Monday, June 1, 2020

Classics Spin #23: The Hireling by L. P. Hartley; and Some English Cathedrals


It's June 1st so that means it's time for my post on Classics Spin #23, which for me was The Hireling by L. P. Hartley. Published in 1957, it's the story of Stephen Leadbitter, a thirty-something man who earns a living as personal driver, taking customers in the car he is slowly paying off through a hire-purchase. Other than his job, he has a very solitary existence, no real friends or family. The aptly named Leadbitter had formerly been in the army and still lives his life very much as a disciplined military-type man. One day he takes on a job driving a wealthy widow on a day trip to Canterbury. Much to his surprise, she's young and beautiful. Lady Franklin, still mourning the death of her older husband, wants to visit all the cathedrals that her late husband loved, thinking it will bring her some kind of closure. 

Unlike most passengers who sit in the back and want silence or the radio, Lady Franklin wants to sit up front with Leadbitter and wants to her all about him. Since has little life outside of his job and he wants to please his customer, Leadbitter starts making up stories about an imaginary family, complete with a wife and three children. The trip goes well and Lady Franklin starts booking Leadbitter for more day trips around the countryside. Eventually, Leadbitter begins to look forward to the bookings, and begins to develop feelings for Lady Franklin, which leads to a very awkward moment and then spirals into something tragic and heartbreaking.

This was a fast read, and it wasn't at all what I was expecting. I don't know what I thought it would be -- a sweet love story? Driving Miss Daisy, but with white people? It was neither, though it definitely had a lot to say about class consciousness -- I honestly did not see them having a happily ever after (and now I'm having serious doubts about the romance between Tom the chauffeur and Lady Sibyl in Downton Abbey). I had only read one other book by L. P. Hartley which was The Go-Between, which I really liked, and which also has a lot to say about love between the classes. I've also heard wonderful things about The Boat and the Eustace and Hilda trilogy from Simon at Stuck in a Book

This book also reminded me of the trip I took to England in 2018 with my mother, which was mostly a Jane Austen pilgrimage but did include several churches and cathedrals -- we didn't make it to Canterbury but we did visit St. Paul's in London (I climbed all the way to the top!), Bath Abbey, Salisbury Cathedral, and Westminster Cathedral, where Jane Austen is buried. Just for fun, I'm including a few photos. 

St. Paul's dome

Front of the church. Loved the iconic buses passing by. 

Bath Abbey. We had amazing weather every day of the trip.

Spire of Salisbury Cathedral, the tallest in England at 404 feet. I did not climb it. 

The Salisbury Cathedral clock, c. 1386. Said to be the oldest working clock in the world.

Origami peace doves installation at Salisbury Cathedral

Winchester Cathedral 

The Winchester nave. It's 554 feet long, the longest Gothic church in the world.

The ceilings of Winchester were especially beautiful.

Jane Austen also gets a mention in The Hireling which amused me terribly: 

'. . . . Now read me what it says about Jane Austen.'

Putting one hand behind his back, he squared himself in front of the tablet. When he had finished reading, Lady Franklin said: 

  'I don't think she was kind hearted, do you?'

  'I couldn't say, my lady," Leadbitter said cautiously. It wouldn't surprise me if she wasn't.'

  'Because with one or two exceptions,' and his voice faintly underlined the words, 'ladies aren't very kind-hearted, in my experience.' 

  'Oh, would you say so?' Lady Franklin said, made thoughtful by the compliment. 'Perhaps we haven't a very good name for it.'

  'It makes the others stand out,' said Leadbitter obliquely.' 

  Lady Franklin couldn't but lap up this repeated dewdrop. 

  'How sweet of you!' she said. 'I'm afraid I don't deserve - But Jane Austen had many qualities more valuable than kind-heartedness. At least, more valuable to posterity.'

  'I expect she was a tartar in her time,' ventured Leadbitter.

I don't know that I've ever heard Jane Austen described as a tartar but I know she had a biting wit and there are some real zingers in some of her letters, so it's quite possible. And here is the tablet itself, and the plaque on the adjacent wall, commemorating the great author:

So -- a good book, a little armchair traveling, and another book crossed off my Classics Club list! I've finished 27 of 50 on my second list, and I hope to finish more this summer. Did everyone enjoy your Classics Club spin picks? And how are your lists coming along? 

