The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie

I’ve had a handful of posts drafted for weeks now that I just haven’t made the time to post. I seem to go in fits and bursts with blogging; though, I am happy to report that the reading is still going strong – so many good books already this year! I’ve resolved to start to play catch up, but before I start, I feel a compulsion to deviate a moment.

It’s a strange time. “Surreal” is the word I keep using, for it doesn’t seem real–for so much to be shut down, for the world to seemingly come to a virtual standstill. This is a thing of movies, not real life.

But COVID-19 IS real, and the precautions we are taking–trying to take–are necessary. Fortunately, I haven’t been too impacted yet; my work has yet to directly be influenced (though I anticipate a slow down in new projects while everyone just tries to keep up with things) and working remotely has long been an available option. I’m fortunate, I know, but when I see all the articles or lists of “things you can watch/listen to/read” during these times of “social distancing,” I confess my first thought is “how do you have time?” Of course, this is as much because I’ve never been one to be out and about as it is because I’m still working full time. But if I did want to fill some time–or if I were to make a recommendation–I think Agatha Christie is a good place to start. I find something so comforting–like “coming home” when I read an Agatha Christie, or watch one of the TV adaptations. (I’m particularly fond of the David Suchet Poirot series.) The formulaic nature, the knowledge that it all works out in the end, these are soothing in trying times.

The Secret Adversary
Agatha Christie
1922, England
Tommy and Tuppence

The second of Agatha Christie’s published novels, The Secret Adversary introduces us to the lively Tuppence Cowley and solid Tommy Beresford. Childhood friends, they meet by chance in post-war (1919 – post Spanish Flu, for that matter!) London, both down on their luck and in search of a job—and more importantly, the money that goes with one. Despairing of finding any, they impetuously decide to form The Young Adventures Ltd. and advertise to take on adventures on behalf of others. But before they get as far as submitting the ad copy, an adventure falls in their laps. However, when Tuppence cautiously tells the potential client, Mr. Whittington, that her name is “Jane Finn,” he grows agitated and sends her on her way with £50, thinking it a ploy and trying to buy silence. Curious, Tommy and Tuppence decide to investigate further and advertise for information on Jane Finn. What follows in response to their ad is a delightful romp across post-Great War London and adventure plenty, for the detectives and reader both.

Although there is mystery at the heart of the story—where is Jane Finn? And who is the illusive Mr. Brown who seems to be pulling so many strings and determined to overthrow the current government?—the story feels more like a thriller to me than a strict mystery novel. Perhaps this is because the adventures are so fast-paced, the detectives so green, and the dangers so present on-screen. But in the end, in honest detective-novel form, our heroes solve the crime, and in dramatic fashion. For a change of pace, I nearly had it solved as well! I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, the wonderful 1920s English slang, and the utterly charming Tuppence and Tommy and look forward to more of their adventures.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

The Mysterious Affair at Styles
Agatha Christie
1921, England
Hercule Poirot

Not only is The Mysterious Affair at Styles Christie’s first novel, it is the first Hercule Poirot mystery. Set in the countryside during the First World War, it is a wonderful coincidence–one that likely enables a terrible crime to be solved correctly–that Poirot happens to be a war refugee living in the neighborhood and that a friend from the pre-war days, Hastings, is staying at Styles House, where the crime occurs. Hastings will prove the Watson to Poirot’s Holmes – though I must say, he strikes me as quite the inferior Watson. He prides himself as an observer and yet he never quite seems to get it–not merely in the detection of crime (for which we could all be given fails, as clever as the mastermind is here), but he doesn’t even seem able to recognize the truth of ordinary interactions between people, including those involving himself. It can be a bit frustrating for the reader at times, although perhaps this is intentional, to allow us a little feeling of superiority even when we fail spectacularly at solving the crime (err…as I always do, at least!)

There are all the ingredients of a typical Poirot novel: a country house setting, a small cast of suspects, a difficult case that the police can’t get right, red herrings, even a set of locked doors posing difficulties. Poirot performs his typical work of genius in neatly uncovering the solution at the very end. And yet–it didn’t quite feel “right” to me. Somehow, I didn’t feel as at home at Styles as have with later Christie novels.  Perhaps this is the reflection of it being a “first” – Poirot didn’t feel quite fully “Poirot-like” to me, yet, though that may because I am not used to seeing him through the eyes of Hastings. But the novel also didn’t feel quite as tight in its execution, and although I am quite used to not actually solving the crime, usually there’s this feeling of “Oh, right…” that didn’t quite happen for me here. So not quite my favorite Christie, but it certainly does nothing to dissuade me from more!

[Read in early 2019….and just now finally posting! Part of my Agatha Christie reading project.]

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

Vintage copy of Far From the Madding Crowd
My copy of Far From the Madding Crowd, which I believe to be over 100 years old. It was a delight to read from–the right size and weight, and the pages always lay nicely flat.

Far From the Madding Crowd
Thomas Hardy
1874, England

Full of this dim and temperate bliss, he went on to fling the ewe over upon her other side, covering her head with his knee, gradually running the shears line after line round her dewlap, thence about her flank and back, and finishing over the tail.

