Thursday, April 15, 2021

1936 Club: The Other Day by Dorothy Whipple

 

I love books written in the inter-war period; I love memoirs; and I love the middlebrow author Dorothy Whipple, so One Fine Day checks off so many boxes for me! It is the perfect read for Kaggsy and Simon's 1936 Club. 


Born in 1893, in Blackburn, Lancashire, Whipple was the eldest child of what would be eventually a large family of seven children. She seemed to have a mostly idyllic childhood, though there would be heartaches. Young Dorothy especially loved the countryside and was fascinated by stories and folktales from a young age. 

. . . the tales Kate told us got mixed up with the tales I told myself, so I could not sort them out, and walking over the wet roads between the low black stone walls and looking out to the far splendid hills with the cloud-shadows going over, I felt a deep satisfaction that the world should be so full of tales, of things that had happened and were happening. Anything seemed possible in those days, and I should not have been at all surprised if a great antediluvian beast had appeared among the browsing cows in the field, or if Mistress Nutter had overtaken us on a broomstick.

However, schools for girls in the early part of the century were spotty, and Dorothy had some pretty horrific school experiences -- a particularly nasty math teacher was constantly berating her, and at one point she's accused of plagiarizing a short story she'd written, which is so infuriating! (Obviously, her talent for writing began at a young age, since the teachers didn't believe a child could have written such a good story.



Finally her father decided to send her to a convent school, which he announced casually at the dinner table. 

It was at meals that we mostly saw him. Vital changes in our young lives have been announced to the accompaniment of knives and forks clattering on plates, the gurgle of water being poured from glasses, and requests for more bread from unconcerned parties. While being helped to vegetables one's dearest hopes would fall between dish and plate never to be recovered, or on the other hand, one would be raised to the seventh heaven of delight by some promise made while waiting for the pudding to come in.

The news of Dorothy's new school came as shock but she grew to love it, though it was difficult as a Protestant in a school run by a Belgian order of nuns, with nearly all Catholic classmates. Naturally there are some funny and embarrassing school anecdotes. 

A 1950 paperback edition cover

The book really only includes Dorothy's childhood, up to the age of twelve when the family moves permanently to the countryside. Of course Whipple was only in her forties when she wrote the memoir, but I would have loved to learn more about her coming-of-age and her life as a writer. Before The Other Day, Whipple had written four novels and a book short stories, which doesn't include some of her most popular works. 


I've been a Whipple fan since I read The Priory, one of my very first Persephones, and it's thanks to Persephone that I have a pretty big collection of of her work, nearly every book in print and out of print. Nearly all of them are reprinted by Persephone, but not this one, and I'm sorry to say that copies are scarce and quite spendy when they do come on the market. I did pay rather a lot for this one, though not nearly as much as I've seen recently. I really do hope Persephone or one of the other publishers reprints this little gem! 

And thanks again to Kaggsy and Simon for organizing the 1936 reading week, it's been so lovely reading about all the wonderful books published that year. 

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

1936 Club: Anne of Windy Poplars by L. M. Montgomery


While searching for an appropriate book for the 1936 Club, I realized that Anne of Windy Poplars, fourth in the Anne of Green Gables series, was published that year. Six of the books in the series were published from 1908 to 1921, but later in her career, L. M. Montgomery went back and filled in the gaps before and after Anne's House of Dreams; (Anne of Ingleside was published in 1939.)

Anyway, it was an easy choice, especially after my previous read, which was good but a little depressing. I hadn't read any of the Anne books for a few years, so I quickly sped through Anne of Anne of the Island (volume 3) to get caught up with Anne in volume 4. I'm very glad I did because although I enjoyed the third book, I much preferred the fourth. (This post will contain very mild spoilers about Anne's career and love life, but nothing really shocking).

So, our beloved Anne Shirley, spunky orphan from Prince Edward Island, is now a graduate of Redmond College, and has a three-year job as principal of Summerside High School, also on Prince Edward Island. She's engaged to Gilbert Blythe, who is in medical school, and much of the book is Anne's lengthy letters to Gilbert (sadly, no letters from Gilbert to Anne are included). The story begins with Anne looking for lodgings in Summerside. Traditionally, the principal boards with Mrs. Tom Pringle, who has decided not to take lodgers. Anne finds a room boarding at a house delightfully named Windy Poplars, with two widows, Aunt Kate and Aunt Chatty, and Aunt Kate's curmudgeonly yet lovable cousin, Rebecca Dew, who is sort of a housemaid/milkmaid/Greek chorus. Windy Poplars is just the sort of charming, romantic house that would attract Anne, situated on a road called Spook's Lane, with a tower bedroom, across from a graveyard. 

Nice cover, but Anne is far too young -- 
she'd have her skirts down and her hair up if she were the school principal! 