Monday, May 25, 2020

Big Book Summer Challenge

What's better than a reading challenge to inspire another list? Hosted by Suzan at Book by Book, I hope this challenge will help me to clear off all those enormous books I still have on my shelves. According to my Goodreads list, I still have more than 30 books on my owned-and-unread shelves that I consider Big Fat Books, i.e., more than 500 pages long. Just for fun I've divided them into categories. 


Our Hidden Lives: The Remarkable Diaries of Postwar Britain by Simon Garfield (544 pp)
Long Live Great Bardfield by Tirzah Garwood (495 pp)
Trollope by Victoria Glendinning (551 pp)
Still Glides the Stream by Elizabeth Jane Howard (528 pp)
A London Family, 1870-1900 by Molly Hughes (600 pp)
Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee (869 pp)
Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford (744 pp)
Charles Dickens by Michael Slater (696 pp)
Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette by Judith Thurman (660 pp)
Roughing It by Mark Twain (592 pp)


Imperial Palace by Arnold Bennett (769 pp)

T. Tembarom by Frances Hodgson Burnett (518 pp)
The Complete Claudine by Collette (656 pp)
Sketches by Boz by Charles Dickens (680 pp)
Painting the Darkness by Robert Goddard (608 pp)
Green Dolphin Street by Elizabeth Goudge (571 pp)
The Twisted Sword by Winston Graham (544 pp)
Bella Poldark by Winston Graham (688 pp)
Penmarric by Susan Howatch (735 pp)
Madame Solario by Gladys Huntington (493 pp)
The Little Ottleys by Ada Leverson (543 pp)
. . . And Ladies of the Club by Helen Santmyer (1176 pp)
Temptation by Janos Szekeley (685 pp)
John Caldigate by Anthony Trollope (656 pp)
Ralph the Heir by Anthony Trollope (770 pp)
Marcella by Mrs. Humphrey Ward (560 pp)
The Fruit of the Tree by Edith Wharton (652 pp)
Hudson River Bracketed by Edith Wharton (547 pp)
La Debacle by Emile Zola (536 pp)

Short Stories:

East and West: The Collected Stories of W. Somerset Maugham, Vol. I (955 pp)
The World Over: The Collected Stories of W. Somerset Maugham, Vol. II (681 pp)
The Portable Dorothy Parker (626 pp)
The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter (495 pp)
The Complete Stories of Evelyn Waugh (640 pp)
The Collected Stories of Edith Wharton (640 pp)
The Most of P. G. Wodehouse (701 pp)
The Collected Stories of Stephan Zweig (720 pp)

By my count, that's 36 books, and I don't even want to do the math to think of how many pages that is -- it could be an entire year's reading for me! I could just concentrate on reading long books all summer, but I still want to make my goal of 100 books, and I'm exactly on track right now. 

There are about 15 weeks this summer, if you count it as the period from Memorial Day to Labor Day (Memorial Day is early this year, and Labor Day is late, not until September 7). In theory I could probably finish one per week, if that's all I was reading, but I know that'll never happen! And I know that some of them will be much slower than others, like the Wharton biography which is more than 700 pages of tiny print, not including endnotes and the index -- it's a dense read. I can probably knock off most of the fiction books within a week each, but the nonfiction and short stories will be harder, especially since I tend to dip in and out of them, alternating with fiction. 

I'm not going to commit to any particular list at the moment, since I know I'll never stick to it. The only book I'm definitely going to read is Temptation by Janos Szekely -- it was a Mother's Day gift and I've already read a few pages, I'm already hooked and plant to dive into as soon as I finish my current read). So I guess my goal will be to simply read as many as possible, at least one from each category -- a lot of these books have been hanging around my TBR shelves forever and I should just suck it up and read them, or at least attempt -- if I'm not enjoying them, I'll donate them to the Little Free Library down the block, since the library is still closed. 

Bloggers, what do you suggest from my list of Big Fat Books? Do you have any enormous books you've been putting off forever? And do you have any reading goals this summer? 

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Hester: A Novel of Contemporary Life by Mrs. Oliphant

I counted the other day and I still have more than thirty unread Virago Modern Classics on my TBR shelves (though technically, some of them are not VMC editions). I'm desperately trying to take control of the TBR shelves, so Margaret Oliphant's Hester: A Novel of Contemporary Life was my pick for the May/June prompt of the Victorian Reading Challenge (long titles or sub-titles). 