[…]

The clean, sleek creature arose from its fleece—how perfectly like Aphrodite rising from the foam should have been seen to be realized—looking startled and shy at the loss of its garment, which lay on the floor in one soft cloud, united throughout, the portion visible being the inner surface only, which, never before exposed, was white as snow, and without flaw or blemish of the minutest kind. (Ch. 22)

It’s possible that I enjoyed Far From the Madding Crowd as much as I did because of the sheep scenes—the herding, the washing, the shearing, the sheep market. My inner fiber artist was drawn to and enchanted by this great sheep novel.

I joke, of course. At least in part.

After all, I did enjoy the sheep scenes, and in a sense, there would be no story without the sheep and the dramas (and traumas) of raising sheep, but it is primarily a human drama, in pastoral setting.

Far From the Madding Crowd is one of Thomas Hardy’s earliest novels, and was his first real success. It tells the tale of Bathsheba Everdene and the three very different men who woo her—Victorian love-quadrangle, oh, the scandal!—: the solid Gabriel Oak, dashing Sergeant Troy, and passionate Farmer Boldwood, all while set against the rhythms of the changing seasons and farming responsibilities. (Those names…Mr. Hardy, I see what you did there.) The novel is not merely set in the country, but rather the backdrop of farming is integral to the characters, their histories, their responsibilities (or lack thereof). How any one character responds to the demands of pastoral life illuminates the rest of their character and mind-set: thus we see that Gabriel is an honorable man worthy of great responsibility, while Farmer Boldwood’s growing obsession with Bathsheba is nowhere made clearer than in his neglect of his own harvest. And that is to speak nothing of Troy’s relationship to the pastoral setting;  I’m pretty sure he made an earlier appearance in Sense and Sensibility under the name “Mr. Willoughby.”

The citizen’s Then is the rustic’s Now. In London, twenty of thirty years ago are old times; in Paris ten years, or five; in Weatherbury three or four score years were included in the mere present, and nothing less than a century set a mark on its face or tone. (Ch. 22)

Of course, though an early Hardy, this is still Hardy, and as such, though I found it enjoyable, it is rarely lighthearted. Despite the appeal of the ideal of “pastoral,” the reality of farm life is difficult, hard work, and into this mix Hardy throws additional human drama—there is tragedy, both on field and at hearth. (Okay, has anyone else looked up “bloat” or “ruminal tympany” because of Hardy? I told you, I have a sheep thing…) But in the end I have to agree that this is an “accessible” Hardy and would recommend it as a starting place for someone wanting to try his novels out.

I read Far From the Madding Crowd for Classics Spin #22. It also qualifies as my adaption title for Back to the Classics, a classic that takes place in a country that I don’t live in for Reading the Classics, and is one of my Classics Club and Realists and Romantics project titles. Phew! That’s a lot of work for one book.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Anonymous

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Anonymous
c. late 14th century, England
J.R.R. Tolkien, translator (pub. 1975)

And so this Yule passed over and
the year after, and severally the seasons ensued in their
turn: after Christmas there came the crabbed Lenten that
with fish tries the flesh and with food more meagre; but
then the weather in the world makes war on the winter,
cold creeps into the earth, clouds are uplifted, shining rain
is shed in showers that all warm fall on the fair turf,
flowers there open, of grounds and groves green is
the raiment, birds are busy a-building and bravely are
singing for sweetness of the soft summer that will soon be on
     the way
and blossoms burgeon and blow
in hedgerows bright and gay;
then glorious musics go
through the woods in proud array. (Stanza 22)

If I recall correctly, my familiarity with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, prior to listening to The Great Courses® series The Western Literary Canon in Context, was seeing it listed as one of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. This was a misattribution–although he contributed to a scholarly edition of the Middle English text, his only other involvement in a Sir Gawain story was as a translator. But even with the Tolkien connection, chances are it very likely would never have made it onto any of my Classics Club lists were it not for the aforementioned Great Courses series–I have not yet read a large number of the titles covered by Professor John M. Bowers, and so have started adding them to my various “to read” lists. Thus it was with Sir Gawain.*

Although written in the late 14th century, making the anonymous author roughly a contemporary of Chaucer, unlike the more famous works by the London poet, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight stayed in relative obscurity for centuries, with only one manuscript–a scribal transcription rather than an original–surviving. Little is thus known about the author of Sir Gawain, although based on his dialect, it is believed that the author was from the West Midlands of England, perhaps Cheshire, and it is possible that his work lost favor for political rather than literary reasons (the author may have been a part of Richard II’s court, who was deposed by the future Henry IV). It is possible–Tolkien thinks likely–that he wrote a number of other poems as well, including Pearl, Purity (or Cleanness) and Patience, all of which were contained in the same manuscript. It is also possible that he was a clergyman (so Bowers speculates), though Tolkien suggests that his interest in theology may have been that of an amateur.

