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? 

Thursday, February 11, 2021

The Short Reign of Pippin IV by John Steinbeck: A Little Mid-Century Satire

I was stuck in two very long books last week (that I wasn't particularly enjoying) and in desperation, I took one of the shortest books off of my owned-and-unread shelves: The Short Reign of Pippin IV by John Steinbeck, a vintage hardcover of only 164 pages, most likely purchased at one of the library sales. I've loved mostly everything by Steinbeck so far and it was very short, so I thought this might be just the thing to get me out of my reading funk.

Published in 1957, Pippin is Steinbeck's only work of political satire. Pippin Heristal, aged 54, is living a comfortable if somewhat dull existence in Paris with his wife and daughter. He has a lease on an apartment (oddly enough, in the mews of the French President), and he doesn't really work but has a small but adequate income from a vineyard, spending most of his time as a well-respected though amateur astronomer. 

During a week-long meteor shower that keeps him up all night and sleeping all day, Pippin is blissfully unaware of a government crisis. The multiple parties are in an uproar and one desperate politician suggests a return to the monarchy. After much in-fighting, it is decided that the living descendant of Charlemagne should be the rightful King of France -- the eponymous Pippin. 

Politicians have decided that since it's worked for the UK for so many years, it would be good for tourism and distract the public so they can get on with the business of governing. Much to his chagrin, Pippin is forced to move in to Versailles and go through with a coronation. Meanwhile, his bohemian daughter Clotilde has taken up with a Tod, young American tourist, heir to a vast chicken-farming fortune. 

Pippin hates the role instantly and is desperate to get out of the drafty palace and its hangers-on, and back to his beloved telescope. He finds solace and advice from some colorful side characters -- his uncle Charles, an antique dealer of dubious morals; and Sister Hyacinthe, his wife's old schoolmate, a former chorus girl who took the veil after retirement. He also finds comfort and insight from young Tod, who makes a mean Martini and is terribly insightful for one so young. 

This was a pleasant diversion, though there was more politics that I really wanted right now. I enjoyed the characters and there were some amusing bits, but the plot's not terribly strong. I finished it only a week ago and I've already forgotten the ending. I'm not terribly surprised that this one isn't as popular as the other Steinbeck novellas, it seems sort of dated. 

I'm counting this as my Classic Humor or Satire for the Back to the Classics Challenge and as my French selection for the European Reading Challenge