First published in 1883, this is the story of two strong women in the fictional town of Redborough. The Vernon family name is synonymous with banking and stability, and in the beginning of the novel, a scandal erupts about 30 years prior -- John Vernon, head of the bank and the grandson of the founder of the Vernon family bank, has fled the country, and rumors are flying around town that there's about to be a run on the bank (if you've ever seen It's A Wonderful Life, you know exactly what this means: word is out that the bank doesn't have the funds and is about to collapse, so everyone rushes to the bank to get out their money before it's gone). 

Mr. Rule, the chief clerk, goes to Mr. Vernon's home in desperation, and he's nowhere to be found. His young and flighty wife insists that he'll be back soon, and offers the clerk all the money she has in the house, about 20 pounds. Instead, Mr. Rule does the unthinkable -- he approaches Mr. Vernon's cousin Catherine, a spinster, who is a shareholder but has naturally never been involved. Catherine is naturally concerned and with her funds and brains, she saves the bank, restoring the family name, and thus the town's revered and powerful benefactor. 

The story then jumps forward to the 1880s, and John Vernon's widow (known as Mrs. John), is returning to Redborough after the death of her husband. Mrs. John moved Abroad and joined her husband after she was forced to give up her beautiful home in the wake of the banking scandal, and she hadn't returned since. Now living in genteel poverty, she returns to the scene with her teenaged daughter Hester, who was born much later and knows nothing about this embarrassing episode or her father's role in it. She and her mother move into the Vernonry, a great old house that Catherine Vernon had converted into multiple dwellings, normally offered to impoverished relatives. All of them are living off Catherine's generosity, but most of them are bitterly resentful and disparage her whenever they can. 

Unfortunately, young Hester gets off on the wrong foot with Catherine, who calls on her mother late on the first evening of their arrival. Hester doesn't realize how important a benefactress Catherine is, and is rather rude and protective of her mother, and from this day forward, she and Catherine don't care much for one another. Catherine finds Hester standoffish, and Hester is influenced by the cutting remarks about Catherine by her neighbors, who are a kind of Greek chorus of frenemies. The only neighbors who seem thankful and benevolent are Captain and Mrs. Morgan, who related to Catherine's later mother, and are not technically Vernons. 

Things in Redborough are fairly uneventful until Hester turns nineteen and blossoms into a lovely young woman, attracting the notice of two of her distant cousins, who have been chosen by Catherine to succeed her in running the bank -- the dull but handsome Harry, and the hardworking Edward, handpicked by Catherine as her surrogate son and heir. Harry is in love with Hester, but she's not interested, and Edward is attracted to her but can't risk incurring the wrath of Catherine, who has never liked Hester. Meanwhile, the Morgan's grandson Roland arrives, on the lookout for new investors in his stockbroking business, and Edward thinks this may be his chance to finally become independent of Catherine.

I really liked this novel -- it's fairly long, almost 500 pages, but I really got invested in the plot and the characters. I got so caught up in the story I finished it in only four days. A couple of the characters reminded me a bit of Jane Austen -- Roland's sister Emma shows up, desperate for a husband, and I found her somewhat like Lucy Steele from Sense and Sensibility, though she's not nearly as malicious.  It was nice to have a Victorian novel with strong women characters. Margaret Oliphant clearly had some ideas about working women, and expresses them through Hester's frustration:

"I thought you hated Catherine Vernon," Roland cried.
"I never said so," cried Hester; and then, after a pause, "but if I did, what does that matter? I should like to do what she did. Something of one's own free will—something that no one can tell you or require you to do—which is not even your duty bound down upon you. Something voluntary, even dangerous——" She paused again, with a smile[Pg 7] and a blush at her own vehemence, and shook her head. "That is exactly what I shall never have it in my power to do."
"I hope not, indeed, if it is dangerous," said Roland, with all that eyes could say to make the words eloquent. "Pardon me; but don't you think that is far less than what you have in your power? You can make others do: you can inspire . . .  and reward. That is a little highflown, perhaps. But there is nothing a man might not do, with you to encourage him. You make me wish to be a hero."
He laughed, but Hester did not laugh. She gave him a keen look, in which there was a touch of disdain. "Do you really think," she said, "that the charm of inspiring, as you call it, is what any reasonable creature would prefer to be doing? To make somebody else a hero rather than be a hero yourself? Women would need to be disinterested indeed if they like that best. I don't see it. Besides, we are not in the days of chivalry. What could you be inspired to do—make better bargains on your Stock Exchange?"