The reason that Mrs. Pringle won't take Anne as a boarder becomes quickly apparent. The Pringles and "half-Pringles" are the dominant family in the area, and they run the show. Before even arriving, they're mad at Anne for having the gall to be hired as principal over one of their own clan, and they are determined to make her life difficult behind her back, though they appear to be kind to her in person, inviting her for dinners, etc. But they undermine her at the school at every turn, especially with the students who are insubordinate, refuse to do homework, play pranks on her at every turn. However, Anne manages to get the better of them when they attempt to sabotage the school play. 

Of course Anne wins them over eventually, with a bit of deus ex machina. (Which is fine).There are also other recurring characters, including Katherine, a prickly co-worker who was also angling for the job; and Elizabeth, a miserable child living next door who seems to have the worst guardians and the loneliest existence in the world. Naturally, Anne's inherent sunny disposition and cockeyed optimism change their lives. 

This volume isn't groundbreaking or particularly exciting as far as Anne's story goes (or in the greater annals of children's literature). Basically, it just seems amusing filler in the Anne chronicles before her marriage. Nothing really happens to Anne other than meeting interesting and eccentric characters in Summerside, or improving the lives of everyone around her. You could even read this as a stand-alone novel if you didn't know anything else about Anne Shirley -- I actually found it easier to read than the previous novel, Anne of the Island (due to the gap in my reading I'd forgotten a lot of the secondary characters and was a bit confused at times).


Still, the fun and quirky characters are what makes this book delightful, if a little too good to be true, sometimes. But it's Anne Shirley and who doesn't need a little unrealistic levity right about now? It's just the thing for a pandemic comfort read, and I will probably finish the rest of the series this year.

In this passage, Anne is taking a tour of the cemetery and getting a little local color from one of the residents: 

The MacTabbs were all handsome but you could never believe a word they said. There used to be a stone here for his Uncle Samuel, who was reported drowned at sea fifty years ago. When he turned up alive the family took the stone down. The man they bought it from wouldn't take it back, so Mrs. Samuel used it for a baking-board. Talk about a marble slab for mixing on! That old tombstone was just fine, she said. The MacTabb children were always bringing cookies to school with raised letters and figures on them. . . scraps of the epigraph. They gave them away real generous, but I never could bring myself to eat one. I'm peculiar that way. 

I'm quite sure I will remember this story the next time I'm rolling out cookie dough!

There are many, many editions out there, and while searching for cover images, I also found this:


Apparently Anne of Windy Poplars was adapted as a 1940 movie! It's not on DVD but you can find clips on YouTube. The full movie may be online somewhere but I wasn't able to find it. I did find a synopsis of the plot on Wikipedia which you can read here, it sounds absolutely terrible. Has anyone seen it? I'd love to know! 

 I'm counting this as my Children's Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge. And thanks again to Simon and Kaggsy for hosting the 1936 Club! 

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Classics Spin #26


Time for another Classics Spin, #26! I'm getting close to the end of my second Classics Club list. A week from today, April 18, the Spin will assign me a random number which will determine the next read from my list. 

I only have 17 books left, and I also eliminated a few that I know I won't read right now. Therefore I have doubled up most of them to make it an even 20. To make it a little more interesting, I've put them in reverse order alphabetically by author. Here's my list:

  1. La Debacle by Emile Zola
  2. La Debacle 
  3. Jenny Wren by E. H. Young 
  4. Jenny Wren 
  5. Ralph the Heir by Anthony Trollope 
  6. A Few Green Leaves by Barbara Pym 
  7. A Few Green Leaves 
  8. The World My Wilderness by Rose Macauley 
  9. The World My Wilderness 
  10. The Little Ottleys by Ada Leverson 
  11. The Little Ottleys 
  12. Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann
  13. Invitation to the Waltz
  14. A Pin to See the Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse
  15. A Pin to See the Peepshow
  16. Mandoa, Mandoa! by Winifred Holtby
  17. Westwood by Stella Gibbons 
  18. My American by Stella Gibbons
  19. The Caravaners by Elizabeth von Arnim 
  20. The Caravaners 
I'm really hoping for Jenny Wren or The Caravaners. I will also probably read La Debacle for Fanda's Zoladdiction

Bloggers, have you read any of these? What's on your list? I'm looking forward to my next Spin selection! 

Friday, April 2, 2021

America is in the Heart by Carlos Bulosan

I knew that as long as there was a hope for the future somewhere I would not stop trying to reach it. I looked at my brother and Alfredo and knew that I would never stay with them, to rot and perish in their world of brutality and despair. I knew that I wanted something which would ease my fear and stop my flight from dawn to dawn.

I really feel it's important to read more classics by people of color, so last year I decided to make that a permanent category in the annual Back to the Classics Challenge. I know I don't read nearly enough books by nonwhite authors, and this year I really wanted to read a classic by an Asian author. I was really happy to discover America Is in the Heart by Carlos Bulosan, a Filipino-American author. It's a really personal connection to me because my husband is Filipino, and I'm always trying to learn more about his culture.

Published in 1946, this semi-autobiographical novel is the story of Carlos, a young man from the rural Philippines who tries make a better life for himself in America. It's been compared to The Grapes of Wrath, and since Steinbeck is one of my favorite writers, I was even more intrigued. 