‘But in this you lacked, sir, a little, and of loyalty came short.
But that was for no artful wickedness, nor for wooing either,
but because you loved your own life: the less do I blame you.’ (stanza 95)

Certainly, Christianity flavors the entire story, with references to Biblical stories and faith throughout. After introductory stanzas connecting the kings of Britain with Aeneas (of Trojan War and Aeneid fame)–apparently it was the thing to connect Britain to Troy–we enter a Christmastime scene at King Arthur’s Camelot court. It is a season of celebration, but King Arthur is also fond of a challenge, and is only too happy when the Green Knight–not merely dressed in green, but with hair and skin of a green hue as well, and towering over the knights at court–appears to challenge a courageous knight to trade blows. Sir Gawain takes up the challenge, beheading the Green Knight. Of course, this being a chivalric romance, the knight calmly picks up his head, reminds Sir Gawain that he has promised to appear before the Green Knight in a year to bravely take a blow from the Knight’s hands, and leaves. The remainder of the poem that follows is the story of Sir Gawain’s unplanned visit at Lord Bertilak de Hautdesert’s castle before his necessary departure to place his fate in the hands of the Green Knight. But the bulk of the poem–most of part II and all of part III–takes place at the castle, as we follow the games and temptations that ensue as both Lord and Lady Bertilak extract hasty promises from Sir Gawain who struggles to live up to the codes of Chivalry and courtesy in the face of temptations and the fear of his likely impending death. I can’t recall if it is ever directly stated, but even if not, it is clearly strongly implied that the codes by which Sir Gawain is expected to live and the courtesy for which he is known are considered not merely knightly virtues, but Christian ones, and by extension, the temptations he faces, are temptations to sin not merely against his host but against God.

The story is told over 101 stanzas of varying length, but following a poetic style known as the Alliterative Revival (revived from older Anglo-Saxon works). Unlike what we might think of as alliteration today, Sir Gawain’s alliteration is based on the sounds of words on the stressed syllable. To borrow an example from the Appendix, in the phrase “apt alliteration’s artful aide,” “alliteration” does NOT alliterate because the stressed syllable is “-lit-.” On the other hand, every word in the phrase “Old English art” would have been considered alliterative, because vowels alliterated with each other. Each line was divided into two halves, and the alliterative sound between the front and back half may not have always been the same (although, perhaps more so in the original than in translation). Interestingly, alliterating many (say 3 or 4) syllables in a half-line was not considered necessary. The stanzas ended with a device known as the “bob and wheel,” a five line structure of one very short (typically two to three syllables) line (the bob) followed by four more lines about half as long as the rest of the stanza (the wheel). In addition to maintaining alliteration in the wheel, a rhyme scheme, absent elsewhere, is added: ABABA. Amazingly, Tolkien is able to maintain all this complexity throughout his translation!

The language–dialect–of Sir Gawain is apparently even further from Modern English than Chaucer’s, and so Tolkien, in his introduction states that for any but the Medieval scholar translation is necessary. (A statement I easily believe based on snippets of the original in the Appendix of my copy as well as those I’ve seen online.) Reading it, I appreciate the availability of translation to bring us this gem, but is one of those many times when I have appreciated the difficulty of the translator’s task–and wondered how, with its poetic structure, it could possibly be translated into a language with completely different characteristics (as from a Germanic to a Romance language). Certainly, it seems it would bring a different reading experience–and makes me pause to wonder how different it is when translated into a descendant language. After all, there were times when I noted that the syntax seemed perhaps a bit Yoda-like: was this play of word order unique on Tolkien’s part in order to match the original’s alliteration as closely as possible, or is it a carry-over from the original? In his commentary on the verse form of the poem, Tolkien does note that at times he had to vary the alliteration more than the original, if for no other reason than that there were no appropriate equivalent-meaning words in Modern English that could alliterate with a key word that couldn’t change (a location name, for example)

(Source, Simon Armitage translation. Click either for full size)

It took me some time to decide on which translation I wanted to read of Sir Gawain. A decent number are available; the most recent by Simon Armitage is, I believe, the edition currently selected for the Norton Anthology of English Literature. However, when I read some bits as translated by Armitage, I was reminded of one of my particular translation preferences: when a work is old (especially very old, as with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), I prefer the translation to sound as if it is old as well–almost as if it is of the same era, just in English I can understand. Perhaps other translations may be of a better quality or more readable, or flow better, but Tolkien’s fits my own preferences. Sir Gawain  is old and sounds it. Of course, sometimes this means that Tolkien uses archaic (or for that matter, obscure armor-related) terms; fortunately there is a glossary. But overall, I was satisfied with my choice. It doesn’t hurt that the book comes with two other Tolkien translations as well, Pearl and Sir Orfeo. Guess what’s up next on my reading plans?

* Context information from the Introduction and Appendix to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by J.R.R. Tolkien, 1975 (HarperCollins) and from The Great Courses® course, The Western Literary Canon in Context, taught by Professor John M. Bowers, 2008 (The Teaching Company).

I read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for the 20th Classics Club Spin. It also slots into the “translation” category for Back to the Classics 2019.

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?