Margaret Oliphant was one of the most prolific Victorian authors,  probably the most prolific women author of the era. She published her first novel in 1849, when she was just 21, and published more than 120 novels, supporting her family after her husband's death in 1852. Like many Victorian women authors, only a few of them are still in printthough there are quite a few on ebook, and many are free through Project Gutenberg. I've now read six of her novels so far -- Hester; The Mystery of Mrs. Blencarrow, I've read three of her Carlingford Chronicles, Miss Marjoribanks and The Rector and The Doctor's Family, two novellas in one volume. Virago Modern Classics reprinted the rest of the series and I'm tempted to track those down as well. 

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Lark Rise to Candleford; and my pastoral life in Germany

I finally tackled one of the books I've had on my owned-and-unread pile the longest -- Lark Rise to Candleford. I bought this more than ten years ago, around the time the TV series was first broadcast, but I've been putting it off forever, put off by the sheer size of it, and by the first couple of pages which are mostly descriptive. (It's also one of the books from my original Classics Club list that I never read). It's a little tough if the first page doesn't grab you. I had watched a bit of the TV series and enjoyed it, so I thought I should give it another go. 

For those who aren't familiar, Lark Rise is a fictionalized memoir of Flora Thompson's childhood in rural England, during the late Victorian period. It's classified as fiction but definitely reads like a memoir, and most libraries and bookstores shelve it in the fiction section. There isn't really any plot, it's really a lot of vignettes and memories of Thompson's childhood in Oxfordshire, and she places herself in the story as the main character, Laura, oldest child of a stonemason and his wife who live in a poor but comfortable house in the little hamlet of Lark Rise. It was originally published as three volumes, and I read the edition pictured above which includes all of them: Lark Rise [1939], Over to Candleford [1941], and Candleford Green [1943]. Since 1945 it's been available as an omnibus and there are many beautiful editions. 

A Penguin edition of the first volume.
My copy had woodcut illustrations similar to the one on the cover, 

though they're black and white

Each chapter has a theme, so it isn't told in a specifically linear fashion. It jumps around a bit, but it's easy enough to follow. There were chapters on May Day, hog butchering, school, churchgoing, and so on. Bits of it reminded me a bit of the Little House on the Prairie series, just in the descriptions of daily life in that era. Life was hard for Laura's family and the other families in Lark Rise, but she seems to have very happy memories. It's a really lovely portrait of rural life towards the end of the Victorian era, with hints of what's to come in the new century. 

It's fairly long book, more than 500 pages and 39 chapters. I finally got around to picking it up when I was looking for something soothing to read, and it fit the bill perfectly. Most of the chapters are short, and I thought I'd just read one or two a day, but I found myself turning to it more and more often in the past week. It is just the thing to read before bedtime, to crowd out all my other thoughts of world events. I can see why it was so popular when first published during WWII. 

After reading a few chapters I was wondering how they adapted it into a 40-episode TV series (I've only watched the first season so far). Eventually, though, I began to recognize characters from the series. Some of them have much more screen time than you'd expect from the book, and a couple of them have been combined into one family. They've definitely kept the spirit of the book in the series. It's a bit like Cranford in that the TV creators have taken the essence of the characters and place and extrapolated from there. If you're expecting it to be a novelization of the series, you'll be disappointed. For example, Dorcas, the postmistress, has nearly as much screen time in the TV series as Laura, but she doesn't show up in the book until more than halfway through. 

The beautiful Folio Society edition. I would love to take a look at this one. 

I really enjoyed this book, though it wasn't what I'd call a quick read, It's definitely a leisurely read, well suited to reading in bits in pieces, and it felt more like a memoir than a novel. In the past I've described books as 'fiction that reads like nonfiction' but this was the opposite. And if you love a sense of place, this is the book for you, with lovely descriptions of the countryside and just the slowness of everyday life. It made me want to move to a cottage and cook on an open fire. 

