Saturday, January 16, 2021

Fraulein Schmidt and Mr. Anstruther by Elizabeth von Arnim

 Love this cover image, The Letter by Mary Cassatt (1890). 

Another book that's been on my radar forever. I love Elizabeth von Arnim and I've been saving this one for awhile -- I read two by von Arnim last year (Father and In the Mountains) and though I still own several unread, I'm trying to ration them out -- I know I'll be sad when I've completed them all.

Anyway. Published in 1907, Fraulein Schmidt and Mr. Anstruther is a departure for von Arnim -- it's an epistolary novel, told in letters spanning a little more than a year, from a young woman in Germany (the eponymous Rose-Marie Schmidt) to her sometime lover, Mr. Roger Anstruther. Roger, a young Englishman of 25, has spent the past year boarding with Fraulein Schmidt, her step-mother, and her father in the small town of Jena in eastern Germany. Herr Schmidt is a professor and makes very little money writing books that no one reads, so the family takes in English students for extra cash. Rose-Marie also has a small legacy from her mother, who died ten years ago. At 25 (the same age as Roger) she is considered a spinster. 

Nice period-appropriate image on this German edition

The first letter is sent from Rose-Marie to Roger shortly after he departs Germany, and reveals that on his last day, he has professed his love to Rose-Marie, and they are secretly betrothed -- secretly, because his father will never approve. Roger is from a Good English Family who have a long history, but little money. Rose-Marie is considered middle-class and therefore Not Good Enough, though her late mother was English. Roger is entering the Foreign Service and is therefore destined to marry someone with money, and preferably someone whose social standing will help advance his career. 

After a few months, [MILD SPOILER ALERT] Roger breaks off the engagement because, as predicted, he needs to marry someone with money. He then becomes betrothed to the perfect girl, but continues to write as a friend to Rose-Marie. The letters become more formal but it's pretty clear that they still care for one another -- but how much? Does Rose-Marie still love him? Can she forgive him, or has she moved on? Does he even deserve her? 

This cover art is from an 1883 painting by Renoir -- too early, but I get why they chose it. 

I liked this book but it wasn't what I expected; first of all, the letters are one-sided -- the reader only gets Rose-Marie's letters to Roger, not the other way around. There are 83 letters, some very long, some very short, so there are no chapter breaks, and some of the letters are just solid blocks of text which are a little difficult to read. However, I loved the character of Rose-Marie and I particularly enjoyed learning about her life in Germany. I could easily picture the little town of Jena, which is a real place about halfway between Frankfurt and Dresden, not far from the border of Czechia. It's about a four-hour drive from my village in the Rhineland, and I'm sorry I didn't read the book sooner so I could have made a weekend trip to visit the area and get a real look at it. 

Rose-Marie is a great character and you really get to know her through her letters. She's very smart and funny and has to put up with a lot, with her absent-minded father and her overbearing stepmother, not to mention all the village biddies who make cracks about her unmarried state. Parts of the book do veer into the philosophical which made my eyes glaze over a bit (lots of love for Goethe, not my favorite writer!) but I did get caught up in the plot and I was really rooting for Rose-Marie. I particularly loved this passage in which she describes how much reading means to her: 

Try to imagine yourself in my place. Come out of that gay world of yours where you are talking or being talked to all day long, and suppose yourself Rose-Marie Schmidt, alone in Jena, on a hill, with books. Suppose yourself for hours and hours every day of your life with nothing particular that you must do, that you have no shooting, no hunting, no newspapers, no novels. . . . Think of what writers are to me. . . . 

My one complaint is that it ends very abruptly, and the reader doesn't really learn what happens to Rose-Marie. I was rather gobsmacked about the ending -- I really wanted more resolution! However, I did really enjoy this book. I still have four unread books by Elizabeth von Arnim on my shelves and will probably read at least one more of her books this year, probably The Caravaners, which I'm planning to read (finally!) as my Travel or Journey Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

I'm counting this as my German book for the European Reading Challenge

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

The New Magdalen by Wilkie Collins


On January 1 I dove right into Back to the Classics Challenge with a new-to-me Victorian sensation novel, The New Magdalen by Wilkie Collins. Despite being a Collins fan I hadn't heard of it until it was recently reprinted by Persephone Books which immediately placed it on my reading radar.

