Back to the Classics 2020, Wrapped

There’s nothing like pushing it to the last minute, but I did it! For the first time, I’ve managed to read books for all 12 categories in the Back to the Classics Challenge AND write about them (for 3 entries in the challenge).

I actually read more than 12 classics in 2020, but that ones listed below are the books I felt best fit Karen’s categories. Other than #5, I didn’t have to make a deliberate plan for any of these categories, in fact, for some of them I had finished the book before I realized that it was a perfect fit (such as The Wind in the Willows).

It feels like it’s been a long time since I read some of these: did I really read The Nibelungenlied this year?

As far as the books, I enjoyed most of them. (I don’t think “enjoyed” really applies to a book like Native Son, but I’m happy I read it.) I can’t believe it took me until this year to read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Jane Austen is always a treat, and Cranford was a wonderful treat. But if I had to pick a top read, it would probably be the short story collection Ficciones. There’s no good reason it had been previously abandoned; sometimes I just do that.

My biggest disappointment with this list? Most of them aren’t on my Classics Club list – something to work on for next year!

  1. 19th Century Classic. Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen (1811)
  2. 20th Century Classic. Appointment in Samarra – John O’Hara (1934)
  3. Classic by a Woman Author. The Mysteries of Udolpho – Ann Radcliffe (1794)
  4. Classic in Translation. The Decameron – Giovanni Boccaccio (Italian, 1350-53)
  5. Classic by a Person of Color. Native Son – Richard Wright (1940)
  6. A Genre Classic. The Secret Adversary – Agatha Christie (1922)
  7. Classic with a Person’s Name in the Title. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain (1876)
  8. Classic with a Place in the Title. Cranford – Elizabeth Gaskell (1851-53)
  9. Classic with Nature in the Title. The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame (1908)
  10. Classic About a Family. The Nibelungenlied – Anonymous (c 1200)
  11. Abandoned Classic. Ficciones – Jorge Luis Borges (1956)
  12. Classic Adaptation. Far From the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy (1874)

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The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

The Wind in the Willows
Kenneth Grahame
Scotland, 1908

The Water Rat was restless, and he did not exactly know why. To all appearance the summer’s pomp was still at fullest height, and although in the tilled acres green had given way to gold, though rowans were reddening, and the woods were dashed here and there with a tawny fierceness, yet light and warmth and color were still present in undiminished measure, clean of any chilly premonitions of the passing year. But the constant chorus of the orchards and hedges had shrunk to a casual evensong from a few yet unwearied performers; the robin was beginning to assert himself once more; and there was a feeling in the air of change and departure.

Chapter 9
The Wind in the Willows - Rat and Mole boating
Illustration by E. H. Shepard for The Wind in the Willows

Back in the spring, prompted by a post from Cleo at Classical Carousel, I decided that August would be a perfect time for a read of The Wind in the Willows. And indeed it was: the slow rhythm of passing seasons, of life on the riverbank, is a perfect companion to what I think of as the lazy days of late summer.

But The Wind in the Willows is perfect at many times of year. Nestled cozily protected from winter’s snow, lingering in warm spring breezes, relaxing in summer’s heat, enjoying the crisp cool of autumn–all are equally at home with the residents of the idyllic riverbank.

Much like Cranford, The Wind in the Willows is an episodic tale with early standalone chapters that eventually give way to a final set of connected chapters, all set to the rhythms of the changing seasons. Save for Toad’s frequent misadventures following the latest craze, there is no hurry, no anxiety for the next thing. The animals of the story–Rat and Mole and Badger and Otter–are in communion with the world around them, living and moving by its paces. They understand the changes of the seasons, acknowledge them, adapt to them, live by their rhythms. As I read, it occurred to me that these characters knew something most of us have lost. It is part of the appeal of these tales.

But of course the personalities of the animal friends are also greatly attractive. The irrepressible Toad, the steadfast Mole, the open-hearted Rat, the benevolent Badger. Although Toad’s antics may be the most memorable, his friends’ loyal determination to set him right, to help him overcome his own faults, is lovely indeed. They seem perhaps to be types, characters I might see in a Victorian or Edwardian novel, but their animal natures provide that additional charm and distinction. Add to this the depiction of loyal friendship and they are a wonderful set of creatures to pass time with.