I'm a suburban kid and the idea of living in a village surrounded by countryside has always appealed to me. Our house in Germany was in a village, though nothing like Lark Rise, though we were at the end of a street on the edge of farmland and I could literally see cornfields and livestock right outside my door. I used to walk my dog through farmland and there were cows, horses, and chickens within a short distance, and in the spring, I'd take the scenic route to see if there were any lambs. I did enjoy how peaceful it was but there wasn't much to do close by, if you wanted to do more than a movie or basic shopping we had to drive pretty far. 

So here are a few photos of the countryside near my former house in the village of Steinwenden, a tiny village in the Rhineland-Pfalz, near Ramstein air base.

Just some cows in the neighborhood.

A field of canola. Every spring the countryside would be bright yellow. 

Pasture on the hill just behind our house, I could see these sheep from the second-story window. 

Sadly they weren't permanent residents, just visiting.  

In the summer this field was normally wheat or corn, 

but one summer it was all sunflowers and sweet peas, to help enrich the soil.

Sunset over the wheat field, just beyond my house. 

Hay all bundled up at the end of the season. I took this photo from my driveway. 

I loved the peace and quiet of the countryside but I was happy to move closer to a major city. Right now I'd be really happy to be on the edge of the farms, I'm sure it would be more relaxing right about now! Well, every place has its advantages. 

Bloggers, which are your favorite books about rural life? And does anyone else feel like moving out to the country about now? 

I'm counting this as my Adapted Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal; and Photos of Vienna

Posthumously published in 2013, The Exiles Return is the first of Elisabeth de Waal's novels to be published by Persephone (the above image is a Picador edition). Grandmother of author Edmund de Waal, Elisabeth de Waal was born in 1899 as a member of the wealthy Ephrussi family, a banking dynasty. Her mother was a Baroness, and Elisabeth studied law, economics and philosophy and was a poet. 

The Exiles Return is the story of five people who return to Vienna in the mid-1950s. Some are loosely connected, and some closely. The story begins with Dr. Kuno Adler, a Jewish research scientist who is returning to Europe for the first time after the war. Though his wife became a successful businesswoman in New York, he longs to return to Vienna and is able to return to his laboratory, albeit in a less prestigious position. 

The second character is a wealthy Greek named Kanakis, who returns to Vienna in search of a little Vienna palais to enjoy the society life. He has money and influence, and surrounds himself with beautiful and interesting people, including the young and beautifully handsome Prince Lorenzo Grein-Lauterbach, nicknamed Bimbo. Now impoverished, he has returned with his older sister Nina, who works in the same laboratory as Dr. Adler. 

Endpaper from the Persephone edition of The Exiles Return

Finally, the reader is also introduced to Marie-Theres (nicknamed Resi), an eighteen-year old Austo-American, whose parents fled before the war. Daughter of a princess, she has never really fit in to American life and her family thinks visiting her mother's family in Vienna will do her good (and possibly marry her off). 

At first it seems that these disparate characters have nothing to do with one another, but eventually, their stories intertwine, at least somewhat. The end of the novel is not a surprise, as it begins with a dramatic event reported in the newspapers, so the story is not so much about what happens, but why. It's a fairly short book and I think having so many characters in so short a novel is a bit disappointing. This almost feels like a first draft, and as an unpublished manuscript, it may well be (there's even a note explaining that the first page of a particular chapter is missing.) Dr. Adler and Resi get the most attention, and I feel like the other characters were underdeveloped -- the Grein-Lauterbach siblings are really just secondary characters but Nina in particular could have been really interesting. 

Vienna and Austria, however, get a lot of wonderful descriptions. Resi spends a summer in a country estate which sounds just heavenly, and then a season in Vienna, going to lectures, parties, and the opera. In 2018 I was able to spend my Thanksgiving weekend in Vienna, which was just as wonderful as you'd expect. 

The Ringstrasse 
St. Stephen's Cathedral. The Christmas markets had just opened that weekend.
The National Library of Austria, surely the inspiration for the library in Beauty and the Beast. 
Belvedere Castle was a quick walk from my hotel, it's now a museum with artwork by Gustav Klimt. 
The Ferris wheel at the Prater, made famous by Orson Wells in The Third Man.