The story begins after World War I, when young Carlos is just a boy and his oldest brother returns to the family in Binalonan after several years' absence as a soldier. The family struggles to keep the family farm and pay for the education of another brother, Macario -- basically, the only way out of poverty. The family endures hardship and heartbreak, and Carlos is badly injured more than once, just trying to make a little extra money to keep from losing their land. They are too poor for him to go to school regularly but he picks up what education he can, and reads on his own. 

At just 17, Carlos makes his way to America, but there are few jobs for Filipinos other than canning factories and migrant work, picking crops. He makes his way up and down the West Coast, from Alaska to California, sometimes barely managing to stay alive. Eventually he reconnects with Macario and another brother who had previously emigrated. Carlos also gets involved with Filipino union organizers who are fighting for better working conditions. His English improves and he also begins writing. However, the attempts to organize labor unions is violently opposed, and Carlos and the other organizers are constantly threatened by arrest and violence. He also becomes ill with tuberculosis and at one point is hospitalized for two years.     

This was a tough read for me. The writing isn't difficult, but it was really painful to read about how badly Carlos and the other minorities were treated -- terrible working conditions, no benefits, unable to find housing in any place but the worst parts of town, unable to own property, unable to become a citizen. The racism is just appalling. For me, it was even worse than reading about the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath because at least the Joads had some rights -- and they wouldn't be subjected to generations of racist bigotry because of the color of their skin. It's so infuriating that Filipinos and other Asians had so few rights -- Asians weren't allowed to become US citizens until the 1940s, and there were still immigration quotas until 1965.

It's not a long book, 327 pages in my edition, and there are lot of very short chapters. But the subject was so difficult to read that it took me a long time to finish for such a short book. This did make it harder to keep some of the recurring characters straight -- Carlos would run into an old friend or colleague and I couldn't always remember how they'd met. But I'm really glad I finished it. Immigrant stories are really important and this was especially personal to me. 

Carlos Bulosan

I glanced out of the window again to look at the broad land I had dreamed so much about, only to discover with astonishment that the American earth was like a huge heart unfolding warmly to receive me. I felt it spreading through my being, warming with its glowing reality. It came to me that no man -- no one at all -- could destroy my faith in America again. . . . It was something that grew out of the sacrifices and loneliness of my friends, of my brothers in America and my family in the Philippines -- something that grew out of our desire to know America, and to become a part of her great tradition, and to contribute something toward her final fulfillment. I knew that no man could destroy my faith in American that had sprung from all our hopes and aspirations, ever.

I'm counting this as my Classic by a BIPOC author for the Back to the Classics Challenge. 

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

The Swiss Summer by Stella Gibbons

 

I love that Dean Street Press has re-published so many out-of-print women authors in their Furrowed Middlebrow imprint -- some of the more obscure books from my favorite authors are nearly impossible to find, and many of them are shockingly expensive! They recently released a whole slew of midcentury middlebrow books, which are delightful comfort reads. My latest was The Swiss Summer by Stella Gibbons, a prolific author best known for the hilarious Cold Comfort Farm. Though The Swiss Summer doesn't have quite the biting wit and satire of her best-known work, it's still a delight to read.

First published in 1951, it's the story of a group of English people spending the summer at Chateau Alpenrose, a chalet near Interlaken. The main character, a fortyish woman named Lucy Cottrell, meets Lady Dagleish, the owner of the chalet, while visiting her old friend, wife of the local vicar. The chalet was a gift of the Swiss government to her husband, a famous mountaineer. Lucy learns that Lady Dagleish is sending her paid companion, Freda, to spend the summer inventorying the contents of the chalet, and on a sudden whim, invites the envious Lucy to go accompany Freda for the summer. Delighted at the chance to leave dreary postwar London, Lucy eagerly accepts, and three weeks later finds herself in a picturesque chalet among breathtaking surroundings, with a woman she barely knows, and a curmudgeonly Swiss cook/caretaker, Utta.

I like to imagine the view looked something like this. 
 

Things go well at first, and Lucy enjoys helping Freda and exploring the nearby surroundings, breathing in the fresh mountain air. But the summer's plans take a detour with the arrival of Astra, Freda's nineteen year old daughter, who has left her with wealthy family. She's gawky and awkward and doesn't know what to do with her life, but begins to form a friendship with the childless Lucy, who's always wanted a daughter. Things are further complicated when more visitors arrive -- the Price-Whartons, friends of Freda, with their snobbish daughter Kay, Astra's only friend. Meanwhile Lucy had already invited her outdoorsy godson Bertram, a forestry student, who brings his flatmate Peter.

Meanwhile, the cantankerous Utta resents all the visitors, especially Freda, whom she believes to have ulterior motives about the future of the chalet. Lady Dagleish has hinted in the past she'll remember Freda in her will, but she likes to amuse herself by manipulating people, and she eagerly awaits letters from Lucy to find out what's happening in Switzerland. Naturally it all plays out to a very interesting and sometimes unexpected ending. 