One of Collins' shorter novels, it's the story of Mercy Merrick, an otherwise saintly and perfect Victorian lady who through no fault of her own, has a checkered past -- she was once forced to work as a prostitute. Having since left prostitution through a women's Refuge, she's now working as a nurse in France. The story begins in a small cottage where she is nursing French soldiers, under attack from the advancing German army (the book was published in 1873 so this must be the Franco-Prussian War). There is another woman in the house, Grace Roseberry. a lady by birth but in reduced circumstances. Grace had been in Rome with her father, who traveled from Canada for his health, but ended up dying there. Grace had been en route to England, for a job as a lady's companion, when she was caught up in the war and trapped on the frontier. She has nothing but her papers, and even the clothes on her back belong to Mercy Merrick, as her own dress is drying by the fire in the next room.


One of Collins' shorter novels, it's the story of Mercy Merrick, an otherwise saintly and perfect Victorian lady who through no fault of her own, has a checkered past -- she was once forced to work as a prostitute. Having since left prostitution through a women's Refuge, she's now working as a nurse in France. The story begins in a small cottage where she is nursing French soldiers, under attack from the advancing German army (the book was published in 1873 so this must be the Franco-Prussian War). There is another woman in the house, Grace Roseberry. a lady by birth but in reduced circumstances. Grace had been in Rome with her father, who traveled from Canada for his health, but ended up dying there. Grace had been en route to England, for a job as a lady's companion, when she was caught up in the war and trapped on the frontier. She has nothing but her papers, and even the clothes on her back belong to Mercy Merrick, as her own dress is drying by the fire in the next room.

Also adapted as a silent film in 1912! 

To pass the time while the women fear the advancing German army, Mercy tells Grace of her own sad history as a fallen woman. Then the unthinkable happens -- a shell hits the cottage, and Grace is killed. Mercy is evacuated with an English journalist, and on a sudden impulse, she grabs Grace's dress and all her papers, and assumes her identity. She sees this as a final chance for a better life, and Grace is beyond help, so no harm done there. 

Fast-forward several months, back in England. Grace is ensconced as the beloved companion of the steely but kind Lady Janet Roy, a wealthy and childless woman, and engaged to Horace Holmcroft, the journalist who -- coincidentally! -- is the son of one of Lady Janet's oldest friends. Horace has naturally fallen in love with the beautiful and perfect Grace, and his connection to Lady Janet is but the first of several amazing coincidences. Although Grace has had several idyllic months as Lady Janet's companion -- practically her adopted daughter -- her world will soon be turned upside down when her identity is called into question, and the truth of her sad and checkered past comes to light. 

 

I enjoyed this novel. It's a pretty standard Victorian sensation, with amazing coincidences, intrigue, swooning, scandals -- the usual. What's different about this one is the fairly serious subject matter of prostitution and forgiveness. Wilkie Collins points out the hypocrisy of the upper classes who are all talk and no action when it comes to Christian values. He does go over the top with the character of Merry who has literally no faults -- except for the prostitution, which literally is not her fault, as she explains in great detail. Collins also points out how few choices there were for Victorian women, particularly poor women. 

I did find the plot a little predictable and it was a little one-note -- it's only about 400 pages, short for a Victorian, so there's no room for sub-plots. It also seemed to have an abrupt finish, but there's an epilogue which explains what ultimately happens to Mercy, in the form of letters which are actually rather amusing. This would definitely be a good introduction to anyone interested in Victorian sensation novels who is put off by some of the triple-decker doorstoppers like The Woman in White or Man and Wife

I'm counting this as my New Classic by a Favorite Author Category for the Back to the Classics Challenge; and as my British selection for the European Reading Challenge

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Challenge Link-Up Post: Classic Play

Please link your reviews for the Classic Play here. This is only for the Classic Play category. This includes any play that was written or performed at least 50 years ago. Plays are eligible in this category only.