And the pastries were to die for. 
I really should have brought this book with me and read it while I was there, but my book group was meeting the day after I returned so I was busy reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel -- a book about a pandemic! Who knew? 

I'm counting this as my book set in Austria for the European Reading Challenge

Friday, April 24, 2020

Crossriggs by Jane & Mary Findlater

Not a great cover image, but the only one I could find.

I don't know who I can credit for recommending Crossriggs -- I'm sure it was someone in the blogosphere, and I wish I knew so I can thank them. (Updated: it was Furrowed Middlebrow!) This book is exactly in my wheelhouse, including : 
  1. A Victorian(ish) time period 
  2. Set in Scotland
  3. A strong female protagonist 
Basically, a trifecta of all the things I love in a book. Published in 1908, Crossriggs is the story of Alexandra Horn, a woman in hear late twenties/early thrities, living with her father in the village of Crossriggs which is "about an hour's train ride from Edinborough. Besides the Horns, there are three or four other families of note around which the story is centered. Alexandra, known as Alex, has been living rather quietly with her father, an educated man with interesting and progressive ideas (but not much money) when her recently widowed sister Matilda arrives in tow from Canada with her five (!) children. The eldest daughter is 13, then there are three boys in a row, and finally a baby girl. 

Of course this throws the whole house into turmoil, but Alex and her father take it all in stride until they realize they will be more financially strapped than ever. Her father borrows some money from a close neighbor, Mr. Maitland, but Alex is aghast and vows to find a way to earn some ready cash. She begins by reading every day to a blind neighbor, the retired Admiral Cassilas, who is kind but somewhat gruff and snobbish. The admiral's only living relative is his grandson, Vanbrough, who has just finished school and is about twenty-one. 

A better image of the cover artwork. 
It's "Lady in Grey" (1859) by Daniel Macnee, National Galleries of Scotland

Young Van is bored staying at gloomy Foxe Hall with his grandfather, and the two don't always see eye to eye. He quickly strikes up a friendship with Alex and spends more and more time with the loud and boisterous Hope family. Eventually, his grandfather starts parading a succession of eligible young women around Van, and Alex's sister is pressuring her to accept the hand of James Reid, who is good steady but whom Alex finds dull. And Van is jealous of her friendship with their neighbor Mr. Maitland, who seems excessively fond of Alex, who is married with a sickly wife. Eventually this love triangle (or quadrangle?) comes to a head, and after a dramatic turn of events, there is a tragedy.

I really enjoyed this book -- it reminded me a bit of Jane Austen, but also a little bit of Anne of Green Gables. I really liked that Alex was trying to make her way in the world without just husband hunting -- she seemed like a new modern woman. The plot moved along nicely, and though it's almost 400 pages long, it seemed shorter, probably because the Virago edition had very wide margins. 

This book had some interesting plot twists. There was a lot of foreshadowing about the three men who seemed interested in Alex, so I had strong suspicions about how it would all end up -- and I was right about some of the events, but not the characters I was expecting, if that makes sense. And I was amused by Alex's father, who was a "fruitarian" -- basically, a vegetarian who made the family eat crazy things like nuttose, an early meat substitute developed in the late 1890s. They were also forced to eat carrots, of all things! Apparently this was a vegetable only fit for horses. 

Aside from some cringely racism, I liked this book very much, though the ending was a bit rushed. I did like how Alex's story was wrapped up, which was not how I expected. I would like to read more by the Findlater sisters, who wrote books individually and together. Sadly, I don't think any of their other books are readily available. Crossriggs is currently out of print, but there are used copies of the Virago Modern Classic edition available at a reasonable price online. And I've just discovered it's available as an audio on BBC Radio 4!  

I'm counting this as my Classic with a Place in the Title for the Back to the Classics Challenge and for my UK Classic for the European Reading Challenge

Monday, April 20, 2020

#Zoladdiction 2020: The Sin of Abbe Mouret

It's April, and that means it's another edition of Fanda's Zoladdiction! Hosted by Fandaclassiclit, this is a month-long celebration of the life and work of Emile Zola, my favorite French writer. I've been reading Zola's novels for ten years, and I'm more than halfway through with his Rougon-Macquart cycle of twenty novels. This year I selected The Sin of Abbe Mouret, first published in 1875.