I really enjoyed this book -- it's a quick read and I finished it in just a couple of days. I did have an idea of how it would end, but not exactly how it would all play out, and Stella Gibbons also drops in a few bombshells about the future of some of the characters, making me wish she'd included an afterward or even a sequel about some of them. My only quibble with this book is it's sometimes really sexist -- the young men Bertram and Peter make some pronouncements about women's roles that are pretty cringey, though I'm sure it's not out of character for the early 1950s. But seventy years later it did make want to jump into the book and give them a piece of my mind. 

Nevertheless, this is a fun book with interesting characters and lovely descriptions of the mountains, and it would be a lovely vacation read, ideally while sitting a balcony overlooking the Swiss Alps. I hope to read more of the new Furrowed Middlebrow titles soon as possible.

I'm counting this as my Swiss selection for the European Reading Challenge.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Hudson River Bracketed by Edith Wharton


Never was a girl more in love with the whole adventure of living, and less equipped to hold her own in it, than the Halo Spear who had come upon Vance Weston that afternoon.

According to my Goodreads account, I've read 19 works by Edith Wharton's, including short story collections and novellas, and I had assumed that by now, I've read all the best stuff. After The Fruit of the Tree, my hopes were not high for Hudson River Bracketed, one of her least-popular works. I was so happy last week when I absolutely loved it and could not stop reading -- high praise indeed, considering it's her longest novel, more than 500 pages long. Unlike most of Wharton's novels, the main character is not an unhappily married rich woman from New York, but a young, poor man, a struggling writer from the Midwest.

Published in 1929 but set in the early 1920s, it's a coming of age story of Vance Weston. Young Vance is only nineteen at the beginning of the story, and is resisting pressure from his family to join his father's successful real estate business outside of Chicago. What Vance really wants is to be a poet, but that will never fly with his conservative middle-class family. After a serious illness, Vance is allowed to travel to the Hudson Valley outside of New York, to stay with the Tracys, distant relatives in a quiet, small town. Vance hopes that somehow he'll manage to visit New York and make some contacts for a writing career; instead, his life changes forever when he meets Halo Spear while visiting a house called The Willows. (The title Hudson River Bracketed refers to a specific type of architecture in the area, of which The Willows is an example).

Wyndclyffe estate in Rhinecliff, NY, inspiration for The Willows


Vance's poor cousins earn extra money by acting as caretakers for this empty mansion, which must be left exactly as it was when the previous owner passed away. Vance is enchanted by the mysterious Victorian house and its back story -- and by its magnificent library. He is secretly perusing the books when he meets Heloise Spear, a wealthy cousin of the Tracys. Nicknamed Halo, she's several years older than Vance and is impressed by his love of books, though she seems amused at his lack of education. They begin to bond over poetry and literature, but things take a drastic turn over a series of misunderstandings, and Vance is sent back to the Midwest in disgrace. 

A few years later, Vance returns to New York determined to make a career as a writer, and reconnects with Halo, now married, though her husband, the publisher of a new literary magazine, who sign Vance to a very poor three-year writing contract. Vance also reconnects with his cousins the Tracys -- in particular, his cousin Laura Lou, who has grown up quite a bit in the last three years -- enough to steal Vance's heart on first sight. So Vance is a typical starving writer in New York, madly in love with someone who doesn't understand his literary world, and trying to live enough to have something to write about so he can make more money. Naturally, it's a vicious circle that doesn't end well. 

Like The Fruit of the Tree, my previous Wharton read, this is another of her novels that hardly anyone ever reads anymore. My expectations were pretty low and frankly I was shocked by how much I liked it -- and how quickly I sped through it! Granted, I didn't have much to do over last weekend, but I was really absorbed in the story and couldn't wait to find out what happened next. It's Wharton's longest novel at 536 pages, but the pages flew by. According to the book's afterward, Wharton wanted to write about her experiences as a writer, and thought it would be easier for the reading public to accept a story about a young male writer, rather than a female. I loved reading about the writing process and Vance's experiences trying to get published, though it was often infuriating to see all his bad decisions. 

. . . they wanted to know what else he had written, what he was doing now, when he was going to start in on a novel, when he would have enough short stories for a volume, whether he had thought up any new subjects lately, whether he found it easier to write in a big city or in his own quiet surroundings at home, whether Nature inspired him or he had to be with people to get a stimulus, what his best working hours were, whether he could force himself to write so many hours a day, whether he didn't find that regular work led to routine, whether he didn't think a real artist must always be a law unto himself (this from the two or three of the younger women), and whether he found he could dictate, or had to type out his own things. . . .


There are also some thinly veiled references to other writers of the period which I found highly amusing: 

Of the many recent novels he had devoured very few had struck him as really important; and of these The Corner Grocery was easily first. Among dozens of paltry books pushed into notoriety it was the only one entitled to such distinction. Readers all over the country had felt its evident sincerity, and its title had become the proverbial epithet of the smalltown atmosphere. 