The setting is not merely pastoral, but Edwardian, and there is a real sense of the time and of its space between an idealized agrarian past and the onrush of an industrial–motorized–future. Grahame seems to favor the historic ideal, but there is also a timeless critique of the failings of character. It is not merely that Toad seeks out the latest fad or the rush of speed, he is also at fault for letting his passions overtake his reason, to the extent that he could loose everything he has, perhaps even his friends.

There seems perhaps a rush at the end–everything hastens to tie up neatly, and the conclusion feels abrupt. It is no wonder that so many sequels from other authors have appeared. But perhaps I don’t mind this after all. For now the animals may still live on the riverbank, I may still have my doubts about Toad, and when the seasons change, I can be sure that they will be adapting with them.

I read The Wind in the Willows as part of my Children’s Classics project list and for Back to the Classics, Classic with Nature in the Title.

Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara

Appointment in Samara
John O’Hara
1934, U.S.

I finished reading Appointment in Samarra this morning, as part of a readalong hosted by Meredith (Dolce Bellezza) and Tom (Wuthering Expectations), and find I am still working my way through my own thoughts about it. I feel at a disadvantage in approaching the text as I have read very little from the time period, save a dozen or so Agatha Christies, are those are really not of the same vein as O’Hara’s novel. Even the era is largely unknown to me (outside of the music), set in December 1930 towards the start of what today’s reader knows will be a long Great Depression (but when the novel’s characters still hope that ‘next year’ will be better), and the literature written in the time is even less familiar. By and large, I have not (yet) read O’Hara’s contemporaries.

And yet, there’s a familiarity there, a familiarity that comes from O’Hara’s inclusion of small details of everyday life, the vivid characters that populate the novel, and even from the Pennsylvania coal country setting (which is not so far removed from my midwestern town just outside the edges of Appalachia). It is set in a time and place removed from my own, but by using small, but specific details, O’Hara grounds it in a way that makes me feel I know the place, the characters.

On the face of it, the story is simple enough: it centers around the lives of Julian and Caroline English, their social set, and those nearby who observe or intersect with the Englishs’ everyday lives. The inciting event: Julian throws his drink in the face of Harry Reilly at a holiday party, breaking social taboos and apparently triggering a cascade of ever more self-destructive behavior. And yet it is more than just that. Although set tightly primarily over a period of four days, with glances backwards, and in the final chapter, a look forwards, the ends are not all neatly tied. Real life is messy, and this story is messy: the plot, the characters, the resolutions. This is part of what makes the story so engaging, I think.

Indeed, I find the whole story very real. Sure, to say that throwing a drink in someone’s face will lead to spiral of self-destruction, may sound over-dramatic (especially in an era when all social conventions seem to have been thrown out the window), but I think the truth is, the drink incident–the party–is really entering Julian’s story in medias res. It is not that there is necessarily some specific preceding incident that explains this social crime, but the build-up of Julian’s character to the place where he loses all self-control (if he ever had any) seems to have been an ongoing circumstance. As the novel progresses and we learn more of his character, his past decisions, and his lack of consideration for others (I believe in 21st century terms we would say he has low “emotional intelligence”), it seems apparent that while there may not be an easy explanation for Julian’s actions, the pieces were all there for his self-destruction, and this is just the form it happened to take.

On the other hand, while the story centers around Julian, there are so many other characters there, and his self-destruction spirals out to encompass–or at least impact–many of them. Caroline, is fleshed out as much as Julian and drawn with real sympathy. Lute Fliegler is Julian’s employee, and I am still not sure what to make of the fact that his point of view bookends the novel. Does the destruction of Julian open a way for Lute? Helene Holman and Al Greco both have encounters with Julian that appear to completely change their life trajectories–and yet, we don’t know precisely where. It is yet another nod to reality: any given person’s story only ends with their death; while they live what’s next may always be unknown.

I decided to read Appointment in Samarra almost on a whim: only the day before I read about the readalong, my dad had asked if I were familiar with “Samarra,” and then recited the W. Somerset Maugham retelling that is the epigraph for O’Hara’s novel. He had read it somewhere recently (not in O’Hara), and thought I might know it. When I saw the readalong announced, it seemed inevitable that I must join in, and I am happy I did. It is a novel I feel I could come back to, and perhaps explore other of O’Hara’s writing as well.