This is the fifth book in the series, and at just under 300 pages, it's also one of the shortest -- which is honestly why I chose it from the five Zola novels on my TBR list. I'm still recovering from Les Miserables and just could not face the 600 pages of La Debacle, another war novel. As such a short novel, there are few characters and the plot line is fairly simple. Abbe Serge Mouret, age 25, is the priest of a small parish of Les Artaud, a village in southern France, where he lives with his younger sister, Desiree, and an elderly housekeeper, La Teuse. Serge and Desiree are the two younger children of the Mouret family introduced in The Conquest of Plassans, the previous volume of the series (their older brother Octave moves off to Paris and reappears in books ten and eleven, Pot-Bouille and The Ladies' Paradise).

One spring day Abbe Mouret is out on an errand -- he must persuade a pregnant village girl to marry the baby's father. The girl's father is unwilling to give up unpaid labor, and most of the villagers seem nonplussed about the situation. On his way back to the parish, he runs into his uncle, Doctor Pascal (last seen in the first volume, The Fortunes of the Rougons.) The Doctor is on his way to check on a patient, Jeanbernat, the elderly caretaker of a vast abandoned estate known as Le Paradou (the Paradise). Jeanbernat lives in this isolated, ramshackle ruin with his niece Albine, who has become rather wild. 

It turns out Jeanbernat is just fine and not on death's door. but Abbe Mouret catches a glimpse of this idyllic garden paradise and the wild Albine. A few weeks later, Abbe Mouret falls ill from a terrible fever, and is sent to convalesce in the secluded estate. When he is recovering, he has no memory of his life as a priest, and soon he falls in love with Albine and with the gardens of Le Paradou -- basically, it's a 19th century Adam and Eve story, except that Adam is a priest. When Mouret remembers his life as priest, he wrestles with his conscience -- can he overcome his sin and return to his spritual ways as a priest? Or will he succumb to his earthly desires and run away with Albine? Zola isn't known for happy endings, so the outlook is not favorable.

Overall I liked this book, though it isn't my favorite in the series. Obviously, there's a lot of religion in this book, and the struggle between man's spirituality and man's human desires. Sex and religion are hot topics at any time, and the combination of the two is just somewhere I'm going to avoid. 

I will say that there are a lot of wonderful descriptions of the gardens of the Paradou, though if you are a garden, you will realize that miraculously, many of these plants don't normally bloom at the same time, so suspend your disbelief. Or maybe it's a magical microclimate? It is meant to be an Eden, so I'll let it pass. 

Forest Interior by Paul Cezanne, 1898-1899. Fine Arts Museums, San Francisco. The cover image above is a detail from this painting. Ironically, Cezanne and Zola were close friends until Zola used him as inspiration for his novel The Masterpiece. They never spoke again after that.

Mostly what I didn't like about this book was the way women were depicted, and the misogyny of one character in particular. There is another priest, Brother Archangias (an archangel?) who has such an overwhelming hatred of women he literally says they should all be strangled at birth. To him, all women are temptresses and sluts -- the only women he seems to tolerate is the housekeeper La Teuse -- and there are several scenes in which they are playing the card game War. Zola is pretty heavy-handed with the symbolism in this book, if you hadn't noticed already. I can't decide if Zola really feels this way about women or if he's satirizing the sexism of the church. 

The only female character that Zola depicts favorably is Serge's sister Desiree, but she's supposed to be simple-minded -- not stupid, but I wonder if she would now be classified as on the autism spectrum. She loves nothing more than her animals and treats them like her own children, though she doesn't seem to mind pigs being slaughtered. I'm not quite sure what to make of her. 

Desiree and the uncle, Doctor Pascal, are basically the only good characters in the novel. As in The Conquest of Plassans, Zola uses Doctor Pascal to give us his naturalist theories about the family: 

You, of course, you're a priest, you've done the right thing, it's a very happy state being a priest. It's completely taken you over, hasn't it, so you've really turned towards the good. You'd never have been happy doing anything else. Your relatives, who started out like you, have committed their villainies without finding any consequent satisfaction. . . . There's a logic to it, my boy. A priest completes the family. It was inevitable anyway. Our blood was bound to go that way in the end. . . . So much the better for you, you've been the luckiest. (p. 33)

Doctor Pascal is the subject of the final novel in the series, and I've just recently discovered that a new translation is scheduled to be published by Oxford World's Classics this fall. Of course it could delayed by current events, but I'm hopeful. Finally, the series will be complete in new translations! 

