Back to the Classics 2020

So I said no challenges this year. Right. Just call me a lemming, following the crowd, but all the posts about Karen’s Back to the Classics Challenge, and I find I’m somewhat helpless to resist. Especially as there are some fun categories this year (I’m looking forward to “Family” and “Nature in the Title”). It also helps that I have one qualifying title read already and another half-done. So there’s that.

The categories this year, and some possibilities:

  1. 19th Century Classic.Whatever doesn’t fit into any other category and was published between 1800-1899.
  2. 20th Century Classic. Whatever doesn’t fit into any other category and was published between 1900-1970.
  3. Classic by a Woman Author. Too many choices to decide so early. Agatha Christie? Jane Austen? Elizabeth Gaskell? Willa Cather? Edith Wharton?
  4. Classic in Translation. Hmm….well, if I read something else for #11 (Abandoned Classic), Ficciones (Jorge Luis Borges) could slot here. Most likely something translated from Spanish (knowing me), although it’s been along time since I’ve read anything from French. And I’ve never read any Russians (really!), so maybe I should try something there. I do have some Tolstoy on my shelves.
  5. Classic by a Person of Color. I have several possibilities on my Classics Club list: Native Son, Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison), or Go Tell It on the Mountain (Or…Go Tell It on the Mountain could go for #9). I also keep seeing Nella Larson’s name, and it’s about time I finally read one of her novels.
  6. A Genre Classic. The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie. Already finished; I’ll be working on the post next!
  7. Classic with a Person’s Name in the Title. Karen says plays are okay and I’m thinking some Shakespeare this year, so maybe finally King Lear or Othello. Or Henry VI or Richard III or… Or maybe Jane Austen’s Emma, because rereads for the win?
  8. Classic with a Place in the Title. Is this the year I finally read Cranford? (Why I haven’t yet, I don’t know. I love Gaskell.) Or I might reread Mansfield Park, which I’ve been itching to get to for a while.
  9. Classic with Nature in the Title. I really don’t know what I want to read here. From my shelves, there’s The Rains Came by Louis Bromfield, which I could read as part of my Reading Ohio project as well.
  10. Classic About a Family. This will be a reread of One Hundred Years of Solitude. No debate.
  11. Abandoned Classic. I don’t actually have very many books I could choose from (and I do NOT plan to read both part of Don Quixote this year, even though Part 2 would count). Most likely Ficciones, although I could also finally read The Sound and the Fury (which only got away because of too many library books; I loved what I read).
  12. Classic Adaptation. Another fun category, I’m (currently) reading Far From the Madding Crowd for this. I also plan to watch the 2015 film once I’ve finished the novel, but that’s just for fun.

Of course, 2020 is very likely to be a year of lots of Agatha Christie (I’m on a roll…). She doesn’t count for every category, but I’m sure I could hit #s 2, 3, 7, 8, and 12 just with Dame Agatha alone. Last year, I even contemplated (but did not follow through on) the possibility of completing the challenge with only classic mysteries (I think it would be doable most years, although I’ve never abandoned a mystery, so #11 would be impossible for me this year). Which leads to other tantalizing list ideas…but more on that soon.

So many possibilities, but that’s half the fun of it! But will this be the year I actually read books for every category (and more importantly, write about them)? And do you have any votes for what I should (or shouldn’t read)? Community input always makes reading more fun!

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?

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.

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.)

Welcome to the Classic Children’s Literature Event, 2017!

Classic Children's Literature Event April 2017

Is there any essential connection between children and fairy-stories? Is there any call for comment, if an adult reads them for himself? Reads them as tales, that is, not studies them as curios. (J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-stories”, paragraph 42)

Today marks the first day of the 2016 Classic Children’s Literature Event! I hope for a fun month of revisiting old favorites and meeting new ones, and for plenty of great discussion about children’s classics both well known and nearly forgotten.

Starting today, the Event Logo at the top right of the blog will link to this page, which will be the link page for the event. (And this post should also be a “sticky” post at the top of the blog.) Please use the  comments below to link to your posts for this month. This will make it easier to for everyone to find each other’s posts! There will be a separate page for the Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland readalong which will go live nearer to the discussion weekend. At the end of the month–and half-way through if there are enough posts to warrant it–I will round up all the links onto one post for ease of discover.

As I said before, I’m not too fussy about the particulars for this event–as long as it’s still April it’s never too late to join!

(If you really want more guidelines check the Introductory Post. If you need reading ideas please see 2013’s suggestions list or 2014’s.)