harmony and will attempt anything–including killing Charles Wallace–to have their way.

“Has the world lost its joy? Is that why we’re in such a mess?” (Meg, Chapter Three)

It struck me last summer when reading the novel, and again today rereading the passages I’d marked, how timely the story felt, how applicable to the world now. And while perhaps that is an indictment on the world we humans have created, and our failures to create an environment in which we interact with love and joy and peace, it is also a reflection of the timelessness of L’Engle’s work and her ability to illuminate the types of concerns that have been present throughout human history. It is the beauty of the novel that it doesn’t create a limited world in which the evil element is defeated and all is well, but that it acknowledges a continual battle while giving hope for victories ever to come.

Her father said, “You know, my dears, the world has been abnormal for so long that we’ve forgotten what it’s like to live in a peaceful and reasonable climate. If there is to be any peace or reason, we have to create it in our own hearts and homes.” (Chapter One)

At Tara in this fateful hour,
I place all Heaven with its power,
And the sun with its brightness,
And the snow with its whiteness,
And the fire with all the strength it hath,
And the lightning with its rapid wrath,
And the wind with its swiftness along its path,
And the sea with its deepness,
And the rocks with their steepness,
And the Earth with its starkness
All these I place
By God’s almighty help and grace
Between myself and the powers of darkness
(Chapter one and throughout)

Christmas Reads 2018

With the New Year fast approaching, Christmas season is nearly past as well. I didn’t expect this year that I would complete any seasonal reading (too many in-progress  books already), but then my mom told me about a P.D. James short story collection, and I found that some Christmas-set reading was only my to-do list. One thing leads to another, and soon an Agatha Christie was on hold at the library as well

I’m not sure that one should really call any of James’s or Christie’s stories “seasonal” – peace, love, goodwill to all men with a side of murder just doesn’t seem very Christmas-spirit. But on the other hand, both Christie and James knew that the holidays can bring with them stress and strife, as the obligations of the season often bring together estranged family members who otherwise might conveniently forget each other’s existence. Perhaps one might say the Christmas season is actually ripe for murder?

Cover: The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories by PD James

The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories
P.D. James
2016, England (collection of previously published stories)

“The Mistletoe Murder”

Set during World War II, a young war widow is invited to her grandmother’s estate for the Christmas Holidays, along with a couple other  relations. But the seemingly peaceful gathering is shattered when a distant cousin is found bludgeoned to death and our young heroine feels the need to solve his murder. This felt to me rather of the Golden Age of detective fiction, though perhaps more graphic or at least more serious. In fact, it made me nostalgic for Christie (thus my second seasonal read). I was not surprised by the “who” though I was so caught up in the narrative that I’d forgotten my suspicions until all was revealed. It was my favorite of the short collection.

“A Very Commonplace Murder”

A first person narrative, told by the witness to a crime, who at each phase of the investigation confirms to himself his reasons why he shouldn’t come forward…yet. The title is both apt–and not quite. I found this little tale tawdry and out of step with the others.

“The Boxdale Inheritance”

The first Adam Dalgliesh story I’ve read. (Really, I should read some full-length PD James!) Interestingly, the actual mystery is from the past, over 60 years, as Dalgliesh is asked by a friend to investigate his uncle’s murder; Dalgliesh’s friend doesn’t fell comfortable accepting an inheritance form  his late aunt if she were really the guilty party.  Although a short story, it plays with both murder and ethical concepts.

“The Twelve Clues of Christmas”

Much like the first story, this tale seemed also to have something of Christie about it – which Dalgliesh himself notes: a country house full of family only arrived for the holidays, an unexpected death, and so many clues. Twelve, to be exact. While the mystery is no match for Dalgliesh, the story and setting bring a comfortable whiff of Golden Age detective nostalgia with them (and perhaps the question – do the British really have so many family homes in which to set murders?!).

Overall, I found the stories an enjoyable afternoon diversion, but left me wanting more…

Cover: Hercule Poirot's Christmas by Agatha Christie
Hercule Poirot’s Chrismtas
Agatha Christie
1938, England

My immediate solution to the need for more Christmas-timed murder and mayhem was to turn to the queen of the Golden Age. A quick search turned up Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (also known as Murder for Christmas and A Holiday for Murder). It is yet another tale of long estranged family gathering at home for Christmas, summoned by the patriarch, Simeon Lee, ostensibly to reconcile for one last family Christmas. However, Simeon is an unrepentant scoundrel, more interested in setting his sons and daughters-in-law at each other’s throats than in familial bonding. Throw in a Spanish granddaughter, a son of Simeon’s former partner from his South African diamond mining days, and a sneaky valet and it is a combustible mix, with nothing good bound to happen. Fortunately, Hercule Poirot happens to be staying nearby for the holidays, so justice is bound to be served.

The mystery is solid, and the clues and personalities laid carefully, so that while I often saw the significance of Poirot’s line of investigation, I didn’t actually work out the “who” in advance of the big reveal. Which is how I prefer my mysteries: tantalizingly close to figuring it out, but not so close that the ending is a let down. On the whole, a mostly satisfying read. On the other hand, I find myself agreeing a bit with Simeon’s granddaughter Pilar: it wasn’t quite an English Christmas. Perhaps “Hercule Poirot’s Boxing Day” would have been better?