Some of the novels people talked about most excitedly--Price of Meat, say, already in its seventieth thousand, or Egg Omelette, which had owed its start to pulpit denunciations and the quarrel of a Prize Committee over its exact degree of indecency--well, he had begun both books with enthusiasm, as their authors appeared to have; and then, at a certain point, had felt the hollowness underfoot, and said to himself: "No, life's not like that, people are not like that. The real stuff is way down, not on the surface." 

I'm just guessing, but I think that The Corner Grocery is a reference to Main Street by Sinclair Lewis (which lost the Pulitzer Prize to Wharton's Age of Innocence in 1920 because the committee thought it was unflattering to small-town America). Could Price of Meat be The Jungle by Upton Sinclair? And I originally thought that Egg Omelette was a reference to West Egg in The Great Gatsby, but further research told me it's meant to be Ulysses by James Joyce. There are also multiple references to the Pulsifer Prize . . . what could that possibly be? 


There's also a mention of Zola that I found delightful: 

Nothing else new about him--might have worked up his method out of Zola. Probably did."

"Zola--who's he?" somebody yawned.

"Oh, I dunno. The French Thackeray, I guess."

"See here, fellows, who's read Thackeray, anyhow?"

"Nobody since Lytton Strachey, I guess."

This German edition looks a little French New Wave to me!

I loved this book, though I did have a few quibbles about some characters that are a little too deus ex machina for me, miraculously showing up at just the right time. But overall, it's one of Edith Wharton's truly underrated novels. And there's a sequel! Wharton published The Gods Arrive only three years later in 1932, the only one of her novels with a sequel. I suppose since it's based on her own life, she really wanted to finish the story. I'll say no more since any hints about the next volume are spoilers for the first. Sadly, copies of the Virago edition of The Gods Arrive are a lot pricier than Hudson River Bracketed so I'll have to read the iBooks copy that I downloaded for only 99 cents. I'm also inspired to finally tackle her massive biography by Hermione Lee that I've been meaning to read forever -- it's 869 pages long! 

I'm counting this as my 20th Century Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge; also counts towards the Chunkster Challenge

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig


He lived one of those lives that seem otiose because they are not linked to any community of interest, because all the riches stored in them by a thousand separate valuable experiences will pass when their last breath is drawn, without anyone to inherit them. -- A Summer Novella

Short story collections are tough for me to review, especially enormous volumes like this one -- normally I have to spread out the reading over several weeks or even months, and it's hard to remember all the stories to comment on them as a whole. But I loved The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig so much that I sped through it in just over a week. They're so wonderfully written I simply could not stop reading this 700 page volume.

There are twenty-two stories in this volume, but the hardcover edition more than two inches thick and weighs in at two pounds! It's an unwieldy chunkster, to say the least, but luckily one of the nearby libraries had an ebook copy, so I could read it on my laptop and even on my phone. I made a goal of reading one short story every day, but I sped through them and sometimes read three or even four. Some of them are fairly short, and some are closer to novellas, like Amok and Twenty Four Hours in the Life of a Woman.

Stories are arranged chronologically by publication date. As I expected, most of them are set in Vienna and eastern Europe, but others are set in Renaissance Antwerp, Malaysia and Scotland. Like the stories of W. Somerset Maugham, several of them are framed as a story being retold to an anonymous narrator. I'm not going to going to go through all 22 stories, but here are some quick thoughts on a few of my favorites. 

Nice cover on this German edition.
Could it be Lake Como or Lake Geneva?

The Star Above the Forest
: A waiter falls in love with an unobtainable countess. One of the shortest stories, but heartbreaking, beautiful prose.

A Summer Novella: He lived one of those lives that seem otiose because they are not linked to any community of interest, because all the riches stored in them by a thousand separate valuable experiences will pass when their last breath is drawn, without anyone to inherit them.

Wondrak: A heartbreaking story about a disfigured recluse living in the forest, and her desperate attempt to save her son from being conscripted to fight in WWI. Sadly, this story is unfinished so we'll never know how it ends. I wish this story were a full length-novel.

Conscription: Another story about a man struggling with the decision whether to obey his orders to fight in the war. In this case he's an artist living in Switzerland. 

Amok: Closer in length to a novella, it's riveting story of a man's confession to a stranger on a sea voyage. It reminded me very much of the stories of W. Somerset Maugham, possibly because of the colonial setting and the shocking ending (and, sadly, the anti-Asian racism, which disappointed me).

Letter From an Unknown Woman: Another novella, about a writer who receives an anonymous letter from a woman obsessed with him. 

The Invisible Collection: Melancholy story of an antique dealer visiting a longtime collector during the period of massive inflation in Germany.

Did He Do It?: A cautionary tale of overindulgent dog owners, with a horrifying ending. 