If you do not have a blog, or somewhere public on the internet where you post book reviews, please write your mini-review/thoughts in the comments section. If you like, you can include the name of your blog and or/the title of the book in your link, like this: "Karen K. @ Books and Chocolate (The Importance of Being Earnest)."

Challenge Link-Up Post: Travel or Adventure Classic

 

Please link your reviews for your Classic Travel or Adventure Classic here.  This is only for the Classic Travel or Adventure Classic category. This can be fiction or non-fiction, but the journey itself must be the major plot point -- not just the destination.   If you do not have a blog, or somewhere public on the internet where you post book reviews, please write your mini-review/thoughts in the comments section.  If you like, you can include the name of your blog and/or the title of the book in your link, like this: "Karen K. @ Books and Chocolate (The Time Machine)." 

Challenge Link-Up Post: Classic Humor or Satire

 

Please link your reviews for your Classic Humor or Satire here.  This is only for the Classic Humor or Satire category. This can be any novel that is humorous or satirical; since humor is subjective, it's up to the reader to decide. If you think Crime and Punishment is funny, go ahead and use it, but please explain why in your post.

If you do not have a blog, or somewhere public on the internet where you post book reviews, please write your mini-review/thoughts in the comments section.  If you like, you can include the name of your blog and/or the title of the book in your link, like this: "Karen K. @ Books and Chocolate (Three Men in a Boat)." 

Challenge Link-Up Post: Children's Classic



Please link your reviews for your Children's Classic here.  This is only for the Children's Classic category. Picture books do not count! If you do not have a blog, or somewhere public on the internet where you post book reviews, please write your mini-review/thoughts in the comments section.  If you like, you can include the name of your blog and/or the title of the book in your link, like this: "Karen K. @ Books and Chocolate (The Wizard of Oz)."
 

Challenge Link-Up Post: Classic About an Animal

 

Please link your reviews for your Classic About an Animal or With an Animal in the Title here.  This is only for the Classic About an Animal or Animal in the Title category.  The animal can be real, imaginary, or metaphorical. If the animal is not obvious, please clarify in your post. 

If you do not have a blog, or somewhere public on the internet where you post book reviews, please write your mini-review/thoughts in the comments section.  If you like, you can include the name of your blog and/or the title of the book in your link, like this: "Karen K. @ Books and Chocolate (The Hound of the Baskervilles)."

Challenge Link-Up Post: New Classic by a Favorite Author

Please link your reviews for your New Classic by a Favorite Author here.  This is only for the New Classic By A Favorite Author category.  This should be a classic that you haven't read before, written by one of your favorite authors. 

If you do not have a blog, or somewhere public on the internet where you post book reviews, please write your mini-review/thoughts in the comments section.  If you like, you can include the name of your blog and/or the title of the book in your link, like this: "Karen K. @ Books and Chocolate (Carry On, Jeeves)."

Challenge Link-Up Post: Classic by a New-to-You Author


Please link your reviews for your Classic By An Author That's New To You here.  This is only for the Classic By An Author That's New To You category.  This should be a classic by an author you've never read before (it doesn't necessarily have to be an author you'd never heard of.) 

If you do not have a blog, or somewhere public on the internet where you post book reviews, please write your mini-review/thoughts in the comments section.  If you like, you can include the name of your blog and/or the title of the book in your link, like this: "Karen K. @ Books and Chocolate (Crime and Punishment)."

Challenge Link-Up Post: Classic by a BIPOC Author

Please link your reviews for your Classic By a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and Person of Color) Author here.  This is only for the Classic By a BIPOC Author category.  These should all be classic books that were written by an authors who are not white; i.e., Black, Native American, Asian, Latinx, etc. The classic can be written in your native language or in translation.  

If you do not have a blog, or somewhere public on the internet where you post book reviews, please write your mini-review/thoughts in the comments section.  If you like, you can include the name of your blog and/or the title of the book in your link, like this: "Karen K. @ Books and Chocolate (The Bluest Eye)."