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Sense and Sensibility: An Annotated Edition. Slightly unwieldy to read, but so pretty and with some useful notes.

Sense and Sensibility
Jane Austen
England, 1811

For the spoiler-averse, this is probably not the post for you as it glides over plot points.

It’s been many years since I last read Sense and Sensibility, and it’s interesting to me to observe how much my recollections of the story are actually colored by the 1995 Emma Thompson film version. (Which means, of course, that I didn’t remember the novel accurately. But that’s why we reread—among other reasons.)

Films necessarily differ from their novel source material, of course, as the formats have different limitations and possibilities. But one thread that holds true throughout the adaptations of Austen, is that much emphasis is placed on the romances that unify the stories. This is no criticism of the films, but when I return to the source material, at least here in Sense and Sensibility, I see so much more.

There is no denying that marriage is a central theme to Austen. For a middle-class woman without sufficient means to leave independently, there were few other respectable options for survival, as Austen makes clear across her novels. But marriage as a subject is different than romance, and while we can rely on an Austen novel to contain both, neither is necessarily what a given novel is about.

Sense and Sensibility is the story of the Miss Dashwoods, and while superficially it details the romantic trials and triumphs of the sisters, I find on returning to the original source material, that it is so much more. On reread, it appears that any romance is merely the wire skeleton on which hangs the real meat of the story: the relationships (between Elinor and Marianne Dashwood as well as between the sisters and their friends and neighbors) and the character studies.

Indeed, one thing that surprised me was to realize how little ‘screen time,’ as it were, the ultimate ‘heroes’ of the story, Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon, actually share with their eventual spouses. It is not until the Dashwoods have moved from Norland to Barton Cottage that we observe a direct interaction between Elinor and Edward. (The annotations in my edition point to this as a weakness in the story, that we are asked to consider Edward as worthy of Elinor’s love merely because she loves him, rather than for any direct observation the reader can make.) And I can’t recall a single instance of a direct conversation between Colonel Brandon and Marianne. (Please correct me if I’m wrong.) This in contrast to the ample page time of the ‘villain’ of the story, Mr. Willoughby, who we see on multiple occasions, giving him ample opportunity to charm the reader as well as the Dashwoods.

On the other hand, we spend much time with the Dashwoods, their neighbors Sir John and Lady Middleton, Lady Middleton’s mother Mrs. Jennings, and Mrs. Jennings’s cousins the Miss Steeles. Colonel Brandon and Edward Ferrars thus become talked about more than they are seen (and in some sense, the same may be true of Mr. Willoughby).

All this conversation and this variety of characters allows for both ample opportunity of character study, and also the observation of the many contrasts present between these characters: Elinor’s repression vs. Marianne’s exuberance, Willoughby’s cowardice in the face of adversity vs. Edward’s constancy, Mrs. Jennings’s genuine kindness vs. Mrs. Ferrars’s cold-heartedness. As the very title hints, Sense and Sensibility is a study of contrasts. But while we may be meant to weigh some of these contrasts entirely in favor of one characteristic over the other, I do not believe the title contrast is meant to be viewed in so harsh a light. The depth of the characters, and their sufferings and triumphs show that neither sense nor sensibility, taken to the extreme is ultimately the better, but each may temper the other.

Although I find on reflection that Sense and Sensibility is currently my least preferred of Austen’s novels (a distinction without meaning), this reading reminds me how well it is worth revisiting all of Austen’s major novels, a project I am only too happy to continue!

I read this for Back to the Classics, “19th Century Classic” and my Realists and Romantics project. It is completely by chance that I read it before my summer read of The Mysteries of Udolpho, which reminded me so much of the later novel.

The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

The Mysteries of Udolpho
Ann Radcliffe
England, 1794

The dawn, which softened the scenery with its peculiar grey tint, now dispersed, and Emily watched the progress of the day, first trembling on the tops of the highest cliffs, then touching them with splendid light, while their sides and the vale below were still wrapt in dewy mist. Meanwhile, the sullen grey of the eastern clouds began to blush, then to redden, and then to glow with a thousand colours, till the golden light darted over all the air, touched the lower points of the mountain’s brow, and glanced in long sloping beams upon the valley and its stream. All nature seems to have awakened from death into life; the spirit of St. Aubert was renovated. His heart was full; he wept, and his thoughts ascended to the Great Creator. (37, Volume 1, Chapter 4)