The Debt Paid Late: The most uplifting story in the collection, about a woman's chance encounter with a faded actor. 
Stefan Zweig

I'm both glad I finally got around to reading this, and annoyed with myself for waiting so long! I definitely want to read more Zweig. I've also read The Post-Office Girl and Chess Story, both of which I loved, and I still have Beware of Pity unread on my TBR shelves -- might save it for next year's European Reading Challenge! I'm also tempted to buy his Collected Novellas and some of his other works published by Pushkin Press. I had actually resolved not to buy any new books this year but I do have a birthday coming up in a few months!

I'm counting this as my Austrian read for the European Reading Challenge; also counts towards the Chunkster Challenge.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

The Real Charlotte by Edith Somerville and Martin Ross


It's been more than ten years since I became a hard-core fan of the Victorian novel, and since then I've read most of the male authors which are the typical literary canon. Now I've moved on to the more obscure works, many of which are written by women. The Real Charlotte has not one but two Victorian women as authors: Edith Somerville and Florence Violet Martin (who wrote under the male pseudonym of Martin Ross).

Published in 1894, The Real Charlotte is not so much the story of Charlotte Mullen, a fortyish Irish spinster, as it is about her young cousin, Francie Fitzgerald. Aged 19, Francie is a beautiful orphan who has come to live with her cousin after the death of an elderly relative, whose dying wish was that Charlotte take care of her. Francie had been living with Dublin with relatives who have recently fallen on hard times, so she's been sent to live with Charlotte in the country, at Tally Ho Lodge.


Beautiful and flirtations, Francie attracts the attention of several men: Christopher Dysart, oldest son of the local gentry; Gerald Hawkins, a British army officer stationed in town; and also Roderick Lambert, agent to the Dysart estate, and an old family friend. Lambert claims to have only a friendly interest in Francie, since he's 15 years older and married to a wealthy widow, but it becomes obvious that he's jealous of Francie's friendships with other men. 

Francie raises eyebrows around town by spending too much time with the dashing and equally flirtatious Hawkins, and the pair are often unchaperoned for questionable amounts of time. Charlotte is angling to get Francie engaged to Christopher Dysart, who is kind but rather too interested in books and photography for Francie's taste. But the social-climbing and ambitious Charlotte has ulterior motives for the match, and will use her friendship with Lambert to get what she wants. Meanwhile, there are garden parties, picnics, and some sailing accidents, plus some pretty obvious foreshadowing, until everything comes to a dramatic and rather abrupt conclusion. 



I tried reading this a year ago and really couldn't get into it, but I thought I'd take a look and see if it would be a good pick for my March reading because of the Irish setting. The first couple of chapters are a bit disjointed but once Francie arrived at Tally Ho Lodge the story really took off and I could hardly stop reading it, finishing it in only three days. (Which isn't really that impressive, it's less than 400 pages, and a lot of short chapters). I was really curious to see how this was going to end up and why the book was named after Charlotte, since most of the time it seems like Francie is the central character. 

Oddly enough, several characters and plot points reminded me of Jane Austen -- I don't know if I've been reading too much Jane, or if these have become rather stock characters. Hawkins definitely reminded me of a both Wickham and Willoughby, and Lambert seemed an awful lot like Knightley from Emma, though a lot less benevolent, not to mention married. There's a even a plot point that seems straight out of Mansfield Park

Edith Somerville (left) and Violet Florence Martin (right)

My other quibble was about how the Irish are depicted. Naturally the gentry are English, and look down on anyone local, or with an Irish accent, and many of the characters speak in dialect, particularly servants and the working class. I don't know much about the authors other than they were cousins and wrote about 14 books together before Martin's death in 1915. Somerville continued to write under their joint names. The Real Charlotte is considered their masterpiece, but today they may be better known for the Irish R. M. series of books adapted into the 1980s TV series. The Real Charlotte was also adapted for TV in 1990, but no copies in the library means I'll have to keep a lookout for a copy online. 


I'm counting this as my Classic by a Woman Author for the Back to the Classics Challenge; and as my Irish selection for the European Reading Challenge.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Green Dolphin Street by Elizabeth Goudge



I love a long, epic story, and if it's historical fiction and involves travel, better still. I was so looking forward to Green Dolphin Street because I was absolutely sure it fit the bill, but strangely, I was somewhat disappointed. Published in 1944, it was first titled Green Dolphin Country by renamed in the U.S. Essentially, it's a fifty-year love triangle between a man and two sisters who are his childhood friends. 

Set in the mid-Victorian period, the story begins in one of the Channel Islands (it's never referred to as anything but The Island, but clearly it's one of them). Young William Ozanne, about thirteen, has just arrived from England with his father, a widowed doctor. He soon meets Marianne Le Patourel, who is a bit older at sixteen, and her younger sister, Marguerite, who is only eleven, and the three become fast friends. Marianne pushes her wealthy father to take an interest in William, furthering his education and career. Both girls are smitten with the handsome and affable William, but Marianne is convinced that she has found True Love and that Marguerite has a mere schoolgirl crush. As Marguerite grows more beautiful, Marianne realizes William may be falling for her sister, and she fights hard to keep him close. 