I'm counting this as my Classic with a Proper Name for the Back to the Classics Challenge and also for the Victorian Challenge

Friday, April 17, 2020

#1920 Club: In the Mountains by Elizabeth von Arnim

I always love when Simon and Kaggsy host one of their year-themed reading clubs -- it's so interesting to see the range of different books published in a given year. This round they've gone for the centenary celebration of 1920. It was tougher than I thought to find a book I hadn't read, but I realized that In the Mountains, one of Elizabeth von Arnim lesser-known works, was published that year. It's really a novella, though it's out of print in English it's available online through and iBooks.

Set in 1919, this epistolary novel is the diary of an anonymous Englishwoman who has returned to her summer home in the Swiss Alps, after an absence of five years due to WWI. She retreats to her cozy home to rest and recuperate after the trauma of the war. She is trying to get back to some sense of normalcy and in the beginning she does little more than sit and contemplate. She does have two servants, Antoine and Mrs. Antoine, a caretaker and housekeeper. Some of the most amusing bits are the narrator dealing with the minutia of life. There's a part about Antoine's acquisition of livestock which I really enjoyed. 

Out of print in English, but I love the cover of this Italian edition.
The silence and solitude is therapeutic for the narrator but after a while she longs for human contact, and I found this passage to be particularly timely:

I suppose, however, for most people complete freedom is too lonely a thing, therefore the absence should only be just long enough to make room for one to see clear again. Just a little withdrawal every now and then, just a little, so as to get a good view once more of those dear qualities we first loved, so as to be able to see that they're still there, still shining. (August 4)

Eventually, the author has some random house guests, two English sisters she who literally stumble their way into her yard, looking for a pension, and quite quickly, she invites them to stay. I liked this as it reminded me a bit of the four women sharing the villa in Enchanted April. I didn't expect it, but this book had quite a few parallels with the self-distancing we're all experiencing:

Yet the days are packed. Mine, at any rate, are. Packed tight with an immense monotony.
Every day we do exactly the same things: breakfast, read aloud; lunch, read aloud; tea, go for a walk; supper, read aloud; exhaustion; bed. How quick and short it is to write down, and how endless to live. At meals we talk, and on the walk we talk, or rather we say things. At meals the things we say are about food, and on the walk they are about mountains. The rest of the time we don't talk, because of the reading aloud. That fills up every gap; that muzzles all conversation. (August 25)
(This is essentially my life right now, except we don't read aloud, we're reading silently or watching TV. Or on our phones, sadly).

The sisters, two widows named Mrs. Barnes and Mrs. Jewks, then become the focus of the novel. Mrs. Barnes, the elder, is very buttoned-up about their family history and situation so close to the end of the war, and I could see parallels with some of the current racism in our country. But the best part of the novel was the witty dialogue and lovely descriptions of life in the Alps. I did get to visit the Alps when I was in Germany, once on a day trip to Interlaken, and another on a trip to Innsbruck, Austria. I didn't actually visit any chalets but the scenery was stunning. 

Near Wengen, Switzerland

View from the top of Grindelwald in the Swiss Alps 

After a bit of a slow start, I really enjoyed this novel and finished most of it in one sitting. It really picked up after Mrs. Barnes and Mrs. Jewks arrived, and though it doesn't quite have the charm of The Enchanted April, I could see hints of that book which was published only two years later. My only quibble with In the Mountains is that we never really learn that much about the narrator -- aside from never learning her name, we know very little about her family history, her life, or what happened to her in the war. We learn about one significant wartime loss, but that's it. What was her role in the war? Did she lose a husband or sweetheart? She never says. I wonder if she is supposed to represent an everywoman, or that the she is so neutral so that the reader can more easily identify with her. In the Mountains is considered one of von Arnim's lesser novels but I'm very glad I read it. Thanks to again to Simon and Kaggsy for hosting this event, I'm looking forward to the next one!

I'm counting this as my Classic with Nature in the Title for the Back to the Classics Challenge, and as my book set in Switzerland for the European Reading Challenge