I sat down to The Mysteries of Udolpho expecting one thing but getting another.  Knowing it to be advertised as a “Gothic novel,” and having read others in the genre from around the same  era (The Castle of Otranto and Castle of Wolfenbach), I was anticipating something more fast-paced, silly, and perhaps containing actual supernatural elements. True, it remains within many of the Gothic tropes (innocent and vulnerable young heroine, remote locales, a dilapidated Gothic castle, a brooding villain), but it also explains away any seemingly supernatural elements and leans heavily on the Romantic side of its personality with the Natural World becoming almost a character in its own right. In short, it reminds me more of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein than Horace Walpole’s Otranto, a comparison I had not anticipated.

I also had reason to expect it to be more “horrid”–and more of a 20th century style thriller–because of Jane Austen. Namely, Northanger Abbey. Any number of Gothic novels are referenced in Austen’s early novel, but Udolpho looms larger than the others, as Isabella Thorpe and Catherine Moreland discuss it avidly, with Isabelle vowing not to reveal the mystery of the “black veil” for anything in the world. But it was not Northanger Abbey I thought of as I read Udolopho. It was Sense and Sensibility. Yes, Northanger Abbey is known as a parody of Udolpho (and other Gothic novels). But the concerns of Sense and Sensibility, the tension between the Romantic natures and feelings (sensibility) of Marianne and the good sense and reasoning of Elinor, are reflected throughout Udolpho. In some ways, the entire novel is an argument in favor of tempering (or overwhelming) one’s sensibility with good sense, and heroine Emily St. Aubert is seemingly an amalgamation of the two Dashwood sisters. She aspires to the sense of Elinor while her nature inclines her to the sensibility of Marianne. But to read it thus is to go backwards. No, Radcliffe came before Austen, so it is Elinor and Marianne that appear distilled from Emily, two characters of an argument that was clearly already in progress a decade before Sense and Sensibility was published.

“All excess is vicious; even that sorrow, which is amiable in its origin, becomes a selfish and unjust passion, if indulged at the expence of our duties–by our duties I mean what we owe to ourselves, as well as to others. The indulgence of excessive grief enervates the mind, and almost incapacitates it for again partaking of those various innocent enjoyments which a benevolent God designed to be the sun-shine of our lives. My dear Emily, recollect and practise the precepts I have so often given you, and which your own experience has so often shewn you to be wise.” (St. Aubert, Volume 1, Chapter 2)

Although the 21st century reader may be at times pressed to sympathize with Emily’s plight (I may have thought “can’t she grow a spine already!” at one particular moment of exasperation), the reader realizes that Emily is continually–and as the novel progresses, more often successfully–endeavoring to live by her father’s teachings to moderate her passions, to have strength of character. This strength of character, glimpsed even early, proves essential to Emily’s ultimate fate.

“Never, till this evening did I know what true devotion is; for, never before did I see the sun sink below the vast earth! To-morrow, for the first time in my life, I will see it rise. O, who would live in Paris, to look upon black walls and dirty streets, when, in the country, they might gaze on the blue heavens, and all the green earth!” (Blanche, Volume 3, Chapter 10)

But Radcliffe and Austen, though writing in overlapping eras, are writing from different perspectives. I have never once thought of Austen as a Romantic writer. Radcliffe clearly is. Nature and setting are of supreme importance. The isolation of location is, of course, essential to the plot points. But nature is also used to illuminate character. The “good” characters, that is those we should root for and sympathize with, are all drawn to nature, and appreciate its wonders and beauties, even in the most (naturally) dangerous locales, while the “bad” characters (okay, fine, some of these characters actually are reprehensible or evil people–but not all of them) tend to disregard the natural world, or see it as an inconvenience. A retreat in the country = good; a sojourn in the big city = bad. An interesting dichotomy, and perhaps the defining characteristic of Romanticism.

Thanks to Cleo at Classical Carousel for hosting the readalong! I would not have picked up The Mysteries of Udolpho nearly as soon as I did were it not for her. Much enjoyed. Though now I find myself with a strange hankering for more Austen?

I read  The Mysteries of Udolpho as part of a readalong, as part of my “Sensation!” project list, for “Written by a Woman” for Back to the Classics and “Over 500 pages” for Reading the Classics.