I love this first edition cover, very folk-art influenced. 

Eventually William joins the Navy under the Le Tournel patronage, and ends up in New Zealand. After a long absence, he writes a long impassioned letter to Mr. Le Tournel asking for the hand of his daughter in marriage. However, he's extremely drunk at the time, and accidentally writes the wrong daughter's name in the letter, and is shocked months later when a different woman arrives. The rest of the book is the repercussions of William's split-second decision. Will he marry the wrong sister, and how will it affect all three lives?

This book started out really well -- I loved the descriptions of their life on the Island and the characters. However, in order to fit in the lifetimes of three people, Goudge writes the book in sections with big time jumps in between, usually ten years or so, and then kind of backtracks and sums up what happens during the gaps, and this started to bother me. It seemed like there was a lot more telling that showing -- there was so much condensed that could have been fleshed out. After one big time jump I put the book down for several weeks and didn't have much incentive to pick it up again, until I started to feel guilty about leaving it unfinished. It's a really ambitious story and maybe it would have been better as a series of books, with more details.

It's a bit blurry, but so Dickensian I had to include it.

Also, I think there could have been more character development -- I really didn't always understand what motivated the characters, and what explained their actions. I started to really dislike Marianne, who just seemed bossy and manipulative. I like strong female characters but it almost seemed like this was meant to be a bad thing. The book was published in 1944, and I don't know if Elizabeth Goudge was anti-feminist but that's the impression I started to get. 

I would also be remiss if I didn't mention the racism in the book. Mostly set in New Zealand, there are some positive portrayals of native culture, but it's mostly negative stuff about the Maoris, and there's a white savior character that made me roll my eyes a bit. Overall it was the pervasively colonialist -- my edition also has a disclaimer in the beginning which is sort of a red flag. I was definitely Team Maori while reading the book. 

A 1965 paperback edition

Overall I mostly enjoyed it, because of the descriptions of life in the Channel Islands and New Zealand, and there's a lot of sailing, which always fascinated me. Some of the side characters were delightful, especially Captain O'Hara, captain of a clipper ship named -- you'll never guess -- the Green Dolphin, who makes recurring appearances. I don't know if I liked it well enough to read any other books by Elizabeth Goudge. 

Love this pulp fiction edition! So dramatic!

And I've recently discovered it was adapted into a movie in 1948, starring Lana Turner and Donna Reed. (Donna Reed is playing Marguerite, though they've obviously glammed up Marianne if she's supposed to be Lana Turner). It won an Academy Award for special effects and there's a copy at my local library, so I'll have to take a look and see how well they adapted it.


I'm counting this as my Classic by a New-to-Me-Author for the Back to the Classics Challenge; also counts for the Chunkster Challenge

Thursday, February 18, 2021

The Doctor's Wife by Mary Elizabeth Braddon: A Victorian Trainwreck


Victorian sensation is my kind of escapist fiction -- normally chock-full of over-the-top swooning, scandal, mistaken identities, dubious women, and rascally men. The Doctor's Wife by Mary Elizabeth Braddon is oddly lacking in the most dramatic elements -- and yet it is one of my favorites of the genre so far.

Published in 1864, the story begins with the short history of George Gilbert, a young surgeon, son of one of two local doctors in Graybridge-on-the-Wayverne, a fictional town in the fictional county of Midlandshire. He is expected to take over for his elderly father someday, and though a local brewer's daughter has been making eyes at him, he's not interested. While visiting an old school friend on a whirlwind week in London, he meets Isabel Sleaford, daughter of his mate's landlady, and his life is forever changed. 

Isabel is seventeen, dreamy and romantic, and lives for the novels and poetry that fill up her time when she isn't helping her stepmother take care of her multiple half-siblings, their boarders, and her unscrupulous father. George is instantly smitten with lovely Isabel, unlike any girl he'd ever met. I instantly adored young Smith, who was christened Sam but has changed his name to the more literary Sigismund. Clearly, he's a stand-in for Braddon herself, and the novel is full of delightful references to the writer's process.

Perhaps there never was a wider difference between two people than that which existed between Isabel Sleaford and her mother's boarder. Sigsimund wrote romantic fictions by wholesale, and yet was as unromantic as the prosiest butcher that ever entered a cattle-market. He sold his imagination, and Isabel lived upon hers. To him romance was something which must be woven into the form most likely to suit the popular demand. He slapped his heroes into marketable shape, as coolly as a butterman slaps a pat of butter into the semblance of a swan or a crown, in accordance with the requirements of his customers. But poor Isabel's heroes were impalpable tyrants, and ruled her life. She wanted to be like her books; she wanted to be a heroine -- unhappy, perhaps, and dying early.

Great cover on this yellowback edition.

But the acquaintance is cut short when the Sleaford family literally disappear in the middle of the night to escape creditors -- George and his friend Smith, a budding novelist, are lucky to escape without losing their own luggage. George is disappointed to cut the acquaintance with Isabel short, and a year later, he's thrilled to get a letter from Smith saying Isabel is now settled nearby, working as a governess for a distant relative. George wastes no time meeting with her and pops the question ASAP.

Sadly, though, Isabel realizes on her honeymoon that she's made a mistake -- George is far to pragmatic and thrifty for a dreamy, romantic girl. She is quickly bored to death in the country with little to do and doesn't get on well in local society, who are scandalized that George didn't marry a local girl.

He had married this girl because she was unlike other women; and now that she was his own property, he set himself conscientiously to work to smooth her into the most ordinary semblance of every-day womanhood, by means of that moral flat-iron called common sense.

A few months later Isabel is thrilled to meet a real Byronic hero -- the dark and handsome Roland Lansdell, heir to Mordred Priory, recently returned to the neighborhood from the Continent. He is everything that Isabel has ever dreamed of -- dark, handsome, moody, and a poet! He's handsome, bored, and rich, she's beautiful, bored and married -- what could possibly go wrong? 

Naturally, what follows is a trainwreck for everyone -- a bit like an English Madame Bovary, but if Emma Bovary were more sympathetic. I knew it wouldn't end well, but what was interesting for me was how Braddon got to the end of the story -- there were some twists and turns that I wasn't expecting and took me completely by surprise. There were less of the inevitable dramatic tropes one normally finds in Victorian sensation novels, and I've since learned that Braddon was determined to write a more literary novel. 

I really enjoyed The Doctor's Wife and I'd rank it as one of Braddon's best -- different than Lady Audley's Secret, but good in its own way. It was a bit closer to early Thomas Hardy than Wilkie Collins. I was really sympathetic to all the main characters and found some of the side characters really endearing, especially Smith who gives the reader such wonderful insights into the mind of the writer: 

Portrait of M. E. Braddon by William Powell Frith, 1865

And if I were a young lady," continued Mr. Smith, speaking with some slight hesitation, and glancing furtively at Isabel's face,—"if I were a young lady, and had a kind of romantic fancy for a person I ought not to care about, I'll tell you what I'd do with him,—I'd put him into a novel, Izzie, and work him out in three volumes; and if I wasn't heartily sick of him by the time I got to the last chapter, nothing on earth would cure me."

I'm counting this as my 19th Century Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge; also counts for the Victorian Reading Challenge.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Victorian Reading Challenge 2021

It's never too late to sign up for another challenge, is it? Once again, I'm signing up for the Victorian Reading Challenge at Becky's Book Reviews. Last year my Victorian reading was surprisingly low -- only ten altogether, including two rereads, two neo-Victorians, and two non-fiction. Hopefully this challenge will increase my Victorian reading this year. 

There are two participation levels. I'm signing up for the advanced level, four to six books over eleven months. There are themes every month and I'm sure I can find books to fit most of them. Ideally I'd love to read mostly books from my own shelves. I still have more than a dozen unread Victorians, below.


Here are the monthly themes:

January/Feb: Adaptations: Any book that's been adapted to movies or TV, or that should be adapted. (Will probably skip this one as I'm running out of time.)

February/March: Love & Marriage: The Doctor's Wife by Mary Elizabeth Braddon -- I've already finished this one, review to follow this week!

March/April: Journeys and Travels: Something by Isabella Bird, a renowned Victorian woman traveler. Or The Bertrams by Anthony Trollope. He also wrote some travel nonfiction, so that's a possibility too.

April/May: Second Chances. Give a book or an author a second chance. Something by Mrs. Oliphant, or The Real Charlotte. Might also read one of Trollope's Irish novels.

May/June: Favorite Author, New-To-Me Book. Again, Mrs. Oliphant, Trollope, or Hardy.

June/July: Nonfiction: Period Piece by Gwen Raverat, or A London Family by Molly Hughes.

July/August: Names as Titles: Marcella by Mrs. Humphrey Ward, or one of several books by Trollope: Ralph the HeirThe MacDermots of Ballycloran; The Kellys and the O'Kellys; Harry Heathcote of Gangoil. 

August/September: Back to School: something you were assigned at school, or think should be assigned. I wasn't a lit major so the only Victorian novels I read in school were Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, and The Mill on the Floss. I loathed The Mill on the Floss so maybe I should give it another go and see if I appreciate it more as an adult? 

September/October: Crime or True Crime: Lots of great true crime stories about the Victorian period! I have at least seven or eight on my TBR list. Maybe Murder in the First-Class Carriage by Kate Colquhoun or Murder by the Book by Claire Harman.

October/November: Home and Family: East Lynne by Mrs. Henry Wood; The Clever Woman of the Family by Charlotte Yonge; or A London Family. 

November/December: Comfort Reads: A London Family or Trollope.

Super-Bonus Theme: Bearded Victorians. I suppose this means read anything by a bearded Victorian?

Charles Dickens

Wilkie Collins

Anthony Trollope

So - those are my possible reads. Any suggestions for other Victorians? And which author has the best beard?